Closing the Gap

Recently, the New America Alliance (NAA) and The Executive Leadership Council (ELC), two preeminent organizations of Latino and African-American business leaders, respectively, gathered in California for a historic summit and declared that the economic impact of the education achievement gap cannot be ignored. A coalition of 140 business, education, government, and non-profit leaders was established to tackle this issue, as statistics show that more than half of Latino and African-American children in public schools do not graduate. Many of those who do are not prepared for competition in this global economy, and likely consigned to lower-paying jobs.

“When you have various stakeholders---Fortune 500 companies, universities and colleges, primary and secondary school systems, public and private foundations, advocacy organizations, White House representatives, and elected officials---all aiming in the same direction, you have a chance to transform this country for generations to come,” said John C. Guerra, Jr., NAA’s CEO.

At the summit, known as the 2009 Encuentro on Education, several business leaders and educators shared the platform in topics ranging from improving the delivery in the classroom, to influencing education public policy, to discussing how foundations are addressing the achievement gap. McKinsey and Company’s Byron Auguste and Bryan Hancock planted the seeds for this national discussion with their presentation. According to their figures, the achievement gap is imposing the equivalent of a permanent national recession on the U.S. economy. This achievement gap costs the U.S. as much as $5 million each day in lost economic output. With the economic impact daunting, many of the participants understood why the stakes are high for both communities and America as a whole.

Dr. Antonio Flores, Ph.D., President of Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities; Kris Gutierrez, President of the American Educational Research Association; and N. Joseph Watson, CEO of Without Excuses and Chair of the Board of The Marathon Club, painted a picture of the education landscape and discussed how to connect the business community as a partner. A member of President Obama’s education transition team, Gutierrez emphasized the education issue should be paramount to the business community. “We need to grow consumers and employees, it is in your best interest to do so,” Gutierrez stated. “We must also reframe the current debate and rethink education for the 21st century to expand the promise of education.” Watson juxtaposed two statistics---60 percent of births are minorities while 50 percent of the high school dropouts are minorities---to highlight why the issue deserves immediate attention.

In a panel discussion on how foundations address the achievement gap, Laura Sanford, President of the AT&T Foundation, stated private foundation giving can fill a void by addressing an area that is ignored. She mentioned that less than a half of one percent of all education funding comes from private sources. Ramón Murguía, attorney and Board Member of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, advocated for more representation of minorities on foundation boards as a means to see more change in a foundation’s work. “Beyond funding, what foundations can do is provide leadership, focus, and momentum to change public policy,” Murguía said.

Alternative-business driven education models, focusing on charter schools, were discussed among Steve Barr, Founder and Chairman of Green Dot Public Schools; Kim Smith, Co-Founder and Senior Advisor of NewSchools Venture Fund; and Delia Pompa, Vice President of Education for the National Council of La Raza. “We want to apply entrepreneurial principles of change to education,” Smith stated. “Our belief is in systems change and the antidote is entrepreneurial energy and creativity.” Pompa listed the signs of success for schools: college ready curriculum, teacher quality and instructional support, strong and collaborative leadership, ability to use data, extended time, and strong relationships with higher education.

The Encuentro wrapped up with a Town Hall-style discussion where a “call to action” was established. Gene Duffy, Chair of the NAACP Foundation, provided the rallying cry by equating the education achievement gap to “our generation’s Selma.” A joint national initiative was formed by the NAA and ELC to bring national attention to the education achievement gap issue, to mobilize the American business community, and to develop a national will by collaborating with others to deal with the crisis.

“Bluntly stated, America’s economic future is at stake unless the education crisis is addressed by our leaders at the national, state, and local levels. If our public education system was a business product, it simply would not sell.” said Carlos Loumiet, NAA’s Chair. “This is not just a societal crisis, but also a huge problem for American business, which must respond by driving ideas and resources where they are needed most. We must muster the national will to tackle this problem as we have all our prior crises that have faced our nation.”

Edna Ruano