Engaging Business Leaders in Education: Lessons from Massachusetts
June 14, 2018

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

The business community is often credited as the force behind education reforms that catapulted Massachusetts from the middle of state rankings of student performance to the top. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) is proud of the role it played in those 1993 reforms, but we have spent the past decade reminding education stakeholders that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We know that standards-based reforms were necessary for the gains we made but have proven insufficient to close persistent achievement and skills gaps in the Bay State or anyplace else. And, yes, closing these gaps is an economic and moral imperative for corporate managers who witness the impact of education inequities every day in their employment offices.

So, how do PIE Network members engage the business community in driving new initiatives to support teachers and improve learning outcomes for all children, especially those historically underserved? What does it take for employers to lead, or at least support, the kind of policy changes that PIE Network members advocate for collectively and individually?

Expect Political Fallout

First, we have to learn from recent experiences that have made business leaders increasingly unwilling to be the voice for any comprehensive education overhaul. Companies like Exxon Mobil and General Electric were vocal supporters of the Common Core State Standards, actively articulating the need for college and career-aligned readiness as a competitive necessity for the United States. The controversy that ensued, more for political than substantive reasons, has deterred many key business leaders from entering the fray over how best to prepare our children for a diverse global economy and society.

Connect Education Reform and Employability

The second challenge is connecting education to one of the most vexing issues employers face, lack of qualified talent to lead and grow their companies. Making the connections between the state policy reforms advocates work on and the workforce challenges employers face is not a simple task. How does teacher evaluation, standardized tests and accountability or social emotional learning relate to finding applicants qualified for jobs companies are struggling to fill?

These challenges have led MBAE in a new direction. Because business engagement in the future will not look like it has in the past, and for the reasons outlined above, MBAE launched and is growing a business affiliate network at the local level.

Education is local and personal for business leaders just as it is for other stakeholder groups.

Local employers are civic leaders who support the community in which they live and work. They recognize that high quality schools are the foundation of a vibrant community and enduring democracy. They’re also parents, and their employees are as well. That’s why, as advocates, we need to frame the work we do in terms of how it improves local school systems and how it impacts students.

Build a Network of Supporters

MBAE has formalized our Affiliate Network with 28 current members collectively representing over 24,000 employers. Through the network we can expand our impact at the local level and create a force capable of bringing the statewide change we need to close achievement and skills gaps. This requires more than the occasional call to action or plea for help. We added a full-time Director of Affiliate Growth and Strategy who is in regular communication with affiliates sharing updates about legislation, leading webinars to educate and engage groups in important topics, and providing customized district-level information and advice as well as opportunities for sharing of best practices in school partnerships. In the process, we are building a network of support for MBAE’s future work on state policy. These groups have many different levels of involvement in education, but almost all are active in some way.

We’re meeting them where they are, supporting the work they’re already doing, and bringing them along on the statewide issues.

Our Affiliate Network is a work in progress, but it’s already making a difference. We believe advocates who want to increase business participation need to make the value and impact of that engagement more explicit and also recognize the need to address local concerns if we want to continue to drive statewide change.

 

 


Linda Noonan

Linda is the Executive Director at Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education


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