The time has come for America’s business leaders to consider anew how
they work with the nation’s educators to support our schools. A number of
trends are converging to create fresh opportunities, greater need, and a
unique moment for business to partner with educators.
Three decades ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education
warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools was eroding
our economy and society.1 The nation’s educators rose to this challenge,
though progress has been slow and inconsistent. Today, many indicators of
average student performance in the United States are gradually improving.
High school graduation rates, for instance, have climbed bit by bit and are
approaching an all-time high.
America’s business community played a role in this gradual improvement,
especially by donating money and employee time. Support from individual businesses has not always been
steady, but the business community as a whole gives a large sum to schools. No one knows exactly how
much, but the best estimate is $3 billion to $4 billion annually.2 Such generosity is also self-interest: America’s
companies depend on our schools to produce the next generation of employees and consumers.
Unfortunately, gradual improvement in average student performance is not sufficient when global standards for
education and skills are rising rapidly. For young Americans to succeed, they must out-innovate and out-produce
the world’s best, and mounting evidence shows that those best are getting better faster than Americans are. As
students in other countries, both developed and developing, match and surpass U.S. students, the future dims
for our youth and for our nation’s economic competitiveness. Moreover, the system’s gradual improvement has
been uneven: students in some locations and some parts of our society are being left behind.
The good news is that gradual improvement is no longer the best we can hope for. A set of forces now
converging—including improved district and school leadership, an upgrading of teaching talent, new technologies
and instructional models, innovative social entrepreneurs, and higher standards that demand better teaching
and learning—could move America’s PK–12 education system to an era of much faster progress in student
outcomes.* Our accompanying booklet, The Brink of Renewal: A Business Leader’s Guide to Progress in
America’s Schools, examines these forces in depth. It paints a cautiously optimistic picture: transformative
progress is possible, but it is far from assured.
Business leaders can work with educators to raise the od