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Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

School & District Management Opinion

Entrepreneurial School Improvement

By Rick Hess — April 26, 2016 3 min read
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In 2006, Harvard Education Press published my book Educational Entrepreneurship. At the time, the whole notion of educational entrepreneurship was still pretty much a foreign concept—outside of the (much smaller) Teach For America network and certain precincts around San Francisco. That book took a hard look at the nature, challenges, and possibilities of educational entrepreneurship, drawing upon a remarkable mix of researchers and practitioners to take what was perhaps the first extended look at the topic.

It’s been a decade since that book came out. Things that were once seen as bizarre now seem much less so, and that which was once unnoticed is now sometimes hugely influential and hugely controversial. It seemed like a good time to take another hard look at the topic. So, in concert with my razor-sharp friend Mike McShane, I went back at it. The result is Educational Entrepreneurship Today, out next month from Harvard Education Press. Next week, Mike will be talking about the book at more length, so I just want to offer a couple reasons as to why you should check the book out—even if you don’t think entrepreneurship has much to do with you, and especially if you don’t think you like entrepreneurship.

For one thing, the world has changed radically over the past decade, and entrepreneurship is an increasingly significant part of K-12 education. In 2006, there were 46 KIPP charter schools serving 9,000 kids; in 2016, more than 160 KIPP schools were serving more than 60,000 students. In 2006, Teach for America had 5,000 corps members. In 2016, TFA had over 10,000 corps members teaching over 750,000 students. In 2006, Class Dojo was five years from its inception. By 2016, Class Dojo’s behavior management application was being used by more than 35 million parents, students, and teachers.

Does “entrepreneur” make you think of something gross and corporate? Well, consider Enriched, a venture launched in 2012 by Andre Feigler that helps schools find and place substitute teachers. Feigler reports that the average student in New Orleans spends one year of their time in K-12 in the care of substitute teachers, time that often felt wasted due to the quality of the substitute teaching pool. Feigler saw an opportunity to work with schools to provide a higher-quality pool of substitutes, one that featured more training and individuals with particular skills (including as musicians, artists, or poets). Feigler’s venture is now widely used by charter schools in New Orleans and is seeking to carry its solutions to other targeted cities.

Do we even need ventures like Feigler’s? Can’t we all just embrace system reform? Maybe, maybe not. In wrestling with those questions, it’s worth keeping in mind the underlying rationale for educational entrepreneurship. It’s simple, really: The entrepreneurial premise is that American education is in need of transformative improvement, and that it’s easier to promote that kind of change by launching new ventures than by wrestling with the conventions of established systems. Launching new solutions inside an old organization is difficult, because there are routines, hierarchies, and ways of doing things. Meanwhile, new ventures can be single-minded in their pursuit of a new solution, and can hire and adopt technology with that in mind.

The promise of entrepreneurship is not a matter of business plans, technological gizmos, or impressive jargon. It’s the ability of entrepreneurs to tackle stubborn problems with fresh thinking, devise new models and modes of delivery, and then be accountable for the results. Now, if you’re confident that American education is in terrific shape, and think the big challenge is mostly a matter of fine-tuning, it’s tough to make the case for entrepreneurship. But if you think that we need more engaging school models, better career and technical education, improved models of teacher preparation, new ways of learning online, and much else, then entrepreneurship can help get you there. However talented and well-meaning the staff are in existing systems, they have a lot of hurdles to fight through in order to reimagine delivery.

That’s where entrepreneurship comes in. You may or may not be convinced of its promise, but I’d encourage you to give it some thought.

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.