April 5, 2016

The Path Forward: Forging Partnerships to Improve Education


Improving educational opportunities and experiences for all students in the United States is a national imperative. Although doing so is complicated and arduous, there are important lessons to glean from success stories. Promising examples share a key element: partners with similar goals at the helm. This guide highlights how partnerships between nontraditional allies can provide great leverage in creating positive change and demonstrating broad appeal. Distinctive voices proclaiming a unified message are more powerful together than in isolation.

In December 2015, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came together to co-host The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American StudentsThe business and civil rights communities recognize the repercussions of ignoring achievement gaps—a growing number of students will leave school unprepared, ultimately limiting their access to further education and workforce opportunities. For The Path Forward, the two organizations assembled close to 100 chamber executives and NAACP chapter leaders from across the country to discuss this national challenge and how it can be corrected with local solutions.

Business and civil rights leaders offer comparable strengths. They are both in the unique position to aggregate the needs of their communities, provide solutions, and share broadly the factors that result in success. These two organizations have other similarities—both are national voices that represent a specific constituency, find their strengths in local partners, and regularly convene leaders to present an influential voice earning the attention of policy leaders and the media. And both organizations critically—agree that education is the great equalizer.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said at the event, “What brings us together is a civil rights issue, an economic issue, and, at its core, an issue of American opportunity. Education is the key to opportunity in this country.”

Donohue, recognizing that equal opportunity is not available to all students, said the following:

We have many fine schools, staffed with the most dedicated and hardest working teachers. But no one can deny that from school to school, district to district, state to state, the quality of education differs vastly. Our education system is a patchwork that is propelling some to success and consigning others to failure. For those who slip through the cracks, their reach is limited, their potential is stifled, and their chances of living a life of struggle are greatly increased. This is a fundamental driver of inequality in our country. It’s unfair, it’s unjust, and it’s at odds with the American promise of equal opportunity for all.

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks echoed the emphasis on the education imperative and how collaboration could open doors to progress:

Education is the bedrock of democracy. … Together we strive to ensure that students from everywhere are receiving a rigorous and equal education to prepare for the future. To do less creates fundamental instabilities that threaten our prosperity—a threat that compounds the longer it lasts. This [partnership] represents a new commitment and acknowledgment that maintaining the greatness of our nation now requires a commitment to equality for all—not just for children but for businesses and a society that needs diverse voices and views to adapt and prepare for the future.

The USCCF released a report at the event on African-American student achievement, drawing attention to the fact that we are simply not doing enough to improve academic opportunities and experiences for students of color. Attendees heard from notable business leaders from Target and Lockheed Martin as well as esteemed education leaders such as former secretaries of education Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, and acting Secretary John King, who equally reinforced this message.

The goals of the event were to consider best practices for improving education equity, share resources and knowledge with one another, and identify potential partners to activate solutions back home. The event created momentum for change and a desire to organize local initiatives and conversations, similar to the collaboration between the two national organizations. Attendees recognized that national voices like the USCCF and the NAACP have central roles to play, but that the greatest strength comes from on-the-ground efforts at the state and local levels.

Of utmost importance is to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for improving academic achievement. This document intends to serve as a guide for forging partnerships, taking into account feedback from our local partners and employing lessons from their vast experiences.  You do not have to be a chamber or NAACP chapter leader to benefit from this guide. Although it is a product of the coming together of these two groups, any similarly organized association can adapt these tools to meet their own needs. Whereas stewardship has its place, moving the needle on academic achievement requires more than providing goods and services to a school district.

As Path Forward contributor and The Education Trust West Executive Director Ryan Smith said, “We have seen that throwing money at a district doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes for students.” Being on the vanguard of change requires painstakingly hard work and commitment to build trust, agree on common measurable and outcomes-based goals, gain buy-in, and consistently hold one another accountable to be effective partners.