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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Creative Capitalism 10 Years Later

By Guest Blogger — March 13, 2017 5 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Irvin Scott, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, will be guest-blogging.

This June will mark 10 years since I listened to one of the most powerful speeches of my education career. It was June 7th, 2007, and I sat with thousands on the hallowed grounds of Harvard University during the 356th Commencement. Bill Gates was giving the commencement address, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the school he dropped out of nearly 30 years earlier. I was honored to be graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with my master’s degree and gearing up to take on the next challenge of completing my doctorate. While the entire speech was powerful, one specific part left a huge impression on me. Ten years later, I am wondering how the U.S. education sector is doing in relationship to a bold idea shared during this speech.

About 11 minutes into the speech, Dr. Gates says: “We can make market forces work better for the poor if we can develop a more creative capitalism. If we can stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit or at least earn a living serving people who are suffering from the great inequities.” I was struck by this idea of creative capitalism—one where individuals could make a profit or earn a living by serving those who are in the greatest need. Ten years later, I feel like this idea of creative capitalism is in full bloom, particularly in the U.S. education sector. However, I’m wondering about something implicit in Gates’ speech: are the lives of those being served improving?

Creative capitalism has two parts. First, individuals are making a profit or at least a living by serving those less fortunate. Second, the lives of those served are improving in some measurable and noticeable way. I would argue that the latter needs more deliberate focus over the next 10 years.

Policies Catalyze Creative Capitalism

Over the past eight years, federal and state policies catalyzed a wave of innovation, which led to an infusion of talent and funding on behalf of America’s children, especially the most vulnerable. This happened at the federal level through policies such as Race To The Top, i3 Grants, School Improvement Grants, as well as through the strategies that emerged from these funding sources such as human capital reforms and Common Core State Standards. Many will reflect on this time as one fraught with division and tension—and there was a fair amount of that. However, I see it as a time of exploration, courage, and learning. For example, I believe it was high time to be courageous about our faith in ALL students’ ability to take on challenging and engaging work. At the same time, one of the many things we’re learning from this experience is that it takes more than a well-crafted policy to ensure students are reaching higher standards. If we raise the bar, we also have to raise the level of support for teachers, leaders, and students to reach these new standards and goals.

These new policies have also ushered a whole new set of thinkers, designers, and developers into the education ecosystem. The following is one such example of a list of tools and organizations that have emerged over the years from what I would call equity-focused policies. In my opinion, this is an example of the creative capitalism that Bill Gates was referring to nearly 10 years ago. And it is a wonderful thing, especially as we take on the challenges of ensuring a quality education for ALL America’s children.

Deep Results Focus and Collective Impact

One big question going forward is what impact is this creative capitalism having on children and communities? Going forward, how might we focus more attention on tracking results and impact? Perhaps we should launch a national tenacious focus on results and impact day. This would be an annual event which would happen in schools, school systems, cities, states, and at a national level. The focus of the day would be one question: What progress—over the past year—have we made improving the lives of those most in need? This day would include everyone who plays a role in the education ecosystem—especially those who are a part of the creative capitalism equation. What may result from such a day is a national effort to understand our collective impact.

Two things will be important to keep in mind throughout this inquiry process. First, transforming lives through education requires a long-term commitment. While it will be important to pay attention to leading indicators of change; deep, sustained change that’s reflected in students and in their communities may not show up for some time. Yet, that should not keep us from looking each year at what progress we’re making. The second thing to remember is that this work is both about numbers and names. Over my nearly 30 years of education, I’ve noticed how the further I got away from the classroom, the harder it became to use specific students and families as inspiration for the work I did day to day. This told me that I wasn’t around students and families enough, and that’s a problem. All of us who work outside of classrooms, schools, and neighborhoods must find ways to not simply track the numbers reflected in our data, but also the names behind the numbers. Only then can our work become much more than a job; it has the potential to become a vocation.

Harvard will hold its 366th Commencement in a couple of months, and we just learned that Mark Zuckerberg will be the speaker. This time, I will be a part of the faculty. I am sure the following question will be on my mind as I listen to Mr. Zuckerberg speak: What indicators (numbers and names) should I be paying attention to in order to be assured that my efforts are leading to transformed lives and communities? We should all be asking that same question.

—Irvin Scott

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.