Education Opinion

Stop Saying “Entrepreneur”

By Nancy Flanagan — October 30, 2012 3 min read
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One of the best blogs I’ve read in a long time--with bonus points for the headline--was written by Katie Osgood, the Chicago special education teacher who penned “Paul Tough is Way Off Base. And Stop Saying ‘Grit.’” Osgood’s piece points out that Tough’s “new” premise--character matters more than data upticks in eventual outcomes for American kids--is hardly a novelty, or surprising to teachers. And “grit,” the buzzword that summarizes student perseverance, is beyond annoying--it’s somewhere between disingenuous and offensive.

There are a lot of words like “grit” out there in the market-based pizzazz vocabulary of school reform. It’s as if the right innovative plan and the right catchy language would cause our students, rich and poor, to soar to the top of international rankings--the benchmark du jour. Never mind that students in top public schools are already there.

The pitch: once we start thinking of education as an “opportunity culture,” where grit and entrepreneurial spirit are materially rewarded, the real cultural surround of inequity and anti-intellectualism will simply melt away. If all our “top” teachers (whom we have precisely identified through standardized, data-rich evaluation models) were sufficiently entrepreneurial, could we really close the gaps, raise the bar and keep our nation great?

Should we start treating great teaching as a commodity, subject to market forces around distribution, innovation, production and efficiency?

That doesn’t seem to be what Franklin D. Roosevelt was aiming for when he said: The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.


• Enterprising individual who builds capital through risk and/or initiative. An effective entrepreneur converts a source into a resource.

• Innovators who use a process of shattering the status quo of the existing products and services, to set up new products, new services.

• A person who starts a new business where there was none before.

The pinnacle of educational entrepreneurship? Sal Khan. We’ve all heard the story-- in 2004, Khan shoots a little video in a closet to help his niece with her math homework. Eight years and 3500 videos later, he’s one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Rich enough to quit his job as a hedge fund manager. (Think about that.)

Real math specialists and pedagogical scholars--and teachers who used self-created videos well before Sal went into his closet--are wondering: what makes him so special? Answer: He’s an entrepreneur. He turned something teachers have been tinkering with for decades, math instruction, into a commodity. No matter that what worked with Khan’s niece might not work with your students. Forget the pesky questions about rote mathematical procedures vs. conceptual understanding. Bill Gates uses the videos with his kids! Buy now! Shatter the status quo!

Doesn’t everyone sell out, eventually? Change.org just did. Teach for America was founded on the idea that a teaching is a stepping stone to leadership, not a socially important, intellectually challenging career. Charter chains are franchising the idea of rigid control over educational practice--using the nostalgia of straight lines, plaid jumpers and no excuses to offer kids an illusion of a rigorous education, while simultaneously looking for new markets and using staff turnover to keep costs low.

What if we all stopped trying to hustle our products, innovations and ideas, and went back to thinking about teaching as good old-fashioned essential service? You know-- where educators share their best work and thinking for the children they serve, because that’s the right thing to do in a compassionate, progressive society? Not to build capital, convert sources into resources, start a business where there was none before, or--language alert!--"disrupt,” because disruption is just such a cool idea.

Stop idolizing the educational entrepreneur. It’s just wrong.

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.