Coming up: business to expand its role in education

Harvard Business SchoolAmerican 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.”

Literacy rates, US vs. other OECD nations

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.

Business hiring outlook

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.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in research topics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Coming up: business to expand its role in education

  1. Jen says:

    “America has among the most literate 55- to 65-year-olds in the world, but the same is not true of younger cohorts.” Yet the graph shows that younger cohorts are more literate than older ones, and it’s just that other nations are doing even better, maybe because they have less inequality than we do.

    • Yes, that’s one criticism of how some interpret PISA, Jen. Partly American economic inequality is in play, especially when regionalized. But it’s also a case of the rest of the world just doing better, something we should all celebrate.
      For the CEO mind, though, other nations catching up is a competitive threat.

  2. mfishbein says:

    Having business as educators, or at least working in partnership with educators, would be beneficial to students/jobseekers and taxpayers as a whole. Students/jobseekers would learn what they actually need to get a job. If the education was delivered by business itself citizens wouldn’t need to be forced to pay for it. I believe that if taxpayers weren’t funding so much of the education industry that employers would be because they need employees. Businesses might do more training and education now if they had the money that they’re forced to pay the government to educate back in their pockets. Having the disconnect between students/job seekers, schools, people who fund schools (taxpayers), and businesses results in inferior instruction and maligns incentive structures that are needed for quality education to be produced.

    • But what happens to curricula and research unsupported by business?

      • The H B-School report raises many questions and important issues for discussion. Among those questions is about how research design itself prompts findings. I’d like to point out two studies in conflict regarding USA education and employability, something AAEEBL will focus on at a November conference in Chicago. (Basic info w/ more to come by 9/12

        But back to the B-School report Bryan shared. I wonder how different research on education and employability/workforce usefulness can arrive at vastly different conclusions and identify what I see as a fundamental difference between quantifiable skills versus qualities or traits of character.

        The Harvard study seems to align with a survey (research?) reported on in 2011 in The Chronicle stating that “more than 1,000 employers in various industries last month [were asked] about whether job applicants possess the skills to thrive in the workplace. More than half of employers said finding qualified applicants is difficult, and just under half thought students should receive specific workplace training rather than a more broad-based education.” (Article by Lacey Johnson found at Accessed 9/10/11.) The focus here is on skills, often measurable and potentially standardized capabilities.

        That research initiatives, along with what the B-School seems to be saying, flies in the face of an AAC&U investigations of employers. AAC&U reports on how employers identified qualities and characteristics sought in a new hire after college graduation.

        Check out AAC&U’s most recent research — (Date accessed 9/10/14).

        Also see the April 2013 article, “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success” (Accessed 9/10/14). More links to research about employability and education at

        From AAC&U’s 2013 report summary:

        “Nearly all those surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
        More than 9 in 10 of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
        More than 75% of employers say they want more emphasis on 5 key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
        Employers endorse several educational practices as potentially helpful in preparing college students for workplace success. These include practices that require students to a) conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; b) gain in-depth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem solving and communication skills; and c) apply their learning in real-world settings.”

        On issues of building the workforce and education, whose voice will be heard? On issues of employability who has greater ethos? Harvard’s or AAC&U’s?


  3. VanessaVaile says:

    Just set it loose in adjunct social media ~ now wending its way across Facebook and Twitter.

  4. John says:

    I think we have been seeing this attempt at corporate interjection in education in the early school years by Microsoft and Bill Gates leading the charge in the Common Core movement

  5. Indeed, Judy, there’s a growing infusion of business money into selected faculty and programs. We should expect to see more of that, according to this report.

    There are other reasons for this to occur, starting with the general acceptance of neoliberalism, and moving on to continued pressures on campus funding.

  6. HBR are certainly good at mangled business jargon. I never knew “opportunistic” was the opposite of “strategic” until now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *