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 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68(originally published by Booz & Company)


School Reform for Realists

On the ground, the most effective business–education partnerships are those that foster innovative education opportunities in which both students and parents can participate, and those that create bridges between schools and the outside world, including potential employers. The following stories demonstrate some of the principles that help these partnerships work. What distinguishes them from many outright failures is the quality of collaboration. In these examples, business leaders did more than donate funds and technology; rather, schools and businesses sought to learn from one another.

Fostering Tech Experiments

Many education reformers have applauded the potential of technology: netbooks, video learning, and electronic educational games. But in practice, technology designed for consumers and homeschooling is not well suited to the needs of inner-city kids or to use within the public school classroom. Computer infrastructure hardware company Cisco Systems began to experiment in the mid-2000s, in partnership with schools, to find more effective ways to introduce technology to classrooms. Its experiments demonstrate the promise and value of these projects, and the difficulties involved in maintaining them.

“Cisco is not an education technology company, it’s a networking IT company,” explains Mary Anne Petrillo, Cisco’s senior marketing manager for corporate social responsibility. “We bring our core competencies to help [school districts] think through their processes…and to build their capacity to manage technology.”

One Cisco partnership, called the 21st Century Schools Initiative, was established with eight school districts in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina. Donations of equipment and the testing of new technologies were balanced with opportunities for entrepreneurship and new types of training. For example, Jefferson Parish has a large suburban school system with 88 schools, just outside New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta lowlands, where the majority of students are poor and black or Latino. After the storm and flooding destroyed many school buildings there, Cisco donated equipment, including whiteboards and laptops (Jefferson Parish has a one-laptop-per-student policy), as well as professional-development training. The company was also instrumental in the district’s decision to hire a chief technology officer.

In another partnership, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) embraced Cisco in 2009 as a “thought partner” in its iZone (for “innovation zone”) program. With funding from local business leaders as well as Cisco, the iZone was intended to help schools become seedbeds of freewheeling, learning-oriented activity, using technology and other measures (including extended days). Students, teachers, and school administrators were all encouraged to tap real-world expertise and integrate it with school curricula.

During the iZone’s first year, Cisco provided funding and training. Teachers came to Cisco offices in Manhattan for several all-day sessions covering a variety of classroom technologies — including tutorials on teleconferencing with outside experts, using PowerPoint presentations, and making videos. Cisco also sought to learn from the schools, sending teams of engineers into their classrooms to see how teachers and students used digital technology.

Since then, the iZone has been reorganized three times. It is now a two-tiered experiment. More than 100 schools take part in a limited version, with online access to education software. About 25 schools participate in a more comprehensive initiative called iZone360, in which each student receives a laptop, and the program provides schools with “innovation coaches” who advise them on technology and other reform ideas.

At their best, partnerships like Cisco’s in Jefferson Parish and New York represent a virtuous circle in which a company helps school districts develop priorities, strategies, and expertise while educators help the business understand how technology is used on the ground, enabling the business to develop more useful products.

But close ties between companies and school districts also mean that conflicts of interest, real or perceived, can arise. In New York, Cisco, which officially maintains a “Chinese wall” separating its business and philanthropic interests, gave iZone free access to a sophisticated Web portal it was developing for sale to other school systems. Then, in August 2010, the NYCDOE abruptly reduced Cisco’s role in iZone, and replaced the Cisco portal with much more limited off-the-shelf software. The reasons for this shift were never entirely explained; the NYCDOE said that Cisco had fallen behind schedule. For its part, the company still officially supports the iZone project in New York. But a number of iZone principals and teachers, who were counting on working with Cisco, were disappointed.

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