School & District Management

Harvard Course Yields Education Entrepreneurs

By Lynn Olson — June 12, 2007 7 min read
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When Stacey M. Childress began teaching a course on educational entrepreneurship at the Harvard Business School three years ago, she anticipated that a few graduates each year would make the leap into the education sector. But, to her surprise, the course has proved to be a breeding ground for the next generation of educational risk-takers.

Recent graduates have gone on to found their own charter schools; work for the Broad and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations; help manage district redesigns in New York City and Oakland, Calif.; join Teach For America, the KIPP charter school network, and the Harlem Children’s Zone; and enter the education practices of mainstream consulting companies, among other ventures.

Stacey M. Childress, above, says of the educational entrepreneurship course: "This isn't an education course that happens to be at the business school. It's an entrepreneurship course that happens to be focused on the education sector."

And while some of those students enrolled in the course knowing that they wanted to enter the education field, for others it was a turning point.

“I didn’t plan to pursue a job in education immediately following business school,” said Cassie Kearney, who works for Boston-based Massachusetts Public School Performance, a nonprofit company working to help educators use real-time data to improve student achievement. “I thought that I wanted to pursue a career in marketing after school. Stacey’s Entrepreneurship in Education Reform course played a significant role in my decision to change my career trajectory.”

The course was first offered in 2003 by Stig Leschly, the founder and chief executive officer of Exchange.com, an early competitor of eBay that Amazon.com bought in 1999 for $200 million. Mr. Leschly, who had worked in operations and strategic planning for Amazon and been deeply engaged in education reform in the Seattle area, joined the business school to create the course.

Since then, it has grown from a half-semester, 15-session course to a full-semester, 30-session course organized around case studies of entrepreneurs operating both inside and outside of school districts.

Mission-Driven

“This isn’t an education course that happens to be at the business school,” said Ms. Childress, whose first job was teaching English at a public high school in Texas before she went to work in the electronics-security industry and, subsequently, co-founded a software company. “It’s an entrepreneurship course that happens to be focused on the education sector.

“It sits within our social-enterprise course offerings that are about starting, leading, and managing mission-driven organizations,” she said, “and it’s cross-listed with our entrepreneurship unit.”

Since the 1990s, with the growth of the education industry, the nation’s business schools have shown an increasing interest in preparing graduates who can lead education-related businesses and organizations. Stanford University, for example, began offering a joint degree in business and education in 2002, and a few other business schools have since followed suit.

But what sets the Harvard course apart, according to Kim Smith, a co-founder of the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy working in education, is its focus on entrepreneurship as a way to think about redesigning the education system, “and really improving the system, not just starting a company for its own sake.”

The elective course, offered to second-year M.B.A. students—as well as cross-registrants from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and its graduate school of education—is designed for those interested in creating, leading, or supporting education enterprises “with the purpose of driving higher levels of academic achievement for all K-12 students in the United States,” according to the course description.

It’s framed around two central questions: Is there a link between effective leadership and management practices and higher educational outcomes? And, will the introduction of market principles—such as the transparency of performance data, accountability for results, and choices for customers—force change on the public system and lead to higher performance?

Case Studies Key

As with most business courses, the class is organized around real-life case studies that highlight big problems in education that entrepreneurs are trying to address: how to improve the supply of talented teachers and administrators; tools and systems to improve performance; district efforts to confront achievement gaps by race and income; and efforts to create new schools and replicate effective school models. An introductory module helps familiarize students with the context of urban schooling in the United States.

Students are expected to read the case studies in advance, as well as any supplementary materials, and come to class prepared to discuss three or four big questions, ranging from quantitative analyses to recommendations for next steps.

Ms. Childress facilitates the discussion by asking questions and pointing out tensions and conflicts. “The goal isn’t to come to the end of the 30 sessions with a list of answers, with a list of solutions,” she explained, “but rather to help the students frame for themselves the big questions that are at the heart of the performance problems in the sector, and then to have a framework for thinking about how entrepreneurs can develop solutions to those problems that are consistent with an organizational response.”

Of the 28 case studies, Ms. Childress has written or been a co-author of 15, many specifically for the course or for the Public Education Leadership Project, a joint effort between the Harvard business and education schools. She helped found the project to forge a new understanding about redesigning districts to achieve improvements in student learning. (“Leaders Go to School on Business Practices,” Aug. 31, 2005.)

Ben L. Kleban, a 2005 graduate whose new charter school, New Orleans College Prep, is scheduled to open this August, said, “I just believe in studying the practitioners that have had success in whatever you’re trying to do and pulling the best you can from specific entities. The curriculum in that class was especially helpful in that way.

“We studied everything from school district turnarounds to nonprofit charter-management organizations to for-profit companies,” he said, “and really looked at them from the perspective of the leadership of turning around a failed education system and what that took on all levels.”

Not coincidentally, many of the case studies include someone at a senior level in the organization who is a Harvard Business School graduate.

“These are very specific examples of people who look and feel very similar to the people in the classroom,” said Ms. Childress, “and the oldest of them is probably 35. So there’s just this incredible sense of possibility.”

Just as important as the case studies, students say, are the open and frank discussions, which are enriched by the mix of students from across Harvard’s schools of business, education, and government. Of the 86 students enrolled in this spring’s course, 77 were from the business school, six from education, and three from government.

‘Mix of Perspectives’

“The mix of perspectives is essential to nudging students out of their somewhat isolated and singular schools of thought,” 2005 graduate Alison Avera wrote in an e-mail. Ms. Avera, who now works for the New York City school system, added, “I found that a discussion of a topic like ‘school choice and vouchers’ was an entirely new conversation when participants included not only educators, but also former investment bankers, consultants, and government workers.”

“It was somewhat unusual and very exciting to sit in a room full of my business school classmates and talk about issues of urban education and race and politics,” said Eleanor B. Laurans, a 2006 graduate. “I found it very exciting to bring that kind of conversation into a classroom and a community that didn’t always focus on those topics.”

Seventeen of the sessions also include guests from some of the cases studied—ranging from Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, to Larry Berger, the founder of Wireless Generation, a New York-based provider of educational assessment, reporting, and professional-development tools—who have a chance to reflect aloud on the discussion and answer students’ questions.

Even so, graduates say, now that they’re in the education sector, there are surprises every day.

“For me, one of the challenges that I’ve found in working in education is there’s so many structures in place,” said Debbie L. Kozar, a 2006 M.B.A. who’s now working for the Boston Consulting Group’s Houston office on an initiative on public education in New Orleans. “I think I’d underestimated the amount of, in some ways, complexity in the system.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Harvard Course Yields Education Entrepreneurs

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