Business & Education Round Table December 2009


When it comes to improving the public-education system, school officials say they depend on the help of industry leaders.

Businesses have much to give North Carolina schools, but they need administrators to invite them in first. Likewise, business executives must keep school administrators informed about what they require from the workforce. Those were some of the many opinions expressed during a recent business-and-education round table hosted by GlaxoSmithKline PLC at its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park. Participants were June S. Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction; Carl E. Harris, superintendent of Durham Public Schools; William C. Harrison, chairman of the state Board of Education; Bryant Kinney, vice president for regulatory and government affairs, Duke Energy Carolinas; R. Andre Peek, vice president of IBM Global Technology Servicesí communications sector; Paul Sale, director of human resources for Cisco Systems Research Triangle Park/U.S. Connected Sites; Bill Shore, director of GSKís U.S. Community Partnerships; and Tricia Willoughby, executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education. Since the round table, Harris has accepted a job, which he begins Jan. 1, as deputy assistant secretary for policy and strategic initiatives for the U.S. Department of Education. Ben Kinney, Business North Carolina publisher, moderated the discussion, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems, Duke Energy and IBM. Following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity.

How can business leaders provide effective input to state education leaders and policymakers?

Atkinson: Business and industry can apply firm yet gentle pressure. I view economic development as being a partner with education and business and industry. Itís a part of marriage. And just like in marriage, it is much better if we have love. Education is much better if we have business and industry as a part of that initiative.

Kinney: I view the educational system as a supplier, and weíre the customers. Being involved in the education system is being a good customer. I canít fault my supplier if I donít tell them what I need. With the median age of our workforce being about 50, in the next 10 to 15 years we need a real good vendor.

Peek: As businesses, we know what kinds of skills are needed much sooner than the institutions. What we want to do is to get that information about whatís relevant into the schools so that the workforce that we need will be enabled.

Kinney: Weíre going to be a completely different type of business than we were over the last 100 years as we go to digitizing our grid and renewable energy and other things. So a 21st-century workforce is absolutely critical to us, in addition to traditional craft labor and other skills that weíre going to need.

Shore: Weíre looking at a situation where the U.S. is now 28th in the world in terms of science and math, where we have 30% or more of our kids ó and more than 50% of minority kids ó dropping out of high school. If weíre going to be able to replace our employees as they retire, we need every single one of those students to be potential employees for us. But itís obvious those dropping out are not going to come to work for any of our companies.

Harrison: Part of our challenge is we, as a public school system, are doing exactly what we were designed to do. When our system was founded, it was OK for 30% to drop out. There were jobs for them. It was OK for some students not to have a higher level of education. Those of us running the system and the community at large have not kept up with demands in the marketplace. We have too many people in too many communities who are satisfied with the status quo and donít understand that the status quo no longer meets the needs.

Sale: Itís not a nice-to-do anymore. Itís a strategic imperative. We have to be involved in the dialogue. Itís a joint responsibility. We canít leave it for education alone anymore. Itís got to be a tight function to create the right strategy for the future.

How is technology being used in grades K-12, and what are some ways that businesses help?

Harrison: Iíve heard students interviewed and say they have to power down to come to school. Willard Daggett, who is a futurist, said 20 years ago that it took 40 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom. We need to do much better. We need to ensure that we are facilitating instruction for students in the way in which they learn, rather than us teaching in a way in which we are comfortable. I think about video games and the interaction they have in this environment where the feedback is immediate, specific and rigorous. There is a specific objective, and they need to be exposed to instruction that reflects that. Thatís how students live, and we shouldnít change the way they live when they come to school.

Harris: What we donít recognize today is that our students need to know far more at a much earlier age than weíve asked students to know in the past. The only way we can absolutely extend the learning of a studentís day is through technology, something that students can have access to beyond having face-to-face interaction with the classroom teacher. We need to expand it into the curriculum so they can benefit from an educational experience the same way they benefit from the entertainment centers.

Sale: North Carolina has done a fabulous job with connectivity and making broadband accessible to students. Cisco got involved. We have a program called Fellows, which enables full-time executives to be involved in a particular project. Three Fellows worked on the connectivity project from í97 through last June.

Atkinson: One example of technology use is in Onslow County. Some students have been issued smartphones, which allow them to watch videos about algebra and to develop a virtual network where they can text message each other about problems. Last year, the same teacher taught two Algebra I classes ó one was classified as honors and the other as regular algebra. The regular algebra students who used smartphones scored 10-15 percentage points higher than the students in honors algebra. Another teacher had three classes. The students who had smartphones again scored much higher than the other students. Our challenge is to spread those kinds of examples throughout North Carolina.

"Itís quite rare to have a school superintendent invite us to the table."

Peek: One of the pieces of technology we developed is called Translate Now. It allows you to translate from English to Spanish and back. Thatís important because as a parent of a 9-year-old, Iím finding that teachers are sending a lot of information home. Some Hispanic children understand English, but they are in households that donít. This kind of technology engages the household in the learning experience, and that can help a child tremendously.

Kinney: Note that weíve got to learn at the speed of technology. I could be tweeting everything that Superintendent Atkinson just said about an Eastern North Carolina county, and that could already be out there if there were anybody following me. This is the world that we live in. Growing up and attending Murphy Elementary School in the far western part of the state, we had one day a week at the library for about an hour. Put the library on the childís desk with a laptop, and they not only have Murphy library, they have a state library and the Library of Congress and Moscow and Johannesburg and London. Thatís the world that our kids are in.

Once schools get the technology, who is going to train teachers to use it?

Peek: I participate on a board for Teach for America, and I had some young teachers over to our house in the summer. They were all very comfortable with technology. They said there are a couple of classrooms in their schools that have all sorts of technology ó SMARTboards and so forth ó yet it isnít being used. The teachers just didnít really know how to use it. So while the state has invested in ó and business community has contributed for ó technology, the teacher wasnít really enabled to use it. We need to close the gap on that. Let me give you an example of how. IBM has almost 5,000 retirees just in North Carolina and a workforce of about 11,000-11,500. One of the ways weíre leveraging that asset is by assisting some employees in the transition into teaching careers. People who are technology-savvy can get out into the classroom. Weíve got another program called MentorPlace. It uses technology to connect protťgťs ó teachers or students ó with subject-matter experts.

Atkinson: There are two areas of professional development that teachers need. One is how to use the technology. But equally important is how to use the technology to deliver content for a particular subject. Without both, we will not be able to move forward.

Harris: Staff development must be sustainable also. Because once the new product is rolled out, itís an old product for a technology company. We need a sustaining effort to train our adults not only about the technology we have today but as new technology comes forward. We must make sure that, from a consumer perspective of the school system, we develop technology thatís affordable so that we donít end up hanging onto outdated equipment because we canít afford the latest.

Peek: All of us here have been strong advocates and been willing to provide the products our companies make or sell ó laptop computers or routers or various other devices or software ó for the use of our communities and in our schools. Now thatís not enough, but certainly itís our best point of leverage on behalf of our communities.

Sale: We had quite a body of people who went to help out after the flooding from Hurricane Katrina, and we developed a philosophy called Education 3.0. It strings together everything weíve been talking about into four focus areas. The first was reforming the science of teaching. Itís much more about how we use technology. The second was professional development for teachers. Rather than teachers being teachers in the traditional sense, they were creating interactive groups of students working together against common problems, so youíve got the students actively involved. The next element was professional development for school-system leaders. The leaders had to grasp this philosophical change to drive it from the top down. The last element was continuous dialogue between school-system leaders, IT leaders and curriculum-development people.

What are the biggest challenges facing education in North Carolina?

Willoughby: What we learned through our teacher-working-conditions survey is that the most critical piece of the system is leadership. We have business leaders around this table who are successful because they have been adaptable, they have continued lifelong learning and they have adjusted to new ways of doing business. Take Andre. I always try to remember his title because itís got global in there. Youíre liable to find Andre on his way back from India or somewhere else. Heís adapted to a new kind of business environment. Leaders and schools must do that.

How?

Willoughby: It goes back to new ways of teaching and learning, embracing technology. A series that the Business Committee for Education co-produced with the Friday Institute of N.C. State is called Having Our Say. One of my favorite quotes from business leaders is that kids come to school with more technology in their backpack than their classroom. So when we talk about changing that teaching-learning environment, you have to have educators who are comfortable letting kids lead the way sometimes.

Shore: The business community has done everything it can to help. But itís quite rare to have a school superintendent pick up the phone and invite us to the table. Until a leader in the school system invites you in and says, ĎThis is where I need the help of the business community, these are my goals, these are our systemís objectives,í youíre limited. Carlís done that, creating his own Business Advisory Council. It has almost 50 companies now. He and his senior folks meet with us every three months, and we talk about everything thatís going on.

Peek: When Tricia and I started working together, she said, ĎWeíre trying to get to the 21st-century skills in learning.í I said, ĎThatís funny, IBM is wrestling with the same challenges. How do we move our workforce forward?í Iím trying to sell advanced media infrastructures to utility companies, which is going to create a new set of opportunities for the workforce. But do we have people coming through that are going to be able to participate in that evolution and move forward? Weíre out looking for resources to help Duke or Progress Energy or IBM from everywhere except right in our backyard.

Sale: What we are expecting now from our employees is a very different paradigm than four or five years ago. Today, somebody in our company can expect to work on virtual teams ó dealing with different people in different time zones and cultures and doing it very independently. What weíre finding imperative is some of the soft skills. We need people who are tolerant or understanding, who are respectful and who can communicate clearly but listen effectively. Thatís what brings it all together.

Peek: The good news is that as I go to my sonís school, for example, the desks are organized as pods now. They have work groups in the classroom. I believe itís Greene County where youíve got distance learning, where people are literally able to go to a virtual classroom. We need to push more through the General Assembly. Thereís not a difference between the needs of education and the needs of business. Itís just a matter of bringing those two together.

Kinney: One thing that concerns me is teacher retention. My most recent experience was a young teacher looking at me and saying the legislature doesnít have enough funds for K-12. She understood where she was going, and that was out the door if they couldnít find the funds. Somehow, weíve got to get back to making teachers feel desired. We ask them to do all these things weíre talking about. But until we start valuing them, teacher retention is going to continue to be a problem.

Harrison: What itís all going to come down to is having competent, caring teachers and keeping them. How to do that is with good leadership. Our challenge is making sure every child, regardless of where his or her parents live, has the opportunity to go to school in a norm of excellence.

Doesnít everybody want that?

Harrison: Thereís too much apathy. About 70% of our population does not have children in schools. There are too many people out there who donít believe that education is economic development. Another enemy is satisfaction with the status quo. Third is low expectations. Iíve talked with leaders in communities where schools are struggling and have heard the comment: ĎWell, I think our kids are doing about as well as they can.í It breaks my heart to hear a leader say that. The final one is self-interest. We know what needs to be done to enable every kid to be successful, but do we have the political will to make it happen? Thatís the challenge.

Shore: What we donít talk a lot about are kids coming from home lives who just donít have the kind of motivation that all of us grew up with. Iíve always heard that a second- or third-grade teacher can pretty much tell which kids in their class are not going to make it through high school. We need these kids. We need to do a better job of figuring out how to educate the kids coming from really difficult circumstances and help these teachers deal with those kids. Weíre spending how much to keep one person in prison?

Harrison: Itís about $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

Shore: About 75% of inmates are high-school dropouts. How much do we have to spend on the front end to support the school system and support the programs that will keep these kids motivated and in school and understand they have a future? We need to do a little bit like what weíve seen at the Harlem Childrenís Zone with Geoffrey Canada. If he can do it in Harlem, we can do it in Durham and Raleigh.

Peek: You hit the nail on the head when you talked about self-interest. Weíve got a transformation going on in North Carolina as business models are disrupted through technology. Things are changing. People are finding themselves with skills that used to be highly desired but now are not. They need to retool themselves. The point is that if we get this right, itís not just getting it right for our children. Itís getting it right for all of us. Because we need to create this engine that can sustain continuous learning and keep up with the pace of change that we would all benefit from.

"The biggest challenge we face is to increase our graduation rate."

Atkinson: The biggest challenge we face is to increase our graduation rate to at least 90% or 95% or even 100%. We have to continue to focus on early-childhood education. We know that it reaps great benefits later. We have to accelerate our redesign and restructuring of schools. A second challenge is to help society get to the place where we can remove the shackles of ineffective traditions. Weíve had such a discussion in the Research Triangle area about whether we should have year-round schools, whether the students should go beyond 180 days and whether we should have five-and-a-half hours of instruction. Weíre not focusing on what is most important. Students in this day should have a personalized education plan. We should have a support structure in place so that the student who doesnít come from a supportive home has the support services of social workers, health-care workers, counselors or mental-health assistance.

Harris: Our challenge is: How do we keep that connectivity between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the business world? Because we have teachers in our schools today that are doing a very good job but may be disconnected from what is happening in a 21st-century business. The opportunities to be in and out of these environments are not necessarily available for them each day. Itís also important that we help our kids understand the connection between what we are asking them to learn and how that learning will help them do what they aspire to do. Because we have found ourselves so isolated in the walls of the schools, we failed to understand what changed 10 years ago or even longer.

Willoughby: We have talked about job shadowing. Itís not just the students who need to go out and understand those connections. Itís the educators as well. Job shadowing also goes to the flip side ó business people need to be in schools and understand how things have changed. Being invited into the system by the superintendent is huge. Weíve got 115 places where we need that to happen. We have leadership at the state level with Bill and with June who have invited in the business committee to be not just an in-name partner but also a real partner. Our members have input into the curriculum revision. Thatís really important ó to get it right at the state level, so when we get to Durham we donít have any barriers to what Carl knows is right for his students.

Sale: About 12 months ago, we surveyed 67,000 employees about how the workplace has changed. The findings illustrate the points weíve talked about. About 63% of time is spent communicating or collaborating. Collaboration is virtual 35% of the time and face-to-face 20%. About 43% have remote managers, 85% telecommute part of the time, 24% of the work is done from home, 48% outside of normal traditional business hours and the average commute time is 1.4 hours a day. Employees report being more productive often outside of business hours, and 70% would prefer to Wi-Fi at least two days or more per week.

Kinney: As for getting businesses engaged with the educational system, a lot of times that ends up being management. But weíve found that the best way to get anyone to understand your business is to really start at the grass-roots level. We can go to the legislature, and we can talk to Gov. Beverly Perdue or Superintendent Atkinson. But itís got to start down at the local level. I would take it even to the grass roots in the business organization, with employees involved. My best example always is our National Engineers Week, where we put about 100 employees out into the field. They touch between 7,000 to 10,000 kids during that week.

How do they manage that?

Kinney: They do a practical presentation. They just donít go in and say, ĎHereís what I do for a living.í They go in and use a potato to make electricity. Employees are touching the students themselves and showing them there are careers out here. Not jobs but careers. The other thing is employee involvement at the local board of education. Iíve got a good friend thatís chairman of one of our county boards of education. Iíve got another one thatís a member. What better way is there to get involved than to get in the trenches and understand the bureaucracy and the barriers for the schools?

Harrison: Part of the challenges that weíre facing across the state and nation have to do with some of the people getting elected. Some talented people are not running. Years ago, community leaders used to run for boards of education. Now, people run for board of education to become community leaders.

Kinney: Itís easy to ride the car. Itís different when youíve got to drive it.

What can small businesses do?

Peek: When you look at the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, here is a place for large and small companies across our state. What Tricia does is pull everybody together and then we have a single but powerful voice directly into the governorís office and into the Board of Education and DPI. When we work collectively, itís amazing the kinds of good ideas that come out. If youíve got a good idea but donít have the resources, maybe some of the other people that have more resources will say, ĎThatís a great idea, and Iím going to get behind that and really push it through.í

Kinney: It is hard for small-business owners to come to Raleigh for meetings. But almost every chamber of commerce in our counties has education committees that touch those superintendents and school boards. Getting back to elected officials, some of my other friends on the boards of education are small-business owners. Theyíre the banker or insurance agent or the car-dealership owner. They can serve in those local offices. Local businesses show kids a light at the end of the tunnel. Thereís a reason for them.

Atkinson: When we look at what size business gives opportunities for students to have work experience over an extended time through co-op, apprenticeships or internships, it is typically the small business. Thatís because small businesses may have difficulty finding part-time help. One thing we could do through the North Carolina Business Committee and other venues is to really promote how it is a win-win situation for a small business to involve someone who needs a work experience as a part of a high-school curriculum.

Shore: Iím chair of the U.S. Chamberís business-education initiative called the Institute for Competitive Workforce. It has combined support for K-12 education from the business perspective on a national scale with workforce development. It has 2,800 local chambers of commerce and 50 state chambers that are affiliates, and it can tap into an inventory of programs that exist around this country like no other organization I know of. You can find pockets of things going on in this country that really, really work. That organization is a huge fan of North Carolina. It gave our state the first award for support for K-12 and workforce development two years ago. We beat ourselves up about the things going on, but we are recognized nationally in terms of what we do for our students.

Kinney: There are some great things going on. Look at what Tony Habitís doing with the New Schools Project. Weíre looking at a 50% lower dropout rate. The numbers there would have equated into 11,000 fewer dropouts last year if we had those innovative schools throughout the state.

Willoughby: As we speak, the governor is probably on the plane coming back from a recruiting trip to Japan and China. The thing that makes our leaders able to recruit from across the world is saying that we have a well-prepared, knowledge-based workforce thatís ready for those jobs.

Sale: We need to look through the lens of each individual rather than our traditional eyes. Weíve got to be sensitive, though. Weíre not just competing against other states. This is a global issue. North Carolina has to be equal to or better than other regions across the globe.

Shore: Weíre not competing against South Carolina. Maybe we wish we were. But itís nothing like that anymore.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Business North Carolina magazine.