Harnessing the Power of Partnerships to Empower Education

April 29, 2020

As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is engaging with corporate leaders across the country regarding the impacts of this health and economic crisis on businesses and communities. 

One theme has clearly emerged: we are all in uncharted territory. This is particularly true in our nation’s schools.  

According to UNESCO, roughly nine out of ten young people worldwide are out of the classroom as a result of the crisis. The world has never seen a shutdown of schools on this scale. In the midst of this turmoil, we’re seeing pockets of the business community lean in to listen, learn, and understand how they can support education in this time of need. From Verizon tripling its data allowance for students within its school program, to Lyft partnering with government and local nonprofits to ensure meal access for kids, businesses of all sizes are stepping up. 

On April 9, business leaders from across the country gathered virtually for a conversation with two companies at the forefront of supporting education in the U.S. during this time of crisis:  Microsoft and Discovery Education, alongside one of our nation’s premier educational leaders — Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. With over 500 participants from all corners of the business community, this virtual convening explored the impact of COVID-19 upon education, and the importance of private-public partnerships to build long-term, substantive solutions to support teachers and students beyond this health crisis. Here are three key takeaways from that discussion:

School ecosystems need to evolve to reflect today’s rapidly changing environment.

“I believe that now is the time to disrupt the idea that in the 21st century, teaching and learning are still funded on the basis of mandated seat time in a school, seven hours and 20 minutes a day for 180 days a year,” said Superintendent Carvalho.

Moving an entire district or educational ecosystem to a new way of supporting students overnight is undoubtedly a challenge. It’s more seamlessly accomplished, however, when strategic long-term planning and policy changes are considered early to support this dynamic. This naturally includes federal and state policies tied to funding, testing, and achievement. Just as critically, it includes a well-structured web consisting of the right technology, content partners, teacher training, and accessibility measures that address the needs of all learners. 

Districts are at various points on this continuum of preparedness and it will take multiple stakeholders to drive this transformation. Further, in the midst of a crisis, supporting districts in the identification of the right set of priorities and subsequently providing the requisite resources is essential if, as a country, we are going to make this wholesale shift. 

Schools can no longer be caught off guard and it will take a multi-stakeholder model to address this in enough time to prevent deepening achievement and engagement gaps.

Teachers need scalable support to ensure the continuation of student learning in a virtual world.

Educators are being called upon to pivot to a world where their students are learning on devices while navigating the accompanying challenges of unanticipated distance learning. Many educators feel isolated and overburdened with the demands of teaching in this new paradigm, and many have understandably not been fully prepared. The impact on continued student learning is real.

There was widespread agreement with Pete Weir, Discovery Education’s Chief Product Officer, who commented: “...we need to think about how we can best support teachers in their professional development as they’re compelled to use new digital tools and resources and effectively implement new teaching strategies.” 

Collaboration between education and technology leaders can help ease the virtual learning curve, while empowering educators with the support they need to engage their students and keep them on the path towards college and career.  

The time for partnerships with the business community is now.

Leaders across sectors are investing time and resources in forward-looking models that demonstrate the growth mindset we need now and into the future. Miami-Dade made the decision to integrate virtual learning into the classic classroom as part of their strategic plan last year. Microsoft is continuing their thought leadership through efforts like the STEM Careers Coalition, which they joined with Boeing, Chevron, API, and others as founding members. On this topic Dan Ayoub, Microsoft’s Head of Education, shared that:

“We joined the STEM Careers Coalition because we believe corporations have always had a responsibility – now more than ever – to advance STEM career pathways for students.”  

To that end, Discovery Education is producing short, Q&A-style virtual videos for students featuring STEM professionals in an effort to show students the flexible STEM skills companies need in the future and that can be applied to solve for something as massive as a global pandemic. 

“We want to showcase scientists working to develop a vaccine or disease modelers using math to predict the outbreak,” noted Weir, who also underscored the personal impact of the challenge. “Take Boeing, for example. We’re creating a two-minute video with one of their 3D-printing engineers using 3D-printing technology to mass produce face shields that will protect front line health care workers, like my sister.” 

This pandemic breaths a new reality into the old adage “it takes a village.” As we learn more about the crisis and its impact on virtually every part of our collective lives, the business community is rising to the many challenges. I was emboldened by the conversation, and at the same time, agreed with Superintendent Carvahlo’s sense of urgency when he said: “Society will fall apart if school districts and the private sector do not work together to deliver the resources students need to learn beyond the brick & mortar school walls.” 

We have an incredible opportunity – and a moral imperative – to contribute to the development and deployment of scalable solutions that deliver meaningful support to our nation’s teachers and students. These are the young people who will fill the pipeline of potential candidates to join our companies one day. Don’t we want to do our part to make sure they're ready? 

As Superintendent Carvahlo said at the conclusion of the event, “Shame on us if we can’t crack the code for the benefit of every kid.”