College & Workforce Readiness

Universities Create Ed. Entrepreneur Programs

By Sean Cavanagh — February 26, 2013 7 min read
Eric M. Schmidt, who studied education entrepreneurship at Rice University in Houston when he was a teacher, is now the school leader—essentially the principal—of a middle school in Houston. KIPP Courage College Prep is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program's charter school network.
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Efforts to promote an evolving area of study—entrepreneurship in education—are taking hold in graduate schools across the country, as universities craft programs and courses focused on cultivating school leaders and private-sector developers capable of bringing new ideas, and possibly new products and technologies, to schools.

University faculty members and administrators say the study of K-12 entrepreneurship and innovation has had a presence in the postsecondary world for years. But recently, interest in the subject has grown, and it has secured a much more clearly defined place in a number of colleges of education, business schools, and other academic departments.

A number of factors are driving the programs’ increased prominence.

School leaders and policymakers have become increasingly focused on bringing new academic and financial models to school districts, which face pressure to raise test scores and control costs.

At the same time, higher education, business, and school leaders have become increasingly convinced that universities can do more to encourage the development of new technologies and ideas that can benefit schools, if entrepreneurs are given encouragement and sufficient knowledge of the primary and secondary school landscape.

That thinking is evident at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, which has had a long-standing interest in promoting entrepreneurship in education and is seeking to expand those efforts.

The goal is to bring about “an absolute merger of researchers, the education community, investors, and entrepreneurs in a way that benefits schools,” said Barbara Kurshan, a former private-sector entrepreneur who is now the executive director of academic innovation at the graduate school in Philadelphia. “If we don’t figure out a way to help these groups speak to each other,” she said, “we’re not going to see any of the benefits reach the classroom.”

The education school’s work on education entrepreneurship is playing out on a number of fronts.

Since 2010, the school has staged a competition designed to spawn potential breakthrough ideas and products in the education market. It will award $120,000 in prizes this year. The competition is meant partly to expose winners to educators and researchers, as well as venture capitalists and others, school officials say.

Ms. Kurshan, who joined the school last year, also has been working on a project to encourage a more direct link between education research and entrepreneurship—so that academic scholars with sound research can have the support to take their ideas “to product or practice,” she said, and so that entrepreneurs can understand how research can and should inform their work.

Innovation vs. Reality

The background Ms. Kurshan brings to the task includes work in higher education, and time spent as the executive director of an open-source education provider, a developer of children’s software for Microsoft, and co-chief executive officer of an education investment fund.

The University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school also offers a course for master’s and Ph.D. students in education and social entrepreneurship, taught by Martin Ihrig, an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton business school who is also serving as a senior fellow in the graduate school of education.

Most of the 20 or so students in the class have worked in schools and intend to return to them after earning their degrees, Mr. Ihrig said.

His course draws on texts such as those focused on the theory of entrepreneurship, “knowledge assets,” and a third titled Marketbusters: 40 Strategic Moves That Drive Exceptional Business Growth.

Mr. Ihrig said the course addresses entrepreneurship in broad terms, focusing on the “charge to improve” and weighing the push for innovation while also considering the needs of students, parents, school board members, and others. He sees benefits both for educators and for business leaders and other innovators in understanding one another’s needs.

“Where does innovation come from?” Mr. Ihrig said. “It’s from cross-disciplinary integration.”

A different effort is under way at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh: The university will launch a master’s-degree program next fall in learning sciences and engineering. It will be designed to refine the skills and knowledge of students who plan to work in the education industry, including publishing, technology, curriculum development, and testing.

Students are likely to have backgrounds in computer science, design, and psychology, as well as education, said Carolyn Rosé, an associate professor in the university’s institutes of language technologies and human-computer interaction. They will take classes in curriculum, instruction, e-learning, assessment, and software, with electives in data mining, intelligent tutoring, cognitive modeling, and other areas.

The program’s designers want its students to gain the ability to apply science to the creation of products in technology, curriculum, and other areas that will help schools, and to work in other settings where learning takes place, from homes to museums, Ms. Rosé said.

It’s a program “specifically designed to train people to go off into industry,” Ms. Rosé said.

“You don’t want science to not go anywhere,” she added. The program “was conceived as a way of making sure our research had more of an impact in the world.”

When efforts to bring innovation to K-12 schools fail, it’s often because those with new ideas tend to treat schools as “market-style entities,” and they have little understanding of the institutional and educational challenges in play, said Christopher Lubienski, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The focus tends to be on “management techniques” rather than on ideas that can drive academic improvement, said Mr. Lubienski, who has studied efforts to bring innovation to schools in the United States and internationally. Graduate schools would be wise to give students a realistic view of the challenges facing K-12 systems, he said.

Too often, Mr. Lubienski said, “ ‘innovation’ becomes idolized for it’s own sake, without a lot of thought put into what we want it to look like in schools.”

‘Very Intense Experience’

At Rice University in Houston, studies of education entrepreneurship have secured a place in a different department: the business school.

In 2008, school officials launched the Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program, inspired in part by a desire to help local schools and to produce leaders for the city’s burgeoning charter school sector, said Andrea Hodge, the executive director of the education entrepreneurship program.

Students in the program face assignments familiar to business school programs everywhere, Ms. Hodge said, though typically with an education-specific focus. “Our cases,” she said, “tend to boil down to ‘How does this work in a school?’ ”

A majority of those who enter the two-year Rice program are teachers or principals. They attend the school at night—usually while still working day jobs in schools—and graduate with a business master’s degree with a certificate in education entrepreneurship.

“It’s a very intense experience,” Ms. Hodge said.

Student Incentives

But students have an incentive to stick it out. If the graduates continue to work in schools after finishing the program, the university reimburses 80 percent of the business school’s total tuition and costs, which are more than $90,000 over two years. The school has produced 24 graduates with the entrepreneurship certificate so far.

One such graduate is Eric M. Schmidt, who entered the program in 2009 as a teacher and is now the school leader—essentially the principal—of a new middle school in Houston, KIPP Courage College Prep, part of the Knowledge Is Power Program’s charter school network.

He said the program shaped his thinking in areas such as supporting teachers at his school, recruiting families and explaining the school’s goals to them, and making sound purchasing decisions.

“I decided that if I was going to do a master’s [program], I wanted it to be an experience that would differentiate me from other future school leaders,” said Mr. Schmidt, who is 28. While the business program didn’t offer a clear “template” for running a school, he said, it helped him decide “where do I start, and how do I want this place to look.”

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Universities Train Entrepreneurs for K-12 Schools

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