I live in the worlds of business and education — worlds that view each other with mistrust. But it’s urgent that these worlds understand each other and collaborate to prepare our children for a future vastly different from our past. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.
I spent my career in the world of business innovation, running a high-tech start-up and working for two decades in venture capital. Over the past decade, I’ve immersed myself in education.
During the 2015-16 school year, I took an unusual trip. I traveled non-stop for nine months to all 50 states, visiting 200 schools, and meeting with thousands of people from the worlds of education and business. Here’s the advice I’d offer to each.
Business people love metrics and use test scores to screen candidates and measure education success. Many tell me, though, that school didn’t work for them, and they felt undercut by their mediocre test scores.
I encourage them to take some online practice exams (e.g., state-mandated tests, the SAT, the ACT, APs), and ask: Do these questions get at essential competencies? In dwelling on test scores, they push students and schools to focus on low-level drilling, not consequential competencies.
Business executives use college degrees as a filter for interviews and promotions, yet few believe that colleges adequately prepare students for the modern workplace. They need to realize the corrosive impact of putting a $75,000 to 300,000 credential between a teenager and life’s starting line. It’s far more effective to review an applicant’s authentic portfolio of accomplishments.
But conversation is a two-way street. Educators need to take seriously what businesspeople tell me: “We hire graduates with impeccable academic credentials, but they can’t proactively identify problems and collaborate to find and implement solutions. It’s as though we’re starting from scratch.” Businesses want employees who ask great questions, not provide formulaic answers; people who challenge conventional thinking instead of jumping through hoops. Our schools need this perspective as they shape students’ learning experiences.
Educators believe in the importance of the liberal arts, citizenship skills and learning for learning’s sake. So do I. And I’ve seen firsthand how these dispositions and competencies are invaluable to any young adult’s future — both within and beyond the workplace. If educators spent time in business, they’d be surprised to see the many employees who thrive because a humanities background helped them develop essential competencies — critical analysis, creative problem-solving and communication skills.
Schools want to do right by their students. Yet in most classrooms I observe (even at schools with stellar reputations), students memorize content and replicate low-level procedures. These skills get you on the Honor Roll but impair prospects in a world begging for creativity. I don’t blame our teachers for this disconnect; after all, we hold them accountable to obsolete metrics and measures. But with the futures of our children on the line, educators need to lead the way in offering alternative metrics that go hand-in-hand with more compelling learning experiences.
When there’s challenge, there’s opportunity. Business and education can team up to improve life prospects for our children. As I travel, I find that local businesses are ready, even eager, to help local schools. Their employees are excited to visit classrooms, explain career paths and serve as mentors. Businesses will offer internships and apprenticeships or connect student teams to real-world projects. They’re wide open to hosting teachers in the workplace to share perspectives. And when teachers connect in-school learning to the real world, their classrooms take on new relevance for students. Educators need to view local businesses not as adversaries but as partners. If students graduate with strong career prospects, that’s a sign of education success, not of schools selling out to corporate objectives.
Ted Dintersmith’s four-decade career spans technology, business, public policy and education philanthropy. He is the author of What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America (Princeton University Press, 2018).