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Building Blocks: How Schools and Businesses Can Partner to Improve American Education

February 27, 2008 // 7:30am1:00pm
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Even as U.S. education becomes more challenging with increased globalization and as reforms of the last quarter century fail to hit the mark, there are a few innovative, outstanding, and growing educational programs that can keep us optimistic about what lies ahead. These programs sit at the crossroads of educational talent and good business sense and they are making sure that all kids – especially those in underserved, urban areas – get the education they need to live and work in tomorrow's world.

On Wednesday, February 27th, 2008, thirteen panelists from seven educational organizations, four prominent corporations, and the U.S. Department of Education came together at a conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center to discuss and explain how these programs work. The Petrie Foundation provided generous financial support for the conference.

The conference highlighted the Knowledge is Power Program, the Cristo Rey Network, the NativityMiguel Network of Schools, Project Lead The Way, FIRST, and Make the Connection. Tyrrell Flawn, executive director of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel of the U.S. Department of Education, and Susan Traiman, Director of Education and Workforce Policy at the Business Roundtable, provided opening and closing keynotes analyzing U.S. educational goals and their connection to the country's future prosperity.

Kent Hughes, director of the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy at the Woodrow Wilson Center, introduced the speakers and provided brief remarks about the timeliness of their work. He emphasized that the United States was one of the first large countries to establish a public education system, but that other countries have now matched and exceeded that standard. The clear warning sounded in the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, he said, has been followed by a number of other reports noting that the U.S. is lagging behind other nations in international measures of math and science proficiency. Furthermore, he explained that the drop-out rate, coupled with the failure to prepare students for the workforce, affects not only schools and the children they serve, but also has serious negative implications for the national economy.

He introduced keynote speaker Tyrrell Flawn, executive director of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel of the U.S. Department of Education. Flawn continued the discussion of current education issues, saying that there is "growing concern that we are about to relinquish [our educational] leadership in the world." She cited the recent PISA 2006 results, which showed that U.S. students are behind their global peers, and she stressed that the troubling trends in education matter to economists and the government, but also "at the individual level, and to families."

The panel, established under a Presidential Executive Order in 2006, was charged to study math curricula and teaching methods in order to suggest effective reform. Its 25 diverse members surveyed teachers and reviewed about 16,000 research studies in order to pool knowledge of best practices in learning processes, curriculum, instruction, teaching, and assessment methods. Its findings were published in "Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel" in March 2008. Flawn asserted that, today, "we know more about how students learn than is being applied in the classroom." She said that we should end the unconstructive debates about classroom specifics, and instead focus on motivating kids and setting basic benchmarks on what we think they should be learning.

Fortunately, there are several programs that can serve as successful and practical examples of how to do that – they have raised their standards and their creativity in educational instruction, which has engaged students and raised academic performance.


The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) does both. Allison Fansler, president and COO of KIPP DC, gave some background on the nationwide program: schools have an extended day, week, and year with a focus on the usual academic subjects, plus extracurricular activities. KIPP DC has four schools; over 75% of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 99% are African American. The KIPP schools have been very successful – they form the "highest performing network of charter schools in D.C.," said Fansler. Additionally, the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS), which is taken each April to assess students in math, reading, science, and writing, shows that, at the KIPP DC KEY Academy, 80% of 8th grade students are proficient in reading and 100% of them are proficient in math.

Instrumental to that success are the corporate partners that work with KIPP teachers and administrators. Brittany Lothe, director of Americas Corporate Citizenship at SAP and a KIPP DC board member, spoke about one such partnership: SAP, the third-largest software company in the world, works nationwide with 18 communities that have KIPP schools, focusing on math and science. It not only contributes technology and equipment, but its employees also serve as mentors and expand the students' teamwork skills. Both Fansler and Lothe stressed that the partnership is very important. Fansler said it works because the businesses are willing to work very closely with the schools, with great respect for the KIPP teachers and the organization's expectations. Lothe added that she and her colleagues treat the partnership like a product launch – with a timeline and assessments of progress. Ultimately, open and honest communication and clear expectations strengthen the school-business bond and make the schools effective.


The Cristo Rey Network is equally progressive in its approach to student learning. Fr. Steve Shafran, president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, and Alicia Bondanella, executive director of the Corporate Work Study Program at Don Bosco, explained the program. Don Bosco, located in Takoma Park, MD, opened in August 2007, with a student population that is about 50% Latino and 50% African-American. The nationwide network has 19 schools and 700 corporate sponsors – utilizing "businesses as educative partners." Bondanella explained that students at all Cristo Rey Network schools perform entry-level, administrative jobs for local companies, an arrangement that originally began as a way for them to pay their way, but is now a strong element of their education. Students learn all aspects of the business world: how to dress professionally, how to communicate, and how to work in teams. The program works because students can attend a longer school day for four days a week, and then work at a business for one day a week. What is the result? The program boasts that 93% of its sponsors renew each year and 99% of its students go on to college.

The NativityMiguel Network of Schools and its local Washington Jesuit Academy (WJA) have the same focus – to work with urban, minority students and prepare them for college. The network has 64 schools across the country, all of which "move the bar up [and] move the floor up too." In other words, they have high expectations for their students and provide them with a high level of support. Joseph Powers, Headmaster at WJA, explained how the school gives the students much more than a basic education: the school day and year are extended and the school itself provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, and extracurricular activities. Further, local professionals step in to provide tutoring and homework help. Greg Naleski, the vice president of development at the NativityMiguel Network, said that the national organization provides the schools with professional development and college visits, but not funding – the schools themselves raised $52.8 million from corporations last year alone.

Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is effective through another approach – working in existing schools to enhance engineering, biomedical, and agricultural curricula, with an extra effort to reach out to girls. Niel Tebbano, vice president for operations at PLTW, explained that the program was founded by industry leaders in order to meet workforce needs and, today, it is in over 2,300 schools across the nation. It provides higher-level learning through a "rigorous, relevant curriculum," with strong professional development opportunities for teachers. The students gain critical thinking and problem resolution; for example, one student in Saratoga Springs, NY worked with local Amtrak engineers to program her cell phone so that it could start her car engine and turn on the heat before she had to leave her house in the cold winter months.


Tebbano emphasized that "partnerships are key" and that the PLTW experience can be used as a "guidebook...for the efficient use of professional mentors in the classroom." Steve Smalley, an advisory engineer at Northrop Grumman, represents one of those key partners. A company such as his, he explained, which will need to hire about 17,000 qualified technical graduates next year, must be invested in the educational needs of American students. "Getting the engineers in the classrooms is a very important piece," he said. In addition to PLTW, Northrop Grumman also provides support for the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program, DiscoverEngineering, and FIRST, among others.

FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." It's a program that gets students excited about science by infusing learning with both teamwork and competition, or "coopetition." Paul Gudonis, FIRST president, explained that most students think that math and science are "important, but not for me." The FIRST robotics tournament and FIRST Lego League are changing that. They pair students with engineer mentors to build robots that compete in a game. Started by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway and a host of other innovations, the FIRST robotics program alone involves about 40,000 students and 64,000 volunteers annually. Some 9,000 middle schools now participate in FIRST Lego League and a version has now been developed for elementary schools. And, Gudonis explained that it costs only $400/student at the high school level – less than the cost of the average sports uniform.

Picking up the costs and the scientific brainpower are the corporate sponsors, including BAE Systems, which is the third-largest aerospace corporation in the world. Len Hawkins, a vice president at BAE, attended college on a basketball scholarship, but warned that focusing on basketball or other sports to build a career rarely leads to a promising future. He asserted that, on the other hand, "if you are a young person aspiring to be a mathematician or scientist, your chances of success are 100%." FIRST shows students that engineering and science are fun, exciting, and valuable in the real world. For companies, the program "represents [an] investment in a future high tech workforce."

Make the Connection is expanding students' perceptions in another way – by bridging the gap between young girls and the world of technology and mathematics, subjects that many girls would not otherwise experience. The program was created by Rebecca Patton, with support from the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital and Booz Allen Hamilton, where she works as a technical leader on environmental projects. In a series of events, girls get to play with gadgets at a technology petting zoo, speak personally with a group of professional women, and participate in team activities. Patton explained that the mentors have a challenging task, as the "hardest thing [they will] ever do is try and explain to a 13-year-old what they do for a living." But, it pays off, because the girls see how far their female mentors have gone in the world of science and technology – and can begin to picture themselves there, too.

Kent Hughes summarized some of the successful features of the programs highlighted in the conference: longer school days, weeks, and years, high expectations, constant efforts to improve school instruction, school flexibility, and effective outreach to communities and parents. He went on to stress the importance of inspiration. "We need to motivate young people and we need to bring the real world into the classroom. To that end, corporate support is essential – in providing funding, volunteers, and role models."


Finally, Susan Traiman, director of Education and Workforce Policy at the Business Roundtable, wrapped up both the educational needs of the country and the business mindset. The CEOs of major corporations are looking towards the long-term and know it is important "to help in areas where they can make a difference." The culture of teenagers and the prevailing stereotypes of math and science, however, can present a challenge. High school students seek social connections, concrete accomplishments, belonging, and freedom, so in order to inspire their education we have to connect academics to these aspirations. "Math and science power virtually everything exciting in your life" – that is the message to send, she explained. By making young people more aware of how math and science are all around them – especially in things they care about, like music and television – and responding to their individual needs, we can break the stereotypes and give meaning to their education. Ultimately, that can breathe new life into the culture of math and science in America and inspire young people to take up the challenges presented by today's fast-paced world.

Drafted by Jacqueline Nader

Conference Speakers:

Keynote Address - Tyrrell Flawn, Executive Director, National Mathematics Advisory Panel, U.S. Department of Education

Luncheon Address - Susan Traiman, Director of Education and Workforce Policy, Business Roundtable

Knowledge is Power Program
Allison Fansler, President and COO, Knowledge is Power Program D.C. and Brittany Lothe, Director of Americas Corporate Citizenship, SAP, and Board Member, Knowledge is Power Program D.C.

Cristo Rey Network
Fr. Steve Shafran, President, Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School and Alicia Bondanella, Executive Director of the Corporate Work Study Program, Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School

NativityMiguel Network of Schools
Joseph Powers, Principal, Washington Jesuit Academy and Gregory Naleski, Vice President for Development, NativityMiguel Network

Project Lead the Way
Niel Tebbano, Vice President for Operations, Project Lead the Way and Steve Smalley, Advisory Engineer, Northrop Grumman

FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology
Paul Gudonis, President, FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and Leonard Hawkins, Vice President, Engineering Authority, Customer Solutions Operating Group, BAE Systems, Inc.

Make the Connection
Rebecca Patton, Principal, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Member, Women's Advisory Board of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capitol (GSCNC)

 

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