Three decades ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education identified a "rising tide of mediocrity" in America's school as a serious threat to the future of our nation's economy. Subsequently, educators across America accepted the challenge to put our education system on the right path. They have made significant progress but have not yet turned the tide. The United States has not kept pace with rapidly rising global standards for education and skills. Moreover, the system's gradual improvement has been uneven, with students in some parts of the country and in certain parts of society remaining behind.
In Harvard Business School's 2011 and 2012 surveys on U.S. competitiveness, HBS alumni ranked the country's PK-12 education system among the weakest and fastest deteriorating elements of the U.S. business environment.
The good news is that change is afoot in America's schools. A set of forces is now converging—including improved district and school leadership, an upgrading of teaching talent, new technologies and instructional models, innovative social entrepreneurs, and higher standards that demand better teaching and learning—that could move America's PK-12 education system to an era of much faster progress in student outcomes.
Business leaders in America have a profound stake, economic and moral, in seeing that these changes take root. Firms in the U.S. desperately need our schools to produce new generations of business leaders, employees, and consumers. American businesses can be globally competitive only if they have access to a highly productive, world-class workforce. It is therefore crucial that business leaders in the United States do their best to support the nation's educators as they strive to improve our schools.
This requires America's business community to go beyond the role it already plays in improving the education system. Many companies invest heavily in education in terms of money and employee time commitment. But their fragmented efforts tend to focus on short-term benefits for individual students, not long-term partnerships with educators to improve the whole system.
But now business leaders have the opportunity—as well as the imperative—to do more. Some pioneering business leaders are working closely with educators to lay the policy foundations for innovation in education. Others are helping educators to scale up proven innovations. A few are collaborating with educators and other civic leaders to reinvent entire local education ecosystems in U.S. cities and towns.
The subtle shift underway deserves to be called out. The most progressive business leaders are moving away from mere "checkbook philanthropy" toward long-term relationships with educators and transformative progress. Recognizing this trend and hoping to accelerate it, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Boston Consulting Group, and Harvard Business School are currently collaborating on a joint research effort to understand best practices in business engagement in PK-12 education and to mobilize more business and education leaders to follow those practices.
In America's siloed society, perhaps no link is more important to the nation's future than the connection between our education system and our business community. When that relationship is strong, young Americans emerge from their education with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the workforce, making themselves and the United States prosperous. When it is weak, growth and opportunity stall. We have today a unique opportunity to strengthen the link.