Online Extra: Best Practices: A Top 10 List

Frustrated by the meager payoff from its traditional efforts to improve schools, a new generation of business philanthropists is developing innovative approaches to solving this seemingly intractable problem. The most effective business-developed approaches are being adopted by others, thus leveraging the impact of the initial investment. Here's a look at the 10 best approaches, including who's promoting them and how they're working out:

Bring in business leaders to run troubled schools

The Idea: Superintendents and other senior school leaders often get their jobs without much prior management experience. So why not recruit proven leaders from business, the military, and government, and train them to help run schools?

Who's Doing It: The Broad Foundation has set up a superintendents' academy, which has trained 78 people since 2002, of whom 22 are currently working in superintendent-level positions in cities such as Pittsburgh and Houston. Meanwhile, the Broad Residency recruits young professionals with MBAs, law, or public policy degrees for two-year programs in which they work with troubled urban school systems.

The Payoff: Early results suggest these new leaders can deliver. School veterans are especially enthused about the fresh blood that Broad is recruiting to help run schools in places like Chicago, where such management talent is in short supply.

Use technology effectively

The Idea: Though billions have been spent wiring the schools, much of it has been wasted because teachers often don't understand how to use high tech. So why not bring in the business experts who used technology to lead a productivity revolution in the private sector, and put them to work on schools?

Who's Doing It: In the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District in North Carolina, IBM researchers helped teachers develop a system for collaborating on developing lesson plans and teaching strategies. Similarly, IBM's Kidsmart Early Learning Program brought colorful computers into preschools to help young kids master the letters, basic math concepts, and other ideas they'd need to thrive in elementary school. And in May, IBM introduced Reading Companion, an interactive online system designed to help both young children and adult illiterates learn how to read.

The Payoff: IBM has consistently shown that when used right, technology can help raise performance and test scores. Elementary students in Charlotte, for instance, beat other urban school systems in math and reading.

Offer school choice to poor kids

The Idea: The wealthy have always had a choice of where to send their kids to school. So with so many poorly performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, why not offer a choice?

Who's Doing It: The Walton Family Foundation, the charitable arm of America's wealthiest family, bankrolls thousands of scholarships that allow low-income kids to attend private schools, usually at the K-8 level. The foundation also is the nation's largest backer of charter schools. The Waltons have invested in over 500 charter schools, as well as in many charter-management organizations, which operate networks of charters.

The Payoff: Thousands of children have been given new options, and all these new charters have introduced more competition into public education. Unfortunately, many of the nation's over 3,000 charters haven't lived up to backers' promises. So now the Waltons are supporting efforts to increase the rigor and quality of charters.

Give the best low-income kids a leg up

The Idea: Most of the nation's élite colleges are dominated by the affluent. That limits social mobility and hampers efforts to increase the diversity of the nation's leaders. So why not find the most promising low-income kids while they're still in middle school, and then give them lots of assistance and attention?

Who's Doing It: Goldman Sachs. Since 2000, Goldman has identified over 1,200 talented middle-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They're then given multiple enrichment activities, including taking advanced courses offered by Johns Hopkins; counseling; and working with Goldman mentors.

The Payoff: Over 60% of the first graduates of this program have been accepted at Ivy League and other competitive colleges, and 900 more will be applying to college in the next three years. Ultimately, Goldman hopes this will help broaden the diversity of the nation's leaders.

Bring teacher training and pay into the 21st century

The Idea: The nation's system for training and paying teachers is decades-old and clearly bankrupt. Half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. And because archaic regulations prevent schools from paying salaries attuned to market realities, the nation has an enormous shortage of math and science teachers. So why not overhaul this entire system?

Who's Doing It: The Milken Family Foundation developed the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) in 1999. Instead of allowing new teachers to sink or swim, TAP promotes senior teachers to "mentors" or "master teachers." The mentors and masters then work with junior teachers on how to improve, especially in areas where students are struggling. At the same time, TAP encourages schools to pay more to attract math and science teachers, and promotes performance-based bonuses to teachers who achieve good gains.

The Payoff: Teacher turnover in TAP schools is just half the national average. And in most TAP schools, test scores have been significantly higher. Results like these have prompted the Broad and Walton foundations, among others, to support TAP's expansion. It's now being used in 106 schools serving about 50,000 students. And last year, Minnesota passed a law that provides public funds to encourage schools to adopt many TAP elements.

Design and develop better schools

The Idea: Sure, educators have been developing "model" schools for years. So why shouldn't business lend its expertise to this critically important project—which often helps promote school reform?

Who's Doing It: Many companies, but two of the most prominent business efforts are at Cisco and the New Schools Venture Fund. Following Hurricane Katrina, Cisco launched a $40 million effort to build 40 "21st century" schools in storm-damaged Louisiana and Mississippi. These schools will have cutting-edge communications, and teachers will get plenty of professional development on how to take advantage of it. The ultimate aim is to individualize instruction, thus greatly improving student achievement. The New Schools Venture Fund, founded by venture capitalists in the late 90s, uses the VC model to incubate promising new schools. New Schools currently gives financial support to charter-management organizations with 63 charters. But it does far more than just give money. "Just like a VC firm, we take board seats in every organization we support, provide management assistance, and set very clear milestones," says Chief Executive Ted Mitchell.

The Payoff: By themselves, even the best model schools can't transform a system that serves nearly 50 million students. But they can incubate reforms that, if then adopted by other schools, could promote systemic change.

Combat the dropout crisis by getting high-school students engaged in careers

The Idea: Some 30% of ninth graders fail to graduate from high school in four years. A key reason is that many don't see much point to remaining in school. Why not set up career academies that give such potential dropouts a real taste of what business has to offer?

Who's Doing It: The National Academy Foundation (NAF), with the support of the Gates Foundation and retired Citigroup Chairman Sandy Weill, among others. The NAF now runs over 500 "career academies," most of which operate inside existing schools. Current academies specialize in finance, IT, and hospitality and tourism; but academies focusing on jobs in health care and engineering are being planned. All students take part in internships.

The Payoff: The NAF's academies have achieved a graduation rate of over 95%, and the vast majority of those go on to college. Moreover, participation in career academies has also been found to markedly improve the earnings of disadvantaged young men, even though earnings for this group as a whole have dropped. Though early studies criticized the academic rigor of these programs, the NAF has been working to improve its curriculum.

Tap business people to help solve the teacher shortage

The Idea: The nation has a serious shortage of highly qualified teachers, especially in math and science. So why not ask business to lend a hand by getting some of its highly trained employees involved in classrooms?

Who's Doing It: Two programs are notable, including State Farm and IBM. Some 900 State Farm employees have been state-certified as substitute teachers. These employees then fill in for classroom teachers so they can attend professional development programs, which research shows is critical to improving teacher performance. The program now covers 185 schools in 54 separate districts. IBM recently launched a program that helps veteran IBM employees with a math or science background take the courses they need to become teachers. About 100 IBM employees are now taking part in the pilot phase.

The Payoff: These programs offer a glimpse of what could be accomplished. The Bush Administration has been promoting an idea called the adjunct teaching corps, in which thousands of business people would be brought in to help teach courses on a part-time basis. The teacher unions aren't wild about the idea, but it might be the quickest and easiest way to get some expertise into the classrooms.

Raise high-school graduation requirements

The Idea: Right now, only about one-third of students graduate from high school ready to take true college-level courses. A key reason is that most states don't require them to have such skills before they graduate. So why not raise high-school graduation requirements so the diploma is worth something in the 21st century?

Who's Doing It: Achieve Inc., a group formed by business leaders and governors to promote higher standards in schools. (The Achieve Board currently includes Prudential CEO Arthur Ryan; State Farm CEO Edward Rust Jr., and Intel Chairman Craig Barrett.)

The Payoff: Achieve's "American Diploma Project" is beginning to gain acceptance. Last year, only two states required students to take the courses needed to be ready for college in order to graduate. As of February, six more states had raised their requirements to this level, and over a dozen more are planning to do so. This may not guarantee that all students will be ready to attend college, but it's an essential first step.

Lead with math and science

The Idea: By the time they reach high school, U.S. students have fallen far behind students in many other countries in math and science. So why not put the best brains in business—which is loaded with math and science talent—to work on figuring out how out how to do a better job?

Who's Doing It: A host of America's leading companies. Among them:

•Texas Instruments: Its Algebra Initiative aims to develop a more engaging and effective approach to teaching algebra, a subject that now gives many students fits. TI is working with math experts to test out a pilot approach at one of the worst high schools in Texas.

•Exxon-Mobil: A shocking percentage of the nation's math teachers aren't qualified. Exxon is tackling that problem on two fronts. First, it recruits newly-minted math PhDs, then exposes them to cutting-edge approaches to teaching math. The hope is that they'll pass on these techniques to the next generation of math teachers, whom they'll train in college. Second, recognizing that the shortage can't be wiped out overnight, Exxon has been helping elementary schools hire math specialists, who can then mentor other teachers.

•Raytheon: Earlier this year, the defense contractor launched MathMovesU, a program in which celebrities like Olympic speedskater Apollo Ohno and a cool Web site——try to catch the imagination of students in middle school, an age at which many now lose interest in math.

•Siemens: Siemens has long encouraged the nation's top science students by awarding big scholarships, up to $100,000, to winners of the Siemens-Westinghouse science contest. Now it has begun sending employees into schools—armed with specially designed "tool kits"—to get fourth- and fifth-graders interested in science.

The Payoff: Policy wonks have been talking the disturbing decline in math and science education for years, yet little progress has been made. At the very least, the involvement of so many companies will lend credibility and urgency to this campaign.

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