Alumni Take the Public Education Challenge

A number of Stanford GSB alumni have taken on the challenge and are using their business acumen to help improve public education.

May 18, 2011

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has said that if U.S. schools could become as good as those in Finland, our gross domestic product would increase six-fold. Education, however, is not often at the top of the list of MBAs’ career choices, a point one of the nation’s top educators made recently in a Stanford GSB speech.

Too often American business and education remain “silos sitting outside of each other, unwilling to recognize, and often casting blame at each other,” said James H. Shelton III, MBA/MA education ’93 and Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, at an event in April.

Yet, a number of Stanford GSB alumni have taken on that challenge and are using their business acumen to help improve public education. In some cases, it is after lucrative careers in finance or technology, and in most cases, it is for little money. In others, it is a total career change to the nonprofit sector. Here are their stories.

Joseph (Joe) Harden Reich, MBA ’60, has been a Public Management Program speaker and has been recognized by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his pioneering work in New York City charter schools. He and his wife Carole started the Beginning with Children Foundation 20 years ago when they realized children in low-income neighborhoods did not have the same chances to get a good education as those in more prosperous areas. “What we have attempted to do is give children and families a choice. They didn’t have the opportunities as did those of wealthier families in better neighborhoods,” he says.

Reich says he was inspired by the work of Stanford economics professor Caroline Hoxby and, after 25 years on Wall Street, decided to donate money, time, and expertise to improving the public school system. Today there are two Beginning with Children Foundation schools in Brooklyn.

Reich says he is proud of having raised the profile of charter schools. “The other night I was invited to give a presentation at Columbia University, which has one of the best teacher colleges in the country. Two years ago there never was a mention of charter schools; now it’s being talked about in teacher training schools.”

Rhonda Hopps, MBA ’86, is also involved with charter schools, in Chicago. Eighteen months ago she left a position as director of multifamily mortgage originations at Red Mortgage Capital, a subsidiary of PNC Bank, to become CEO of Perspectives Charter Schools. Perspectives is a chain of five grade 6-12 public schools that are projected to send at least 90 percent of their graduates on to college this year.

Hopps (formerly Rhonda Letecia Swaby) says she applies her business expertise every day. “We can export our skills to public schools.” For example, “I use data aggressively to help customize instruction. I make decisions on what software to buy, how to evaluate our teachers, how to hold people accountable. The lessons learned in business school can be exported.”

Harold (Hal) James Logan, MBA ’80, serves on the boards of two education-related nonprofit organizations, the W.E.B. Du Bois Society, whose mission is to eliminate the academic achievement gap between Black students and whites or Asians, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which makes books available to people with visual and learning disabilities.

He came to the W.E.B. Du Bois Society after realizing that academic achievements were not being regarded as highly as athletic ones were. “My son happened to be a good athlete and a good student and when he did something good on the basketball court he got a lot of influential feedback from everyone around him - the newspaper, TV. By contrast, when he would do something good in the classroom, the only people who seemed to be celebrating were my wife and I.”

Logan says he thinks students can do better if they are motivated to do better. “We can create powerful, effective motivation for Black students by rewarding academic progress comparable with academic performance.”

Robert J. Lissner, MBA ’65, is a volunteer in the Reno, NV, public schools, teaching kids vocational and life skills. An engineer by trade, he noticed that while students were being taught algebra, “a lot of kids were saying education was not relevant to their future.” Not everyone is moving on to college, he says, so why not teach them the math they need to get into community college or vocational school. Lissner teaches skills such as how to keep financial records on a spreadsheet, a bit of plumbing and electrical repair, how to do basic automotive maintenance and computer usage.

“MBAs are innovators and if you’re working in the school for free, innovation is welcomed,” he says.

This fall, Stanford GSB and the Center for Social Innovation will celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Public Management Program, created to encourage cooperation among nonprofit organizations, business and government. Honored will be Stanford GSB alumni, faculty and students who are leaders in understanding and contributing to the world in which they live.

Joyce Routson

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