(From left) Robert Kaplan, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Mike Morath, Texas Commissioner of Education; Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor or Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government; Richard Reeves, Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution; and Ruth Simmons, President of Prairie View A&M University speak on a panel discussion on education and the economy.
(From left) ElevatEd speakers Robert Kaplan; Mike Morath; Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government; Richard Reeves; and Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University participate in a panel discussion on education and the economy. Credit: Courtesy / The Holdsworth Center

The business and education communities in Texas are deeply intertwined, and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is a telling example of that link. The Texas Education Agency’s leader has roots in the business community – before becoming a Dallas Independent School District trustee, Morath led a software company for a decade.

His first dive into working with public schools came when he joined a chamber of commerce program that matched business leaders with principals. Morath told the audience of several hundred gathered at Southern Methodist University on Monday that he would meet monthly with the principal at Dallas ISD’s Jefferson High School, and the more he heard about the principal’s problems, the more he wanted to get involved.

“[That experience], among other things, caused me to sell my company and run for the school board,” he said at an event hosted by The Holdsworth Center, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education leadership in school districts throughout Texas.

Since his time at Jefferson High School, Morath has gone on to oversee all of Texas’ public schools, and on Monday at “ElevatEd: Education & the Economy,” he joined policy wonks, higher education experts, business officials, educators, and nonprofit leaders in Dallas to expound on the need for the public to get involved to improve Texas schools.

Each speaker enumerated the challenges most Texas educators are familiar with: low high school graduation rates, even lower college graduation rates, and the vast gap between the performance of wealthy and economically disadvantaged students. No speaker had one concrete solution, but all emphasized that the answer lies in involving the business community in public education.

“They are schools that the public owns, so either we take responsibility for what is happening, and we as owners of these institutions step up and ensure we are getting the results we want for all of our kids…or we abdicate that responsibility, in which case, maybe the system works, maybe it doesn’t,” Morath said.

Keynote speaker and international education expert Andreas Schleicher presented examples of where business involvement has worked globally. He pointed to his home country Germany, a nation known for the strong relationship between its business and education sectors.

The business community pays for roughly 20 percent of learning opportunities in German schools, he said, and the majority of students spend some portion of their high school education learning in the workplace.

“Businesses would sit on the council to establish curriculum,” Schleicher told the Rivard Report. “It is a whole society process, you shouldn’t just see a school as a service provider where people consume lessons. It is really a whole society project.”

Andreas Schleicher, Keynote speaker and international education expert.
Andreas Schleicher, keynote speaker and international education expert. Credit: Courtesy / The Holdsworth Center

Countries that embrace the idea of collaboration between sectors, and even among teachers, have been the most successful, Schleicher told the audience Monday. He shuffled through charts that illustrated his point, pausing at one point to show that in the past, the United States has been a leader of countries with people aged 55-64 able to manage “complex digital information.” However, when looking at younger generations, the U.S. lags behind, because it hasn’t kept pace with its peers in educating students on the latest technology.

“Texas and the United States as a whole used to be leading the world, but the results have slipped,” Schleicher said. “Not actually because education got worse, but it got so much faster and better in other countries.”

Business leaders who spoke Monday vowed to actively participate in finding solutions, and encouraged their peers to do the same. Robert Kaplan, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said money isn’t necessarily the problem.

Texas has a bright economic future that is driven by rapid population growth, Kaplan said, noting that at least 30 other states with projected population decline would “die to have [Texas’] hand.” The Dallas businessman suggested the issue lies more in the allocation of funds.

Monday’s event took place roughly seven months before the opening of the next regular legislative session, where lawmakers will convene in Austin to distribute the state’s budget. Education advocates have long pointed to engaging the business community as a way to make a bigger impact in the statehouse and gain greater funding for schools.

“[We really have] a better hand than almost any other state, so we’ve got to change the design and get the money to where it is needed,” Kaplan said. “This is probably the most important investment we can make, and we’ve got the resources.”

Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies and the co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, spoke alongside Kaplan and Morath on Monday. The more privileged must be willing to sacrifice for the less fortunate, he said, adding that people who have economic resources but refuse to share their good fortune become “dream hoarders.”

This would be a culture shift, Reeves said, but a necessary one. And if educators and business people are “serious about the American Dream,” he said, “it can’t be hoarded, it has to be shared.”

He gave the example of parents allowing or even encouraging public schools to defund extracurricular activities, all the while paying for their own child to engage in other extracurriculars that disadvantaged students could not afford. This hypothetical situation would qualify as dream hoarding, he said, and would enhance already existing disparities in education.

After the day’s panels and speakers concluded, 13 education organizations presented innovative programs and offered takeaways educators could implement in their own districts and communities.

Some groups presented on innovative charter partnerships, while others showed how the impact of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) could transform students’ ability to critically assess problems outside of school.

Garrett Landry, senior officer with Education Strategies at the Williams Family Foundation, explained the Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) program that has been responsible for turning around perpetually struggling campuses in Dallas and Fort Worth ISDs. ACE works primarily in schools that serve students who face significant achievement gaps, and Landry explained how his program attracted high-quality teachers to tough campuses and boosted student performance.

The program requires commitment from everyone involved, he said: teachers, students, families, and community members.

“They are all our children, whether or not we are their parents,” he said, summarizing the day’s message.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.