CEOs are Doing a Lot to Boost the Digital IQ in U.S. Schools

Across America, CEOs and their companies are responding to the urgent need to overhaul the education system, because they want to continue to maintain the nation’s edge in digital tech and to be able to eclipse recent gains made by demonstrably more capable school systems in other countries.

But their response isn’t typically to try to influence public-education policy, which has proven over the decades to be very resistant to innovation and probably incapable on its own of rescuing America’s knowledge edge for the next generations.

Not surprisingly, these chiefs of Silicon Valley and tech companies elsewhere are engaging in improvements directly and often personally, helping to start new tech-oriented schools, engage partners, even design curricula in their efforts not only to help ensure a steady stream of digitally capable workers for their own companies, but also to keep the U.S. technology establishment leading the world.

CEOs including Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reed Hastings of Netflix are using some of the same techniques on school transformation that helped make their companies so crucial to the U.S. economy. They are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers use and fundamental approaches to learning.

“Given the changes in innovation that are underway with artificial intelligence and automation, we need to try everything we can to find which pathways work.”, for example, is a major nonprofit group financed with more than $60 million from Silicon Valley with the stated goal of getting every public school in the U.S. to teach computer science. Meanwhile, Benioff has emerged as a major funder of San Francisco’s public schools. And Hastings has donated to a nonprofit charter-school fund that bought a math platform which had impressed him–and which today is used by more than 2 million students for supplemental instruction.

“They are experimenting collectively and individually in what kinds of models can produce better results,” said Emmett D. Carson, chief executive of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “Given the changes in innovation that are underway with artificial intelligence and automation, we need to try everything we can to find which pathways work.”

A handful of senior leaders from Cisco, General Electric, Rockwell Automation, Microsoft and educational institutions, from both coasts and the Midwest, joined to form the IoT Consortium, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to help grow the workforces needed to drive digital transformation that is being enabled by the Internet of Things.

DesignTech is a high school in Silicon Valley that is jointly funded by Stanford University and Oracle, built around principles of technology-design thinking and intended to help create a next generation of workers. And Cisco has launched a college-scholarship program specifically for high-school kids who want to aim at careers in cybersecurity.

But CEOs are working the public-policy angle too. In the recent, highly publicized meeting between President Trump and CEOs from the tech community who oppose him in areas such as immigration, Apple CEO Tim Cook made a point of telling him that “coding should be a requirement in every public high school”–and that the federal government should play a big role.

There also are growing public-policy initiatives on state and local levels, as well by CEOs and their allies, especially in areas where the perception is they’ve been left out of America’s digitally-based future.

For example, in Arkansas, chiefs of small tech companies were instrumental in helping Gov. Ada Hutchinson and the Arkansas Economic Development Council last year pass reforms that require public high schools to count coding classes as a math credit toward graduation and to allow seniors to take coding as a fourth math credit for graduation instead of trigonometry or calculus.

The idea is to signal strongly to students, parents, teachers, educators and business people that Arkansas wants to be a redoubt for digital competency in the middle of the country.

“We want to build a pipeline of new talent here,” said Rob Lentz, partner and chief strategy officer of Elyxor, a software-engineering consulting firm that moved its headquarters from Boston to Little Rock in 2015–and plans to grow from a staff of about 10 to 50 people in the next two years.