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Leadership. Innovation. Simple solutions. Those are principles instilled in students at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. They are also principles Penny Pritzker, JD/MBA ’84, calls upon to help improve the quality of education for America’s school children.

In a heartfelt speech before 350 GSB faculty and alumni on March 2, Chicago businesswoman, civic leader, and philanthropist Pritzker became the 41st recipient of the Ernest C. Arbuckle Award for excellence in the field of management leadership. The award was created in honor of the late business school dean whose name it bears. Recipients demonstrate a commitment to both managerial excellence and to addressing the changing needs of society.

The need to improve public education to create a workforce prepared to meet tomorrow’s needs is the cause Pritzker said keeps her growing and challenged today. Recently appointed to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a focus of her civic work is finding new ways to equip students and teachers with the skills they need to succeed, and to encourage businesses to hire and invest in American competitiveness.

Key to meeting that goal is education, she said, and our country’s public school system is falling short. “Only 7 in 10 American children receive a high school diploma,” — and in Chicago, where she lives, only 54% graduate. “Other countries are out-educating and out-preparing their children to compete with ours. A subpar education will snowball into employment challenges down the road.”

To help fix the gap between workers’ skills and the needs of employers, Pritzker and her foundation support the Chicago Public Education Fund, a vehicle for private sector investment in the nation’s third-largest school system. A key objective of the fund, which Pritzker chairs, is to change the way the schools recruit and prepare top talent.

Leadership is key to helping turn around underperforming schools, she said, and, “We’re involved in a number of initiatives to strengthen school leadership in our city.” The fund supports national board certification for principals and has also started three new principal training programs. One program sends teachers who have graduated from Teach For America to Harvard for a year to earn a master’s degree in education and undergo additional training. In exchange, participants commit to serve as principals in Chicago public schools for five years. They also get coaching and opportunities to develop their skills.

“In any successful enterprise, getting the right leaders on board is job one,” Pritzker said. “Investing in principal training is one of the most important things we can do to improve America’s public schools.”

Good leaders are part of the equation but, “If we really want to move the needle on public education,” it’s necessary to couple them with innovative ideas. The Pritzker family supports a growing chain of charter high schools in Chicago called Noble Street, which gives low-income students a rigorous college preparatory education.

“At Noble, high expectations are the norm,” Pritzker said. “We cultivate in students the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and beyond.” Almost 90% of Noble students have gone on to college since the first school opened in 1999.

Pritzker is chairman of the board of TransUnion, chairman and CEO of Pritzker Realty Group, as well as chair and cofounder of The Parking Spot, Artemis Real Estate Partners, and Vi, formerly known as Classic Residence by Hyatt. She also serves on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corp. and is a past board member of the William Wrigley Jr. Company, Marmon Group, and LaSalle Bank Corp.

She was national finance chair of the Barack Obama for President campaign, is a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a trustee of Stanford University, and she and her husband, Dr. Bryan Traubert, through their Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, fund various initiatives to improve public education, support health and fitness endeavors, and expand art and culture opportunities.

Pritzker also chairs the Skills for America’s Future board, an Obama administration initiative to encourage community colleges to work closely with employers to develop curriculum that prepares students with the skills employers are looking for.

“With over 1,100 community colleges nationwide, and over 12 million community college students, this is an education resource that we cannot afford to ignore,” Pritzker said. “Community colleges are an essential part of our recovery in the present and our prosperity in the future.”

The Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation donated seed money for the project, and she has helped recruit a number of large American companies such as Gap Inc., Accenture, United Technologies Corp., and McDonald’s to be partners. One of the founding partners, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., has worked with community colleges in California to help develop curriculum for jobs related to clean energy and electricity. Van Ton-Quinlivan, MBA ’95, heads the program.

“Skills for America’s Future is a win win win,” Pritzker said. “One that will benefit students, our businesses, and our country. It’s a simple idea, and we hope it’s a successful one.”

By investing in strong leadership, supporting innovation, and championing simple, bold ideas, Pritzker said, we can improve our education and training system. “It’s not going to be easy, yet we simply must invest in education. We must do it now, because the world is nipping at our heels. We are at a crossroads in our country on the topic of education.”

She called upon Stanford Business School graduates to help fulfill the “moral obligation to educate all our children” — and not just those of privilege or those who live in the right ZIP code. “It’s a universal civil right. If we don’t educate our children so they can compete, a great American middle class will disappear.”

— Joyce Routson

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Taking on the Public Education Challenge
  2. Shelton Challenges U.S. Business and Education Leaders to Transform Schools
  3. Teachers’ Preferences for Where They Teach May Disadvantage Urban Schools

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