Stories about students progressing through our educational system without being able to read began in the 90s. Having U.S. education ranked 14th in the world by education group Pearson indicates a lack of progress. However, a glimmer of hope exists. Although systemic government change is glacially slow, there are a number of exciting innovations developing in the private sector.
While they may not be able to perform a complete overhaul of our educational system, it is the fact that they are focusing on areas and programs that can achieve significant impact relatively quickly that is making such a difference. The changes we can see now are creating the foundation for re-building the whole.
A Change of Perspective
Approaching a problem from a different angle is often a great way to achieve a breakthrough, and that’s what we are seeing from business leaders hoping to help students surge forward in new ways of learning. And they are harnessing the knowledge and experience of some of the biggest names in education.
Mark Zuckerberg has been donating hundreds of millions of dollars to various education initiatives over the last several years. While they have been met with varying levels of success, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are more determined than ever to ensure future donations are effective. All of the programs have been consolidated under Chan Zuckerberg Education Initiative, one component of the philanthropic limited liability company, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Former Deputy Secretary of Education of the United States Jim Shelton is now in charge of it.
In addition to his role in the Obama administration, Shelton brings a wealth of experience in education to the table. As the Program Director for Education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he managed billions of non-profit investments in an effort to improve high school and college graduation rates. Since minorities are struggling most in our schools today, it is fortunate that Shelton’s responsibilities will also be informed by his personal experience of growing up African American in Washington D.C., including the quality of education he received there.
Tech companies stand out among major corporations in their educational initiatives. In addition to the Gates foundation and CZI, Culture Shift Labs client Google is spearheading efforts of its own. Recognizing that technology will only become even more ubiquitous in the future, the company not only offers free games and software to teach children to code, but also funds scholarships and grants that support computer science education for students at all levels, as well as for those with disabilities.
Google is also aware of the disadvantages experienced by women and minorities. In addition to student competitions and career resources, the company funds programs to promote diversity in technology. Google also partnered with filmmaker Lesley Chilcott to make her documentary Code Girl available for free on YouTube. This way students everywhere could see high school girls all over the world compete for the $10,000 prize from the Technovation Challenge, “an annual competition that teaches young women how to develop mobile apps, start a company, and become high-tech entrepreneurs.”
Verizon is also creating programs to engage students and empower educators. The company increases reach by basing some of their programs on a simple premise, “Take something students are familiar with and interested in and teach them to build it.”
What better place to start than with phone apps? Verizon, too, is cognizant of the need to encourage girls and minorities. There is a special effort to promote “Girls in STEM” and a “Minority Males Maker Program”.
These efforts aren’t only limited to education in America, either. Google and CZI have contributed millions to Andela, a training program for software developers in Africa that includes placement at international companies.
A Variety of Scale
In addition to the wonderful major company efforts, there are some individuals making exciting progress as well.
Few things are more exciting than FlyingClassroom.com, featuring STEM resources based on “16 exciting STEM+ expeditions via land, air, and sea led by National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Guinness World Record Holder Captain Barrington Irving.” But these efforts have been going on for a long time.
Legendary baseball player Reggie Jackson created the Mr. October Foundation for Kids specifically to “bridge the digital divide” in 1997, well before the proliferation of mobile devices. Jackson realized over 20 years ago that disadvantaged minority and underprivileged children needed access to educational technology.
Jackson’s foundation is non-profit, relying completely on contributions, and focuses on three primary activities: grants, mentoring and internships. In doing so, the educational accomplishments are reinforced by professional achievements, allowing students to transition seamlessly into the nation’s workforce. It is a commendable effort and extremely effective example upon which to base large scale efforts.
I had the good fortune to get a close look at one of these powerful endeavors while the late respected tech entrepreneur, Hank Williams, was a client of mine. As an African American technologist in Silicon Valley, Williams was keenly aware of the lack of platform for women and people of color who are already accomplished and in the workforce. So he created one himself.
Platform Summit brings together a high octane mix of people from all over the world: microchemists, astronauts, storytellers, computer scientists, doctors and more. They are building a community by sharing ideas and experiences and diversifying the innovation economy.
Sadly, Hank passed away much too soon, at only 50 years old. But his work, and others like him, continue to make a difference in this world. All of the individual efforts of people and corporations, alike, are creating an environment in which all children can learn the skills they need to move forward in today’s world.
These are exciting initiatives that teachers, parents, friends and extended family should be aware of. Because spreading the word increases their reach, which benefits us all.