Corporate Foundations :: Enterprise to the Rescue!


Stepping in where they claim schools are failing to act, leading technology companies are funding endowments to support teaching 21st-century skills to tomorrow's workforce.

Enterprise to the Rescue! There's probably no better example ofAlexis de Tocqueville's observation about America'stendency to pursue an 'enlightened self-interest' than thehigh-tech industry's investment in K-12 education. Computerand information technology companies are among the mostgenerous and inventive corporate contributors to Americanschools today. Many seem to view their contributions almostas acts of self-preservation, both to ensure that they will have a tech-savvypool of workers from which to draw in the future, and to expose those workersto the tools and technologies their companies produce.

Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and a host of others sponsor a wide range of programs that provide a wealth of products, services, and support for students and teachers. And some tech-sector giants, such as Oracle, Intel, and Sun Microsystems, have established separate educational foundations to guide their contributions in this area.

'I think it's fair to say that there's an element of that enlightened self-interest at work here,' says Bernie Trilling, senior director in charge of educational strategy and partnerships at the Oracle Education Foundation. 'You could also think of this as an example of closed-loop social entrepreneurship. What's important to keep in mind is that, when you combine the best thinking about business and the best thinking about education, you get an incredible dynamism that our educational system badly needs.'

Challenging Inequities

More than an enlightened self-interest sparked the creation of many of these foundations. There's a thread of outrage behind them too. In a February 2005 speech to the nation's governors, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates described American high schools as 'obsolete,' declaring that 'training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It's the wrong tool for the times.' Earlier this year, Gates made a trip to Capitol Hill to urge members of the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to take steps to double the number of science, technology, and math graduates in the United States by 2015. He called for the recruitment of 10,000 new high school science and math teachers, the creation of 25,000 new undergraduate math and science scholarships, and 5,000 new graduate math and science fellowships each year.

Ever a man to put his money where his mouth is, the world's richest philanthropist has invested billions in American schools through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Founded in 2000, the foundation is a merger of the Gates Learning Foundation and the William H. Gates Foundation. It was originally endowed by Gates and his wife, Melinda. Their friend, businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, became a foundation trustee in 2006, doubling the endowment.




Intel'The biggest ticking time bomb in the United States is the sorry state of our education system. It's the educational quality of the workforce that will determine [the country's economic] performance.' —Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel's board of directors





Apple'I believe that what's wrong with our schoolsin this nation is that they have becomeunionized in the worst possible way.'—Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer






AT&T'Our education system has fallen flat.We've gotten fat and lazy.'—Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T





The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a private organization not sponsored by Microsoft directly, but its high-techindustry DNA is revealed in its co-founder's comments about 'training the workforce of tomorrow.' The foundation is working to remedy a host of social inequities, eliminate poverty, and cure disease all over the world, but supporting efforts around the United States to increase high school graduation rates and college readiness continues to constitute the largest part of the group's domestic portfolio.

'Enlightened? Oh, yes, but this is not about self-interest with Bill and Melinda,' says a foundation insider. 'It's about having a positive impact on the inequities in society.'

Across the Seven C's

Market-leading database and enterprise software provider Oracle has been using its own considerable resources to make a positive impact on society since 1995, when it first established the Oracle Education Foundation. As a public charity, the OEF is something of a rarity among corporate educational foundations. Oracle funds and houses the group, donates the services of its staff worldwide, and provides free, unlimited use of its technology. But the majority directors of the foundation's board are appointed by Stanford University from the educational community, while Oracle appoints the minority directors.

The OEF defines itself as a supporting organization, which means that all of its activities support academic institutions, schools, and other nonprofits that provide education services to the public. Its mission statement captures many themes that are common to tech-industry education foundations. It reads: 'We inspire students globally to think, connect, create, and share, using technology to help them dissolve boundaries, fulfill their potential, and create a better society.'

'For us, this is about supporting a new way of learning that gets 21st-century skills into our workforce and our society, and that promotes an innovation economy through our graduates,' Trilling says.

The foundation currently sponsors three programs for K-12 education: ThinkQuest, an annual competition among students to create the world's best learning website;, an online learning community for primary and secondary school students; and the new 21st Century Learning Institute. The first two programs are designed to connect students around the world and engage them in collaborative, projectbased learning using technology, Trilling says. The third, set to launch in November, is a pilot program in California that will connect teachers, teacher leaders, and teacher trainers through an online collaboration environment, then bring them together, face-to-face, for four days to implement learning projects based on what they learned online.

'We have focused on the collaboration space because of the connection to those 21st-century skills,' Trilling says, 'and because we believe that students everywhere are going to need learning projects and teamwork to develop the skills necessary to be successful at work and in society in the future.'

The OEF has even put together a list of those essential 21st-century skills, which it calls the 'seven C's': 1) critical thinking and problem solving; 2) creativity and innovation; 3) collaboration, teamwork, and leadership; 4) cross-cultural understanding; 5) communications and media fluency; 6) computing and information communication technology (ICT) fluency; and 7) career and learning self-reliance.

'The seven C's plus the three R's equals 21st-century learning,' says Trilling.


In August, President Bush signed into law the AmericaCreating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellencein Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act.The bill expands the government's research anddevelopment in the areas of science, technology, andmathematics education.

21st-Century Teaching

Twenty-first century skills is an oft-used expression in the literature and public pronouncements of virtually all of these organizations, but it's more than a marketing slogan. Supporting the development of a specific set of IT-oriented skills has emerged as a core proposition of corporate educational foundations.

The goals of the Intel Education Initiative, which is funded by the Intel Foundation, parallel the mission of the Oracle organization: 'Education is critical to each citizen's ability to thrive in the knowledge economy,' its mission statement reads. 'Today's students must develop key 21st-century skills, such as familiarity with information communication technology, problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration, so they are able to function in, and shape, the world ahead. They must also excel in mathematics, science, and engineering—the building blocks of technical innovation.'

Intel, one of the world's largest makers of microprocessors and other computer chips, established the Intel Foundation in 1988 to provide funding for national and community grants, primarily where the company has major facilities. Intel operations around the world contribute employee time to local nonprofit organizations under the auspices of the foundation. Intel currently invests an estimated $100 million annually to promote education and technological literacy globally, the company reports.

The Intel Education Initiative focuses its efforts on four areas: professional development for teachers and education leaders, with an emphasis on integrating technology into student- centered curriculum; science and math education and professional development; bringing technology expertise to university campuses 'providing student opportunities, and encouraging entrepreneurship'; and K-12 education.

The initiative's K-12 programs are designed to deliver professional development for teachers, community-based programs, and math- and science-based programs. It also provides free tools and resources for educators designed to support collaborative, student-centered learning. The emphasis here is 'online thinking tools' to generate 'active learning places' for 21st-century teaching.

Professional development has become something of a linchpin concern of the initiative. As one Intel Foundation insider puts it, 'You can't have 21st-century learning without 21st-century teaching.' The Intel Teach program, for example, is a worldwide professional development effort that intends to help educators build the skills they need to 'enhance 21st-century learning through the effective use of technology.' The program offers a series of courses that shows teachers how, when, and where to incorporate technology into their lesson plans. The courses follow a trainthe- trainer model, utilizing the skills of teachers who have been nominated by their schools to become effective peer mentors, whom the foundation calls 'master trainers.' To date, more than 4 million teachers in 35 countries have taken part in the training the program offers, according to the foundation.

Intel partnered with Microsoft on an earlier version of this program, called Intel Teach to the Future. In 2000, the Redmond, WA, software titan donated $344 million worth of software to this initial incarnation. Such partnerships are not unusual among high-tech education foundations; in fact, it's safe to say that none of these organizations is going it alone. Partnering with school districts, individual schools, other charitable entities, and even commercial enterprises is a common strategy.

'We have about 120 partnerships with state departments of education, ministries of education, and nonprofits around the world,' Oracle's Trilling says. 'That's the wave of the future. You really can't do anything alone. Today it's about developing mutually beneficial relationships.'

Trilling argues that it's easier for high-tech educational foundations to partner with other foundations and commercial entities today, because increasingly they share a common vision. 'That the business community is involved with education reform is no longer a foreign idea,' he says. 'It's almost core to reform these days. But for years the business community was split along ideological lines. It was sort of a traditional-versus-progressive thing. Now we're hearing about the idea of applying traditional rigor with those 21stcentury skills.'

'When you combine the best thinking about business and thebest thinking about education, you get an incredible dynamism that oureducational system badly needs.'
—Bernie Trilling, Oracle Education Foundation

Think Globally—Act Globally

High-tech educational foundations seem naturally predisposed to embrace an international view of their education support missions—which is not surprising: What technology vendor doesn't do business beyond US borders? And there are virtually no tech companies of any size that don't draw from work pools outside the country.

'Education is definitely a global issue,' says Trilling. 'We have developed partnerships with nonprofits and ministries of education around the world. We developed those partnerships because you simply can't make significant changes in this area alone. And to be frank, there are some countries that are moving more quickly than the United States. Singapore, Australia, the UK—there's a lot to be learned from their examples.'

The Intel Foundation, for instance, has an ongoing relationship with the Smarter Kids Foundation, a Canadian nonprofit organization founded by interactive whiteboard maker Smart Technologies. Established in 1997, the Smarter Kids Foundation sponsors programs, grants, and research on the use of educational technology in the classroom.

'The company sells a lot of products into the education market, so it was a natural place for us to focus our charitable activities,' says Nancy Knowlton, who serves as both executive director of the Smarter Kids Foundation and CEO of the company. 'But it's more than that. When we started making money and began looking for a place to give something back, we looked at a lot of worthy causes. We simply couldn't find one that we thought was more important than education.'

Taking nothing away from the work and goals at Smart, the link between the sponsoring company's products and its charitable emphasis is impossible to miss, but among some observers of American education, no link between business and our schools is acceptable. Alex Molnar, professor of education policy and director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, has famously called private sector involvement in education 'a terrible idea.' The author of Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialism of America's Schools (Westview Press, 1996) lays out the position against the business/education connection, where he sees inherent conflicts between the 'imperatives of the market, which is profit, and the imperatives of the government, which is providing an equal opportunity to everybody.'

An example of this inherent conflict might be seen in Cisco Systems' relationship with its endowment. The computer networking pioneer established the Cisco Foundation in 1997, and the educational contributions of that organization orbit closely the technology offerings of the company.

The foundation's major K-12 initiative is its Networking Academy program, an online-learning initiative designed to prepare high school students for the Cisco Certified Network Associate exam. The program is a partnership between the Cisco Foundation, Cisco Systems, and Communities in Schools. The academy offers courses on the fundamentals of networking security, Unix, and voice and video transmission. Students taking an introductory IT course, for example, build a computer, install the operating system, connect the machine to a set of peripherals, plug the system into a local area network, and then link the whole thing to the internet.

Trilling counters that by establishing public charities, Oracle, Intel, and others have effectively, and deliberately, cut potential ties to their founding companies' marketing and sales interests. 'That was easier for us than some other companies, because we're not as deeply involved in the education marketplace, in terms of our product offerings,' he says.

But for some companies, those ties represent an opportunity, not a conflict. In March, the Verizon Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of telecom company Verizon, announced that it would be investing $31 million in providing free online educational resources to teachers, students, and community organizations through its portal. At the time of the announcement, Tom Tauke, the company's executive vice president of public affairs, policy, and communications, said: 'It's appropriate that our foundation supports a literacy and education program that is built on the technology that Verizon is deploying. The broadband networks we are building can provide a student anywhere, anytime access to the world's richest educational content created by the leading experts in the fields of history, science, mathematics, and the arts.'

Not wholly an educational charity, the Verizon Foundation says its core goals include improving literacy and K-12 education, fostering awareness and prevention of domestic violence, and promoting the use of technology in healthcare delivery. The foundation bills Thinkfinity as its signature educational and literacy program and the cornerstone of its literacy, education, and technology initiatives. A combination of two older programs (Verizon MarcoPolo and the Verizon Literacy Network), Thinkfinity is a free digital learning platform designed to improve learning in the traditional classroom and beyond it by 'providing the high-caliber content and professional development needed to improve student achievement— anytime, anywhere, at no cost.'

Some critics see an inherent conflict in any link between businessand schools. One example might be the Cisco Foundation, whoseeducational contributions orbit closely Cisco's technology products.

Thinkfinity is a powerful example of the efficacy of the partnering strategy. Content for the portal is provided by a range of organizations: the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Reading Association, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Center for Family Literacy, the National Council on Economic Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Geographic Society, and ProLiteracy Worldwide. In March of this year, the foundation added the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as Thinkfinity's 11th content partner.

Building Homegrown Talent

You may be for or against corporate involvement in public schools, argues Sun Microsystems' Fellow James Gosling, but at this point, American business simply cannot afford to ignore American schools. Widely known in high-tech circles as the father of the Java programming language, Gosling is the CTO of Sun's Java Enterprise Platforms and Developer Products Group. According to Gosling, if high-tech companies are unable to dip into a homegrown, educated workforce, they will have no alternative but to look outside the country for qualified workers.

'Business should be paying attention to what's happening in education, in this country and around the world,' Gosling says. 'We have a remarkably hard time even now finding trained people in the United States, and a remarkably easy time finding trained people in places like India and the Czech Republic. There seems to be a more positive attitude toward education in other countries than we have right now in this country. And that's very disturbing.'

And yet, just as Oracle and Intel chose to do, when Sun established the Sun Microsystems Foundation in 1990, the company created a separate nonprofit charitable organization, supported by contributions from the company. The foundation's overall goal of eliminating the digital divide and connecting everyone, everywhere, to the internet incorporates several programs for K-12 education.

Through its Open Gateways program, the foundation has established educational partnerships with K-12 schools 'to bring the power of network computing to teachers and students.' The program, which provides grants of Sun products and teacher professional development, targets disadvantaged communities with assistance in deploying network computing technologies. It utilizes Sun technologies to provide expanded access to online curricula and reference materials for students and teachers. The program is designed to allow teachers to share curriculum ideas and lesson plans electronically, and to support the central management of school districts' wide area networks.

'There's this slogan we used to use and still do: Write once, run anywhere,' Gosling says. 'It also fits our goals for education: Learn once, work anywhere.'

-John K. Watersis a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.