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Posted: November 07, 2011

Lessons from Boston’s education reformers

Here are some things business leaders need to know

Scott Laband

As the vice president of Colorado Succeeds - a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to reforming the state's education system - I am often asked why business people care about the education system and what they have to offer.

My time in Boston for the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation's 2011 Leadership Exchange trip provided impressive answers to those questions and reaffirmed what we already know: Business leaders have the obligation and opportunity to transform our public education system to better serve our students.

Based on our conversations with leaders from the business, nonprofit, and education sectors, it is clear that core business principles such as accountability, transparency, innovation and return on investment are equally applicable in our school systems as they are in corporate board rooms. What's more, the business community represents a powerful and unique voice in the debate. As the end users of the education system's product, we care deeply about preparing students to succeed in a competitive global economy.

Greg Shell of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo and Co., and chairman of Roxbury Prep Charter School communicated the crisis and the urgency that business leaders have to fix it.

"With graduation rates hovering around 50 percent, our system is destroying human capital," he said. "Education is a problem we fell asleep on. We've been led to believe that we have tried to fix this problem for decades, but we have not been trying in earnest."

Presentations by Desh Despande of A123 Systems and Sycamore Networks and Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, also articulated the importance of the education system as the engine of our work-force pipelines and economic growth.

Expanding on the urgency and importance of these issues, Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation made the case that the business community is uniquely positioned to apply light and heat on the system and challenged the Colorado delegation to act.

"The incremental reform that has been tried is not enough and a complete system overhaul is necessary to address the core issues," he said. "You have to keep the key issues in public view to mobilize support and apply external pressure. Because without it, you just don't have any hope for change."

Grogan suggested that previous efforts to reform the education system have only yielded meager results because of "political interference." Thus, he advocated for a comprehensive, coordinated strategy.

Further, our visit to the Orchard Gardens K-8 school validated the appropriateness of business principals in our schools, as they were instrumental to its successful turnaround. In 2003, Orchard Gardens opened a state-of-the-art facility in a poor, previously neglected neighborhood of Boston. Despite its shiny exterior, the school failed to impart basic knowledge to its students and soon became one of the lowest performing schools in the state.

The school exhausted five principals in seven years. Teachers didn't want to work there and students didn't want to go there. Last year, the school was granted "pilot status" from Boston Public Schools, allowing it to opt-out of certain state laws and collective bargaining requirements. Importantly, the school's new leader, Andrew Bott, was bold enough to maximize those freedoms.

First, Bott replaced 80 percent of the school's existing teachers who lacked a simple but significant core belief that all students can learn and achieve proficiency. Second, he lengthened the school day. Third, he created a data reporting system whereby frequent assessment cycles enabled his teachers to understand where their students were performing and how they needed to adapt their lesson plans. After only one year under this strategy, the school has seen astronomical improvement.

The average median growth of the students at Orchard Gardens is now in the 91st percentile, nearly two grade levels worth of progress in one year's time. It is a phenomenal story, providing yet another proof point of what we already know is possible in education when bold leadership is paired with innovative thinking and autonomy is paired with accountability for results.

Thankfully, Colorado businesses are already at the education reform table and are fully engaged. With a strict focus on improving student outcomes, business leaders are helping solve Colorado's most complex systemic problems by infusing a business-like approach. As we continue to sharpen our efforts and strengthen the existing partnerships that unite Colorado's education reform movement, the lessons we learned from Boston's education reform heroes - Bott, Shell, and Grogan - will remain top-of-mind.

Finally, to those readers not yet involved in the education reform movement, I will leave you with a quote by Desh Despande: "Every human being is contextually placed on this Earth to solve a certain set of problems." I encourage you to examine your place, and I challenge you to engage your talents in solving the problems embedded in our education system. No less than our state's future economy, prosperity, and quality of life are at stake.
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Scott Laband is vice president of Colorado Succeeds.

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Readers Respond

Hi Scott - very broad overview expressed here. I'd love more examples of what Colorado businesses are doing to help reform schools. I heard of one company doing research with computer assisted learning that went way beyond simply having a computer gathering dust in the corner of a classroom. Could you share examples of the biz community impacting reform? I wanted to link your article to our FB fan page/web site, but not enough info -- yet. Thanks! By Kathy Zaffore on 2011 11 07

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