Laura Seitz, Deseret News
In Utah, “kindergarten readiness, 3rd-grade reading proficiency, and high school graduation rates, including those of English Language Learners, have improved.” Behind this success is a lies a lot of work.

Everyone has an opinion about the weather, Donald Trump, and how to fix our public education system. Four very rich and influential people have backed their ideas — about education, that is — with huge investments, it is reported. “Their bets have been as big as their egos and their bank accounts. Microsoft chairman (Bill) Gates, computer magnate Michael Dell, investor Eli Broad, and the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame have collectively poured some $4.4 billion into school reform in the last decade through their private foundations.”

Gates’ big idea was that high schools are too large, and that smaller, service-based schools could give students the individual attention they needed. He pledged $2 billion of his own money to bring these smaller schools about. Broad tried to train school boards, but found little payoff. “Graduates of his Broad Superintendents Academy and the dozens of MBAs he has placed in school district management, on the other hand, have largely measured up,” according to Broad.

All these investors favor the charter school concept. But charters haven’t lived up to their promise; they’re among the best and the worst of schools. Training principals, pay for teacher performance, business type dashboards have all been tried as well. “The bottom line? The billionaires aspired to A-plus impact, and came away with B-minus to C-minus results. …” Still, they’ve learned from their disappointments and are trying different ideas.

Asking how to “fix education” implies that it’s broken; yet Utah’s public education is serving many students and families well. Graduation rates are improving, as are some other important metrics. Still, for a host of reasons, many of which are not in the school system’s control, too many kids are missing the benefit of a great education.

Here’s why: “The greatest barriers to school success for K–12 students have little to do with anything that goes on in the classroom, according to the nation’s top teachers: It is family stress, followed by poverty, and learning and psychological problems.”

There is good news. A Harvard Business School paper has identified breakthrough efforts for business involvement in education in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City. Much of business investment in education goes to “nonprofit organizations that serve students outside the classroom. The tutoring, nutrition, counseling, mentoring and other services that these nonprofits provide are crucial for … students affected by poverty. But (typically) each nonprofit addresses only one part of a highly interrelated education system. The nonprofits seldom collaborate with each other. … The result is service delivery chaos.”

Thus, innovative business leaders have adopted an approach called Collective Impact (CI), which began in the early 2000s and was formally described and named by John Kania and Mark Kramer in their 2011 article. CI “shift(s) the service delivery system from chaos to coherence. CI focuses on developing a common set of goals for pre-K–12 youngsters (which) are critical for high performance.”

The Harvard paper continues, “In the Cincinnati and Salt Lake regions, for example, business leaders have been involved since early discussions of CI and have helped move the needle for tens of thousands of students.”

In Utah, the paper continues, “kindergarten readiness, 3rd-grade reading proficiency, and high school graduation rates, including those of English Language Learners, have improved.” Behind this success lies a lot of work. United Way, our backbone organization, placed a full-time community school director in each (Granite School District school chosen) as liaison between nonprofit service providers, the students and their families.

Currently, United Way’s CI initiative affects 12,000 students with more to be added soon. Some companies have gone all in to support this effort with both cash and volunteer hours. Savage Industries’ former CEO Allen Alexander, a volunteer tutor, observed: “This work gives our company its soul.”

Bill Crim, president and CEO of the United Way of Salt Lake, captures the essence of the Salt Lake region’s Collective Impact initiative: “(It’s) beginning to transform the complex ecosystem in which we live. We know that there is no single (party) that is responsible for the gains … we still have to make. It is truly the aligned action of multiple stakeholders from multiple sectors that is enabling more students to reach their potential.”