American business is likely to increase its efforts to reform education. That’s the inescapable conclusion of a new Harvard Business School report, “An Economy Doing Half its Job” (pdf). Educators would do well to pay close attention to its findings.
The report relies on surveys of HBS alumni, which have been going on for years. So it samples the thoughts of many business leaders, given the school’s reach and reputation. This isn’t the work of outsiders, but the voice of people running American commerce.
The gist of the report is that said business leaders are less pessimistic than they were a few years ago, but are very concerned about wage stagnation and the troubled state of small businesses. Which is where education comes in.
TL;DR version: expect to see businesses go beyond their current level of intervention in and partnership with schools.
First, business leaders are worried that K-12 is falling behind other nations in producing skilled graduates, calling out “weaknesses in the nation’s K–12 education system.” Those CEOs and managers are especially concerned about younger generations in international rankings: “America has among the most literate 55- to 65-year-olds in the world, but the same is not true of younger cohorts.”
Second, the report authors use those critical responses to call for CEOs and managers to take steps:
[W] e see a need for business leaders to act—to move from an opportunistic patchwork of projects toward strategic, collaborative efforts that make the average American productive enough to command higher wages even in competitive global labor markets…
Note the democratic, even populist emphasis: “Businesses cannot thrive for long
while their communities languish.” Or “workers are captives of the weakest aspects of the U.S. business environment” (where the education system is part of that business environment). One reason for this is that almost half of the interviewees see American wages as falling over the next few years.
Third, “An Economy Doing Half” sees these alleged crisis as not only a duty for businesses, but also a major opportunity.
Furthermore, signs of progress in U.S. education make this a promising time for business to be on the field rather than on the sidelines.
What progress is that? Local efforts to reform schooling and training:
we are especially impressed by the efforts of state and local officials. Across the country, entrepreneurial governors and mayors are moving with energy… they are overhauling their education systems, upgrading training programs…
Those are models for future business engagement: people and projects to support.
So what does this mean for the near-term future of education?
The report admires “Deeper engagements to support the professional development of teachers or to align curricula with workplace needs”. We should expect to see action along both of those fronts, including lobbying state and federal agencies.
The authors also recommend that curricula change in order to map onto careers as well as skills:
Businesses should work with educational institutions to steer students onto career paths and into curricula that will make the students employable, the firms successful, and the nation competitive.
I suspect this will mean further agitation for STEM fields, and bad news for the humanities and non-quantitatively-intensive social sciences in their K-12 manifestations.
Moreover, the report finds current business engagement to be too fragmented and shallow. Much more is needed, and at greater scale.
Testing is simply a given. Criticisms of the PISA exams and their interpretation don’t appear. There isn’t much room for challenging No Child Left Behind’s test obsession. However, the report doesn’t call for more.
We might see reformers use populist language to defend new business actions. This is a change from previous rhetoric, which asked for education reform to support the overall economy. Now business leaders can, as it were, link their plans to Piketty’s critique.
All of this places educators in a tricky political position, one we’ve been occupying ever since the 2008 financial crash. We can oppose these forthcoming business movements politically, which requires a large, funded, and organized effort, plus grassroots support. Or we can take advantage of business funding and energy to enact changes ourselves. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that’s about to become more urgent.
Readers should note the below non-education-related economic detail from the report, as it bears hard on the socioeconomic context.
[O]ur survey reveals that business leaders in America are reluctant to hire full-time workers. When possible, they prefer instead to invest in technology to perform work, outsource activities to third parties, or hire part-time workers.
Critics and outside observers have noticed this, but it’s something else to see business leaders openly declaring their plans. As I’ve noted earlier, the American workplace continues to change. Full-time lifelong careers decline, and the gig economy rises. Overall employment may well decline.