‘Need to focus less on experimental projects and new ideas and more on taking proven ideas to more sites’

Many in the private sector are asking how to make a real difference in education. What can we learn from international experience?

South African business has long identified schooling as an issue of concern and consequently a focus of significant corporate social investment.

Little of this commitment and expenditure has produced much traction, however. In a struggling system, small, individual projects are not effective tools for affecting the overall quality of schooling or promoting meaningful improvement at scale. Responding to repeated official requests for assistance for ad hoc needs can only provide “Band-Aids” and never long-term solutions.

SA’s public schooling system is extraordinarily complex. More than 12-million pupils are enrolled at 30000 schools in more than 70 districts and nine provinces. Nearly 400000 teachers work in the system. There are huge differences within and between provinces, districts and schools. SA’s socioeconomic inequality is reflected in the diversity of backgrounds and academic performance of pupils.

The Centre for Development and Enterprise organised a workshop with US experts to see what we could learn from the US experience of business and schooling reform. Extremely useful insights and ideas for thinking about these issues in SA emerged.

A drop in the ocean: Spending on education by private sources in the US is less than half of 1% of all spending on public schools.

Don’t spend when you can help the state spend instead: Many items supplied by companies to schools (computers, classrooms) could be purchased with public money, but are not. Why? Identifying the obstacles and facilitating their removal (by supplying less tangible technical expertise, and assisting in setting up more appropriate systems, or helping improve the business skills of school principals) can be more effective than covering the shortfall in one year in a few specific cases.
Stop feel-good projects: Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter argues that, despite about 200000 business partnerships with public schools, fundamental aspects of public education have barely changed in decades. Performance is still weak, most projects function as “Band-Aids”.
There is too much temptation to tinker; to sponsor exciting schemes with charismatic champions. If business is serious about improving the efficiency of the educational system as a whole, then co-ordinated support for proven ideas should be taken a great deal more seriously. Companies and foundations should work together to maximise the effect of their efforts.

Think big and bold: A complicated national educational system will not respond to small, isolated influences. Engagement needs to happen at all levels of the system in a coherent, co-ordinated, patient way. Companies need to focus less on experimental projects and new ideas and more on taking proven ideas to more sites, and using their examples as models when advocating policy change.

Make a little go a long way: Businesses can have an effect beyond the infusion of money by sharing skills and expertise in well-selected initiatives. Management and leadership skills are valuable to school principals. Advocacy channels can be used to promote a reform message. Good, independent data are crucial for identifying areas for improvement, measuring progress and assigning accountability for success or failure. Policy makers do their jobs better when everyone has quality data. Better teaching will follow interventions that improve teacher recruitment, continuing development and accountability. Be willing to take the risks that public funding would avoid on specific well-crafted innovation that if successful could be scaled up.

Build experts and expertise: Private donors often prefer supporting specific initiatives in particular schools. This can sometimes be useful but it can often be better to invest in the work of appropriate organisations with an educational focus, including research oriented advocacy organisations These organisations persuade policy makers to undertake reform, track changes as they play out, and assess outcomes. They can be a credible voice in the media and the larger public; and provide the continuity and systemic expertise that is required for effective intervention in education. The US Chamber of Commerce affiliate, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW), is a leading example.

Don’t pay more, say more: Work done by Ernst & Young, the Committee for Economic Development and the ICW all stress — advocacy by business leaders has a large effect. CEOs have media access, and their public statements and support for reform-oriented organisations and specialist commissions can powerfully influence policy change. This contribution can significantly exceed the value of a project grant. Companies should include schooling and human capital reform issues in their most senior public affairs activities.

Some success stories from the US are especially noteworthy. Of these, two examples stand out:
Achieve Inc is a national initiative founded by 50 state governors and business leaders, created in 1997 to work for improved public education. It is funded by major companies, governed in public-private collaboration, and sells some services to individual states. Initially, its major role was in helping states set expectations for schools, but it expanded to review the entire school system.
It also does leading work in benchmarking, standards setting and facilitating accountability. It helps align educational standards with market needs, thus improving employability, and provides high-quality supplemental teaching materials in key subjects including mathematics.

The National Maths and Science Initiative (NMSI) was set up by a large (125m) grant from one company, which then stepped back to encourage other companies to join the initiative. The NMSI takes tried and tested initiatives to scale, with the aim of improving maths and science results from preschool to university. It supports programmes giving higher-level instruction to talented high school pupils, and teacher preparation programmes. It has identified institutional barriers to scaling up successful programmes as the main obstacle to improved educational performance, and partly blamed private sector preference for small pilot projects for encouraging this.

The US schooling system is highly decentralised. Many different experiments are taking place in cities throughout America. This encourages innovation and it is easier for government and business to experiment together to address the challenges of schooling improvement.

We have to improve the quality of schooling for more and more people in SA. Non- state money is a precious asset. The generosity of South African companies willing to spend significant resources on improving education needs to be recognised. However, how that money is spent should be recalibrated in the light of our own experience and the lessons we can learn from elsewhere.

South African business needs to develop a far more sophisticated, strategic understanding of the schooling challenge and the “how” of reform. Simply pooling private spend on “good works” will not make a significant difference. Strategic research on how to get value from the public budget is vital, as is work on how successful privately funded initiatives can be taken to scale.