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Business Can Do a Better Job Supporting Public Education

How often have you heard business leaders lament the slow progress of improvement in American public education? How often have you heard them complain about how difficult it is to know which tutoring or mentoring organizations make a difference and deserve their support?
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How often have you heard business leaders lament the slow progress of improvement in American public education? How often have you heard them complain about how difficult it is to know which tutoring or mentoring organizations make a difference and deserve their support? This need not be the case. Business leaders in Salt Lake County and dozens of other communities across America are singing a different tune.

At Granger Elementary School in Salt Lake County, Utah, there is excitement in the air as children return to school. Despite poverty rates that are among the highest in the state, 85% of the students met or exceeded reading targets by the end of last year. And teachers cannot wait to build on this momentum. Other schools in the district are also experiencing impressive gains over the past two years with English Language learners' graduation rate increasing from 41 to 53 percent and 3rd grade reading from 60 to 65 percent. How have Granger and others done it? Business, community and nonprofit leaders, educators and parents have joined together to implement Collective Impact, an innovative approach to providing essential support services for learning to students impacted by poverty. Through a local United Way, the business community in Salt Lake County has been a key driver of this initiative from conception in 2011 to this day.

Over 50% of American children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the federal government's classification for poverty. Compelling evidence exists that services provided to students outside the classroom are critical for success inside the classroom. The same may be true for middle class and affluent students, but their parents have resources to ensure that math tutoring or other needed supports are available. Not so for children in poverty whose parents cannot afford to pay; they must rely on programs provided by government or nonprofits. The problem is not that services are unavailable, but that service quality varies and programs are uncoordinated, so critical gaps in services can exist alongside redundancies. Service providers rarely collaborate with each other or the school district, lack common goals, rarely measure their effectiveness and are hardly ever held accountable for results. Consequently a kind of service delivery chaos exists in most communities. But some communities are changing.

In the greater Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, an area that stretches for 50 miles, some communities had an excess of preschool providers while others, particularly those with high populations of immigrants, had none. But whose job was it to rectify that situation? No one's...that is, until the local community foundation built a Collective Impact initiative to ensure that all children would receive essential support services from "cradle to career." Today there are mobile preschool buses and summer programs providing quality Pre-K programs to youngsters who had no previous access.

There are countless other examples of communities from Cincinnati to Dallas benefitting from Collective Impact. In most of these communities, businesses are essential partners. In Cincinnati, GE Avionics worked with the service providers to adapt their proven Six Sigma project management system to the work of nonprofits. Working together built unprecedented trust across sectors and among people who had little knowledge or empathy for each other's work. With a poverty rate of 72%, the number of 4th graders reading at proficiency is up 21 percentage points; 8th grade math is up 24 points both since 2004 and high school graduation rates are up 14 points since 2011.

Business leaders care about public education. They know that their future workforce must be well educated and understand that a quality education is the key to economic mobility and equity in this country. For years they have stepped up to the plate giving $3-4 billion annually and countless volunteer hours, but their approach has been fragmented and their effect has been muted. Most are not yet involved in Collective Impact. To make the difference they desire, business leaders will have to shift their support from organizations that have the strongest emotional appeal to organizations that that can prove their effectiveness. It is no longer difficult to find nonprofits committed to measuring results, it is the goal of their participation in Collective Impact. By joining the Collective Impact initiatives in their communities or helping to start new ones, business leaders can become powerful drivers of one of the boldest new approaches in decades to improving public education.

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