Economic leaders and education scholars are calling for an increase in initiative, self-regulation, critical thinking, and lifelong learning skills among young people to meet the needs of the growing knowledge economy. If we want to be competitive in the world economic arena and maintain our high standard of living, we must rise to the challenge.
As leaders, how can we develop a systemic initiative to keep young people in school, learning academic and work skills effectively, motivated to be productive and engaged in their communities and the larger economy, and developing success-oriented attitudes of initiative, intelligent risk-taking, collaboration, and opportunity recognition? Entrepreneurship education is one answer to this question, and an important tool to help every child explore and develop his or her academic, leadership, and life skills, as well as potential.
Fifteen years ago, a new, standards-based framework for improving American K-12 education began to emerge. It was a radical idea, driven by the goal of having all children reach high standards of learning, which traditionally had been the expectation set only for a select group. Since then, under the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (the two most recent versions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act), state, district, and school efforts to improve public education for all students have intensified. Yet the United States still lags behind other countries in key knowledge domains and industries. Why aren’t American children doing better? Why are so many young people not even completing high school?
One in four Hispanic students and one in 10 African-American students drop out of school, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Students from low-income families are six times more likely not to finish high school than those from high-income families. Dropouts face severe obstacles to employment, livable wages, and civic participation; many drift into crime and are incarcerated. This situation means a loss of opportunities for the individuals, substantial cost to the government and taxpayers, and a tremendous deficit in productivity and for businesses and other organizations.
Even those students who do graduate may not be well-prepared. According to the National Reading Panel, American companies lose nearly $40 billion a year because of illiteracy. Further, a survey by the National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee and the National Career Development Association found that a majority of youths themselves report feeling unprepared in skills, knowledge, and attitudes upon entering the workforce. And according to the Manhattan Institute, only about 20 percent of African-American and Hispanic students graduate college-ready.
This skills crisis is becoming more critical because the American economy is shifting. Not only will the traditional skills of reading, writing, and math be needed to thrive in this economy, but also technological savvy and self-direction. With the pace of innovation, many of the jobs our children will hold don’t even exist yet. More than ever, we need to educate students to be continual learners.
The federal School to Work Opportunities Act and other education policies suggest that students learn more and perform better when tasks and skills demonstrate relevance to their current and future lives. Evaluation studies of high-school-level curricula in youth entrepreneurship report that students increase their occupational aspirations, interest in college, reading, and leadership behavior after participation. Six months later, 70 percent of the alumni in a recent evaluation cohort were in college, 63 percent had jobs, and one in three ran a small business.
With the pace of innovation, many of the jobs our children will hold don’t even exist yet. More than ever, we need to educate students to be continual learners.
Perhaps most critically, the experience of a sense of ownership in their lives was four times higher for alumni of youth-entrepreneurship programs than for students who did not take such courses.
“Ownership” is a powerful concept. The American economy and way of life are based on it. We own our homes and our cars. We strive to “own” our jobs, even if we work for someone else. Thus, we value both financial ownership and psychological ownership—being in control of resources and lives that are of our own choosing. High-school-level education in youth entrepreneurship provides the experience of ownership early in life.
Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan recently said: “In a democratic, capitalist society, personal investing and savings, homeownership, and small-business ownership are key ways to build personal prosperity. Youth today often do not understand how to take their entrepreneurial dreams and make them come true. Entrepreneurship education offers a unique way to help them learn and practice the essential financial and business concepts and skills that, when coupled with their own passion and local market knowledge, can help make them come true.”
Preparing today’s students for success and eventual leadership in the new global marketplace is the most important responsibility in education today. Providing them with guidance and opportunity at the most critical junctures along their educational journey can have a profound impact. Entrepreneurship education is an important tool to achieving these objectives.
Corporate philanthropy is well positioned to play an essential part in encouraging enterprise education and small-business ownership. Model educational and skills-building programs are trying to fill this growing gap by preparing young people from low-income communities to work with peers from around the globe while enhancing their business, academic, and life skills. By investing in entrepreneurship education programs, funders can open an exciting world of possibilities to young people, and help them develop new confidence, skills, and ambitions along the way.
While philanthropy can play a part in encouraging entrepreneurship education, Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, governors, economic-development leaders, and state legislators must play a leading role. Congress should authorize and fund legislation to support training and certification for high school educators to teach entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship education should be universally available, to provide all students with opportunities to explore and fulfill their potential.
A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Case for Entrepreneurship Education