A Public-Private Path Toward Better Education: A Truly Remarkable Tale

BMW Plans To Invest $900 Million At U.S. Plant For New X4 SUV
BLOOMBERG NEWS

Someone might want to write a book about Spartanburg, S.C. As an innovative city, it seems to be ahead of most other American towns. A quarter century ago, it partnered with BMW to create 11,000 new jobs at the automaker’s state-of-the-art BMW manufacturing plant, which transformed the region’s economy from textiles, tobacco and tourism into something like a magnet for the automotive and aerospace industries. That plant is still going strong, still quickening the region’s economic heartbeat.  

Now Spartanburg is demonstrating how a town can do something just as crucial: nurture and improve the social fabric around that kind of private sector vitality. Spartanburg wants all of its citizens to be served as well as BMW’s employees and shareholders. David Brooks wrote a fascinating column recently about this city’s exemplary initiative to provide quality education to its students through an organization called the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM). 

He attended a meeting of community leaders who were dedicated to making sure all Spartanburg children, regardless of income or zip code, were getting the best possible education from grade school on up. School superintendents and principals were there, of course, but so were the police chief, a former mayor and a newspaper editor. That’s just a small sample of those who contribute to this collaborative effort, which involves intense reconnaissance, as it were, about all children, continuously growing a database about each child with research even from their parents, pastors, doctors, and many others. 

The idea is to be a guardian angel for each student—both in the classroom and out—simply by paying attention to how he or she is doing in life. If a student falls short of expectations or gets overlooked in some way, SAM will be aware of it and can reach out immediately with an assist. And, at the same time, SAM is also keeping abreast of resources in the community’s own private sector and social services organizations to know what sort of inventory of skills and funds it can draw from to intervene in a helpful way when kids need help. 

What Brooks loves about the program is that it’s longitudinal. In plain English, that means it sticks with these students from “cradle to career” as he puts it, walking alongside them year after year. This gives SAM the unique ability to process multiple factors and inputs, to see a student’s life in full, from all directions, not just through the single lens of classroom performance. It steers away from specialization and becomes a big-picture generalist, less a clinician and more of a friend, less a teacher and more of a loving grandparent. 

Nothing is off-limits: diet, divorce, dentistry, you name it. It takes every factor of a child’s life into consideration. 

“If you’re going to help kids, you have to help the whole kid at once,” he writes. 

It sounds like the return of the family doctor, the man with the stethoscope who makes house calls rather than the technician in scrubs operating an MRI. The best way to characterize what SAM is attempting to do is to say it’s humanizing and personalizing education, and reimagining community care, fine-tuning it down to the level of one-on-one interaction.

Finally, SAM creates an umbrella that helps organize anyone and everyone who might have an impact on a student’s welfare, from both private and public sectors, cops and churches, building a database that gives everyone fingertip access to whatever information it needs on each person it wants to help. No one competes; all collaborate. It’s high on empathy and engineering, Brooks says, echoing John Naisbitt’s notion of “high tech and high touch.” 

Spartanburg may be at the top of this game, but it isn’t lonely. Brooks says that 70 communities are doing something similar, through a method developed in Cincinnati a decade ago called StriveTogether. The key is to provide connective tissue between all of a city’s existing resources, to simply help them communicate and coordinate their efforts. Cincinnati used this technique to see inequalities in preparation for kindergarten among different groups of children: those from private pre-schools were outperforming others. So the city’s public schools allocated money to create more private schools to offer universal, quality pre-schooling. What could be a better symbol of collaboration? 

The key to all of this is the focus on challenges and outcomes, and a de-emphasis on fortifying and defending organizational turf or tribal affiliations. Think of how something like this might transform problems that face the nation as a whole. As Brooks writes, these initiatives are addressing every kind of social or civic ill: homelessness, hunger, river clean-up. He cites a recent Stanford study showing that these approaches work most of the time: “Frankly, I don’t need studies about outcomes to believe that these collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary.”

Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.

David Brooks, New York Times

The private sector has much to gain and little to lose by getting behind this movement: that’s really the only word for it, given that it’s alive and well in nearly six dozen cities. A better education turbo-charges a recovering economy and can help spark recovery in a languishing one. Better education means more innovation and more innovation seeds new growth. Collaborative teamwork like this works at the level of cities, but could just as well be used at the state and national level, one challenge at a time, until it becomes obvious that all organizations, private and public, work better when they work hand-in-hand to address a common purpose, rather than competitively as opponents. Ultimately, this kind of effort, by helping provide equal opportunity for all, protects our very essence as an enlightened democracy.

">

Someone might want to write a book about Spartanburg, S.C. As an innovative city, it seems to be ahead of most other American towns. A quarter century ago, it partnered with BMW to create 11,000 new jobs at the automaker’s state-of-the-art BMW manufacturing plant, which transformed the region’s economy from textiles, tobacco and tourism into something like a magnet for the automotive and aerospace industries. That plant is still going strong, still quickening the region’s economic heartbeat.  

Now Spartanburg is demonstrating how a town can do something just as crucial: nurture and improve the social fabric around that kind of private sector vitality. Spartanburg wants all of its citizens to be served as well as BMW’s employees and shareholders. David Brooks wrote a fascinating column recently about this city’s exemplary initiative to provide quality education to its students through an organization called the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM). 

He attended a meeting of community leaders who were dedicated to making sure all Spartanburg children, regardless of income or zip code, were getting the best possible education from grade school on up. School superintendents and principals were there, of course, but so were the police chief, a former mayor and a newspaper editor. That’s just a small sample of those who contribute to this collaborative effort, which involves intense reconnaissance, as it were, about all children, continuously growing a database about each child with research even from their parents, pastors, doctors, and many others. 

The idea is to be a guardian angel for each student—both in the classroom and out—simply by paying attention to how he or she is doing in life. If a student falls short of expectations or gets overlooked in some way, SAM will be aware of it and can reach out immediately with an assist. And, at the same time, SAM is also keeping abreast of resources in the community’s own private sector and social services organizations to know what sort of inventory of skills and funds it can draw from to intervene in a helpful way when kids need help. 

What Brooks loves about the program is that it’s longitudinal. In plain English, that means it sticks with these students from “cradle to career” as he puts it, walking alongside them year after year. This gives SAM the unique ability to process multiple factors and inputs, to see a student’s life in full, from all directions, not just through the single lens of classroom performance. It steers away from specialization and becomes a big-picture generalist, less a clinician and more of a friend, less a teacher and more of a loving grandparent. 

Nothing is off-limits: diet, divorce, dentistry, you name it. It takes every factor of a child’s life into consideration. 

“If you’re going to help kids, you have to help the whole kid at once,” he writes. 

It sounds like the return of the family doctor, the man with the stethoscope who makes house calls rather than the technician in scrubs operating an MRI. The best way to characterize what SAM is attempting to do is to say it’s humanizing and personalizing education, and reimagining community care, fine-tuning it down to the level of one-on-one interaction.

Finally, SAM creates an umbrella that helps organize anyone and everyone who might have an impact on a student’s welfare, from both private and public sectors, cops and churches, building a database that gives everyone fingertip access to whatever information it needs on each person it wants to help. No one competes; all collaborate. It’s high on empathy and engineering, Brooks says, echoing John Naisbitt’s notion of “high tech and high touch.” 

Spartanburg may be at the top of this game, but it isn’t lonely. Brooks says that 70 communities are doing something similar, through a method developed in Cincinnati a decade ago called StriveTogether. The key is to provide connective tissue between all of a city’s existing resources, to simply help them communicate and coordinate their efforts. Cincinnati used this technique to see inequalities in preparation for kindergarten among different groups of children: those from private pre-schools were outperforming others. So the city’s public schools allocated money to create more private schools to offer universal, quality pre-schooling. What could be a better symbol of collaboration? 

The key to all of this is the focus on challenges and outcomes, and a de-emphasis on fortifying and defending organizational turf or tribal affiliations. Think of how something like this might transform problems that face the nation as a whole. As Brooks writes, these initiatives are addressing every kind of social or civic ill: homelessness, hunger, river clean-up. He cites a recent Stanford study showing that these approaches work most of the time: “Frankly, I don’t need studies about outcomes to believe that these collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary.”

Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.

David Brooks, New York Times

The private sector has much to gain and little to lose by getting behind this movement: that’s really the only word for it, given that it’s alive and well in nearly six dozen cities. A better education turbo-charges a recovering economy and can help spark recovery in a languishing one. Better education means more innovation and more innovation seeds new growth. Collaborative teamwork like this works at the level of cities, but could just as well be used at the state and national level, one challenge at a time, until it becomes obvious that all organizations, private and public, work better when they work hand-in-hand to address a common purpose, rather than competitively as opponents. Ultimately, this kind of effort, by helping provide equal opportunity for all, protects our very essence as an enlightened democracy.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

Peter Georgescu is the Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., a network of preeminent commercial communications companies dedicated to helping clients build thei...