School & District Management

Social Entrepreneurs Try to Offer Solutions to K-12 Problems

Competition for financial backing is intense
By Robin L. Flanigan — April 24, 2012 8 min read
David Wish leads a Little Kids Rock music class at PS 176 in New York City in 2003. Mr. Wish's organization has become one of the largest free instrumental-music programs in the United States.
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Upset that the elementary school where he taught didn’t have a music program, David Wish traded in favors from a few musician friends to collect a ragtag fleet of instruments. Before long, his 1st and 2nd graders at Hawes Elementary School in Redwood City, Calif., were writing their own songs, recording and selling CDs, and attracting attention from newspapers, radio stations, and musical stars like Carlos Santana—who sent the school $10,000 worth of guitars.

Mr. Wish ultimately had to turn away interested students despite teaching music before school, after school, and during lunch periods, so he began training other teachers to lead classes the way he did. Instead of standard, classical pieces, children were encouraged to experiment with songs that were more modern and relevant to their urban lives.

“I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to be a social entrepreneur and start an organization,” said Mr. Wish, the founder and executive director of Little Kids Rock, a Cedar Grove, N.J.-based nonprofit that has become one of the largest free instrumental-music programs in U.S. public education since its start in 2002. It serves more than 200,000 low-income students in 12 states.

‘Hole in Social Fabric’

The organization, which has an annual operating budget of $2.2 million, has three full-time fundraisers who solicit donations from foundations, corporations, individual donors, and other sources, generating about 75 percent of the nonprofit’s revenue, according to Mr. Wish. The other 25 percent comes from local chapters of the organization that operate in Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco.

He added that districts contribute through teachers’ time, which can be quantified based on the hourly wages of the teachers involved and how much time they spend instructing students in the Little Kids Rock program.

As it is, Little Kids Rock does not charge fees for any of its services, but Mr. Wish said “we’re taking a long hard look at that right now” to see if it would help make the organization more sustainable.

“I was doing [Little Kids Rock] out of good, old-fashioned guilt,” continued Mr. Wish, who left teaching to devote himself full-time to the nonprofit organization. “I perceived a hole in the social fabric, believed I had a solution, and had the compulsion to do something about it. I don’t think it’s audacious, I think it’s a compulsion.

“It’s like an affliction, and other social entrepreneurs I know and love have often described it the same way.”

Despite the often-intense competition for financial backing—and having their ideas rigorously scrutinized in the process—social entrepreneurs and their out-of-the-box ways of thinking are driving a movement of sorts that works to apply the approach of a startup business venture to solving problems in K-12 education.

But some education leaders caution schools to be careful, especially when social entrepreneurs are promising academic benefits.

“Sometimes the ideas sound spiffy, but they aren’t researched and they aren’t tested, and we really don’t know the results they’ll have,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va. “You do have to have caution, especially when budgets are very tight, when looking at innovative ways to deliver on an academic promise.”

Of course, social entrepreneurs were around long before the moniker. (The Italian education reformer Maria Montessori was one.) But with roots in the nonprofit teaching corps Teach For America and the early charter school movement of the 1990s, social entrepreneurship in education, whether for profit or not, has been drawing more and more attention lately.

Bill Drayton, the founder and chief executive officer of the Arlington, Va.-based entrepreneurs’ association Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, is credited with coining the term “social entrepreneur” to describe change agents who combine a pragmatic business sense with a desire for social justice.

“They want to bring about lasting change in a sector that they care deeply about, as well as build a thriving venture in its own right,” said John J-H Kim, a senior lecturer and William Henry Bloomberg fellow at the Harvard Business School, who teaches a course called Entrepreneurship in Education Reform.

Incubating Ideas

With their enterprising approach to school improvement comes an expectation of measurable results for both students and teachers, a blend that has led to the building of education “incubators” to identify promising ideas and help the entrepreneurs behind them get their ventures off the ground. One of the newest incubators, Imagine K12 in Palo Alto, Calif., is devoted to new uses of educational technology—the fastest-growing segment of social entrepreneurship in education.

“These people are fueled by passion, drive, and commitment, and we can see evidence of their work all over the educational landscape,” Jennifer Carolan, the seed fund co-director at the NewSchools Venture Fund, based in Oakland, Calif., said of social entrepreneurs. “They’re making meaningful social change—we often say they’re trying to scratch their own itch—and putting pressure on the existing entrenched system to start doing the same.”

The nonprofit NewSchools uses philanthropic capital to support entrepreneurs who are aiming to transform public education, particularly in areas that would help underserved or low-income children. Extremely selective, NewSchools finances just a small portion of the ideas it considers; between 10 and 15 entrepreneurs with education technology proposals apply for funding each week, yet the nonprofit’s seed fund makes only six to 10 investments each year. NewSchools chooses to be selective because the seed fund invests in early-stage companies, which have the highest rate of failure. The total investments for 2012 will be about $1.5 million, part of NewSchools’ $20 million overall annual investment in education entrepreneurs.

Likewise, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which awarded Mr. Wish of Little Kids Rock a $300,000 grant in 2005 to hire employees and pay for other business expenses, tends to support fewer than 2 percent of applicants—about six out of roughly 500 annually.

Unfortunately, many ideas for change just aren’t that good and must be rejected despite the well-meaning people behind them, said Rupert Scofield, the president and CEO of the Foundation for International Community Assistance, a nonprofit microfinance organization with headquarters in Washington, and the author of The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build, and Run a Business that Improves the World.

“Not everyone is a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who at an early age with no job experience comes up with a huge breakthrough idea,” he said in an email. “Most of us need to toil in someone else’s vineyard for at least a decade, to see the mistakes/opportunities our employers make/miss and capitalize on them.”

Customized Curriculum

When Neeru Khosla was working as a molecular biologist in Silicon Valley, she knew she was surrounded by innovative ideas, but felt that not enough of them were being funneled into education. With a mission to “liberate learning material,” she left her job to help start the nonprofit CK-12 in 2007.

The Palo Alto-based organization—which provides free, customizable, interactive science, math, and engineering textbooks online at—grew out of Ms. Khosla’s eagerness to swap clunky, often archaic printed textbooks for digital, downloadable ones aligned to state standards.

The individualized instruction that can happen as a result stands in sharp contrast to the rigid, memory-driven educational system Ms. Khosla moved through as a child in India. She recalls her frustrated attempts to draw a diagram at age 14 with a pencil that kept breaking, to which her teacher scolded, “A bad toolman always blames her tools.”

“That got me thinking for a long time,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll never be anyone because I’m a bad toolperson.’ When a system requires you to do something a certain way, and you can’t do it that way, who’s the loser? It’s not the teacher.”

Today, CK-12 has users in all 50 states and has logged more than 8 million downloads—as users mix, match, and redesign content whenever necessary—in the past two years alone.

The company is funded by the London-based Amar International Charitable Foundation, and by Khosla and her husband, Vinod. Much like other new ventures, the services are offered for free as a way to drive demand and get a high number of users committed to the service.

At this point, the company does not have plans to move to a fee-based model or sell advertising on the site. But it is investigating the possibility of leasing its content to other organizations, which would be able to make modifications to it based on certain copyright licenses.

Leading universities are embracing the spirit of social entrepreneurs and are turning out increasing numbers of graduates who want to influence change in the K-12 market. Ms. Carolan of NewSchools said that over the three years she was co-teacher of an Innovations in Education course at Stanford University, she saw enrollment increase tenfold, causing the class size to be capped.

Meanwhile, at the Harvard Business School, a graduate-level course known as the Social Innovation Lab began this academic year to meet a rise in the number of students interested in conceptualizing and drawing up plans to launch education-related social ventures. Of the 14 plans in the current course, half are related to education, according to Allen Grossman, a business professor who co-teaches the course.

“If you look at the more outstanding urban districts making progress, they’re all over innovation like this,” said Mr. Grossman, whose current research focuses on school leadership, management, and governance.

“They’re reshaping their districts both in the attitude toward, and the ability to utilize, this kind of ingenuity to improve student outcomes,” he said. “We need to encourage that kind of thinking among superintendents, because without their support, these entrepreneurial ideas are never going to go to scale.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Social Entrepreneurs Try to Offer Solutions to Problems in K-12


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