Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — March 28, 2011 3 min read
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Maybe it’s my natural inclination to be suspicious of anything “market-based.” But I’m just not sure what good it will do for schools and kids to unleash a multitude of “teacherpreneurs” on America.

The predominant policy thrust right now is toward using public education as springboard for the realization of policy “innovations” connected to recognition and profit. Merit pay. Boutique schools in gritty urban settings. Competitive federal grants. Creation of value-added teacher evaluation models. Heavily promoted documentary films to sway public opinion. Are these ideas we want to nurture?

Think about the $125K teacherpreneurs Zeke Vanderhoek hired for the Equity Project charter, willing to take the risk of working without tenure, for the big bucks. Or the venture-capital project of Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children’s Zone that led him to dismiss his entire first group of students because of their disappointing performance. Or the $8000 bonuses earned by teacherpreneurs in D.C. that turned out to be based on creatively erasing wrong answers on bubble-in test sheets. Or the windfall profits that enterprising educators will reap from creating new curricular materials and assessments based on the Common Core Standards.

As Whitney Tilson might say, there’s some insane leveraging going on in public education--and your tax dollars are funding a lot of it.

When I think of what a prototypical teacherpreneur might look like, I think: Teach for America corps member. Great idea (bringing the best and brightest into our toughest classrooms). Good intention (dedicating two years of your life to making the world a better place). Guaranteed personal gain (admission to the grad school of your choice and plenty of career advancement). All on the backs of poor students in districts where caring, committed adults and stable programming are critical.

I can hear my friend Jose Vilson sputtering--you’re misinterpreting the concept, Flanagan! You’re thinking about educational entrepreneurs, not teacherpreneurs. Well. The idea of a teacherpreneur has been around for some time--introduced by Cool Cat Teacher, who labels herself a “businesswoman,” back in 2006--and originally was associated with global collaboration through Web 2.0 tools. Here’s how Cool Cat defined teacherpreneurs:

They are the people that movies are made about. They get "in trouble" with their renegade practices until people realize that they work. Then, they leave teaching and write books, and make movies. We need more of them!

We need more teachers leaving the unglamorous, complex--and often frustrating-- work of the classroom to market their great ideas globally? And this will help--how? If I don’t get the advantages of entrepreneurism, specifically for teachers--I’m not sure your average Joe (or Bill or Arne) will be able to make the distinction between “accomplished teacher with good ideas” and “accomplished teacher whose good ideas can be exploited,” either. Another--crowdsourced-- definition:

An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of a new enterprise or idea, and is accountable for the inherent risks and the outcome. Entrepreneurs emerge from the population on demand, and become leaders because they perceive opportunities available and are well-positioned to take advantage of them. An entrepreneur acts as a catalyst for economic change, and research indicates that entrepreneurs are highly creative individuals who imagine new solutions by generating opportunities for profit or reward.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for productive change, for highly creative teachers sharing their dynamic ideas about practice and policy. And I think teachers should be paid well for their expertise. But I would call that “teacher leadership"--the principle that promising innovations should be elevated and distributed, for the benefit of all children and their learning. As Michael Fullan points out:

Teaching at its core is a moral profession. Scratch a good teacher and you will find a moral purpose.

An entrepreneur “acts as a catalyst for economic change.” Plenty of systems in our political economy run on entrepreneurial, market-based models. During the national conversation on health care, people better-informed than me regularly noted that a “free-market ideology is wholly inappropriate to health care issues.” There is plenty of evidence that justice can be bought--and sold. Our banking system nearly caused a global economic meltdown--and millions of Americans are suffering under the results of entrepreneurial lending and house-flipping.

Maybe there are some things that shouldn’t be controlled by the markets and consumerism. Is good teaching a commodity--or a principle-driven aspiration for community good?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.