Entrepreneurship and American education
- While educational entrepreneurship’s influence has been muted by policy and circumstance, this has nevertheless been a time of great growth for the field.
- Over the next two decades, educational entrepreneurs will encounter a funding community, policy environment, and changing educational landscape that will profoundly affect the types of ventures and the ability of those ventures to scale, grow, and meet children’s needs.
- Entrepreneurship does not guarantee success. If anything, it ensures that there will be failure. For all its imperfections though, it offers a degree of imagination and natural winnowing well-suited to our sprawling, diverse, and pluralistic nation, and it creates an opportunity for truly world-changing products to emerge.
- 创业并不一定会成功。如果要说什么是确定的话，那就是一定会有失败产生。虽然有各种不完美，它提供了一定程度的想象空间和自然筛选，很好的适应了我们这个参差多元，分权共治的国家，而且创造机会让真正改变世界的成果得以涌现。 I have two adorable dogs who I love like children. Georgie is a precocious, 10-pound fur ball Bichon Frise I bought from an Amish man in rural Maryland. Beau is a seven-pound Maltese and silky terrier mix who spent the first five years of his life in a meth den in Missouri before my wife and I rescued him. When we travel, we have to find a place to board them. For years, we used kennels or “open-play” dog boarding facilities. By and large, we were pleased with the care that the dogs received, but boy, was it expensive.
That is why it was great when my wife discovered the app Rover. Rover is kind of like Airbnb for dog sitters. Prospective sitters (or walkers or groomers) create profiles, post their rates, and have a space for customers to review them. People can find options that are convenient, in their price range, and the kind of environment they want for their dogs. We use the app whenever we travel and get what I think is far superior care for substantially less than we paid a kennel. It has been a big win for us and our dogs.
Rover illustrates disruptive innovation at work. Its founders identified a practical problem, leveraged knowledge and technology to devise a better solution, and then provided that solution in a way that upends old routines and assumptions.
I am of the opinion that it would be good for K–12 schooling if more teachers, school leaders, and entrepreneurs took a Rover-like approach to challenges that plague education. How can we better use school facilities? How can we help children find schools that are a good match for them? How can we help teachers identify the best strategies to address specific learning challenges? The list of vexing problems goes on and on. But what does it take for entrepreneurial problem solving to actually help students, and how do we think about the obstacles it faces and the problems it may create?
Look, Rover is no panacea, but it is a great improvement. I would be the first to admit that in some cities it is probably impractical. There might not be enough supply for great potential dog sitters to want to get involved, or there might not be enough demand to keep prices attractive to sitters. For many dog owners, it is still too expensive. That said, Rover does help solve a particular problem for a lot of people, while opening the door to newer and better solutions. This is what entrepreneurial activity can do.
In May 2016, Harvard Education Press is releasing a volume called Educational Entrepreneurship Today, which Frederick Hess and I edited. Its content arose during a conference we hosted at AEI during the summer of 2015, where we brought together leading educational entrepreneurs, researchers in the field, and people with experience funding entrepreneurial ventures. What follows are a couple of big ideas that are circulating in the educational entrepreneurship world today and some of the tensions that will define educational entrepreneurship in the future. Will education be a place where Rover- (or Uber- or Airbnb-) like innovation takes place? Do we want it to be?
Trends in Educational Entrepreneurship
The first and most important idea that those observing educational entrepreneurship should know is that while its influence over the past decade or so has been muted by policy and circumstance, this has nevertheless been a time of great growth for the field. Sure, it is true that school procurement systems (how schools and teachers shop for and purchase new materials) are stifling and outdated. Teachers and principals have limited flexibility to redesign schools or put new tools to work in ambitious ways.
But there have been many bright spots. Enrollment in charter schools doubled, and then doubled again. Venture capital investments grew from almost nothing to hundreds of millions’ worth. Companies such as Wireless Generation and SchoolNet thrived and then were sold at a handsome rate of return, emboldening more entrepreneurs and investors who seek to emulate those efforts.
The second thing worth noting is that what gets measured gets valued. The No Child Left Behind era heavily emphasized how students perform on state tests in reading and math. In the modern era, there has also been far less appetite or room for entrepreneurs who are not focused on closing reading and math “gaps” for low-income, African American, or Latino youth. Teachers are increasingly evaluated based on these metrics, district schools are at risk of being sanctioned if their students do not perform adequately, and charter schools know their existence depends largely on their test scores.
Test scores tend to define the ways in which schools are judged and compared, and they also mean that new providers can really only demonstrate their mettle in terms of reading and math. When policy and philanthropy treat reading and math tests as the coin of the realm, it creates problems for entrepreneurs who are not offering “whole school” models, focusing on tested grades or subjects, or tackling English Language Arts and math in ways that do not map onto tests. The metrics used to measure success shape the types of solutions that will be offered.
Finally, the field of educational entrepreneurship needs to take a hard look in the mirror and realize it has suffered from its insularity. As New Schools Venture Fund President Stacey Childress points out in her chapter in Educational Entrepreneurship Today, Teach For America (TFA) alumni were key founders of nearly one in five education ventures launched in the past 20 years. That data point reflects the larger reality that educational entrepreneurs are likely to share common formative experiences and worldviews. This has produced a community that has tended to share certain assumptions (such as the importance of reading and math tests) and embrace a certain set of policies (such as test-based teacher evaluation and charter schooling).
This insularity has contributed to a simmering tension in several cities with an abundance of entrepreneurial activity and new school formation, such as Detroit, Newark, and New Orleans. Activists, politicians, and community members charge that these ventures are being done to marginalized communities, not with them. Part of this tension is stoked by conflating entrepreneurship and “education reform” more generally (a phenomenon that we will tackle momentarily), but another comes from a genuine fear of snake-oil salesmen and carpetbaggers with agendas of their own.
Two Dynamics That Will Shape the Next Two Decades of Educational Entrepreneurship
The “what” of educational entrepreneurship is exciting. The “how” is a lot tougher. Over the next two decades, educational entrepreneurs will encounter a funding community, a policy environment, and a changing educational landscape that will profoundly affect the types of ventures they are able to create and the ability of those ventures to scale, grow, and meet children’s needs. How these dynamics will play out remains to be seen. In fact, there are several key dynamics in educational entrepreneurship that are worth exploring.
The first dynamic is the tension between big bets and small bets. Because the outcomes of new ventures are uncertain, it makes sense to make a large number of small bets and winnow them over time. This reduces risk for everyone involved and accelerates the rate at which new models can be tried. But this approach flies in the face of much of the thinking that has characterized educational innovation and entrepreneurship during the past decade. Philanthropists and investors have been eager to find “what works” and invest in scaling it up. Proponents of the scale-up approach point to the need nationwide, the slow pace of change, and the messiness of a small-bet strategy.
Fundamentally, this tension highlights the competing visions of educational improvement in America today. Some see experimentation as eventually converging on a single or small number of “best” models, practices, or programs that should ultimately be adopted everywhere. Others see a far more fluid world, with “best” answers being highly contingent and context dependent. This is not a simple story of entrepreneurs versus bureaucrats, but of good-faith disagreements on the approaches most likely to serve the needs of schools and schooling.
The second dynamic—a tension that actually poses a serious risk to current and future entrepreneurial ventures—is the simultaneous desire for experimentation and uniformly positive results. In the world of educational entrepreneurship, there are calls for experimentation, the need to “think outside the box,” and a need to “fundamentally change” American schools. However, in the next breath, the same leaders and advocates who have preached the Innovation Gospel insist on “no excuses” accountability systems aiming for 100 percent proficiency and charter-authorizing systems that require all schools and offerings to prioritize performance on state tests. While it is hypothetically possible to square this circle, the reality is that educational entrepreneurs are whipsawed between an appetite for risk-taking and a strong aversion to it.
The casual observer can easily imagine that all the expertise and money involved in venture capital and startups must deliver a high rate of success. The truth is quite different. Ninety percent of all new enterprises fail. Failure is most of what new ventures actually do. That Darwinian process of figuring things out or learning from others’ mistakes is essential to entrepreneurial success.
While the idea of “failure” is disquieting when it comes to children and schools, the value of failure has an important place in classrooms and learning. Students have to feel free to try something new and learn from the experience, whether or not it works out. In American education today, however, there is little tolerance for failure—in classrooms, schools, or the larger landscape.
This tension is particularly evident in the inclination to support large, established “entrepreneurial” ventures such as TFA or the KIPP Academies. These ventures show track records of success, have proven leaders, and constitute a well-known quantity. At the same time, these are the very things that tend to produce rigidity and routine in any organization.
Organizations such as TFA and KIPP, with more than two decades of experience, records of accomplishment, alumni networks, and stakeholders, are no longer positioned to pioneer wholly new approaches. Rather, they become attractive to funders, policymakers, and education officials as they become less and less the entrepreneurial upstart and more and more a familiar piece of the new education establishment. Rather than think about new ways of preparing teachers, people keep supporting TFA. The consequence is that these organizations are asked to do more and more, stretching their ability to excel while potentially crowding out interest in unproven ventures.
Questions about the importance of entrepreneurship and our tolerance for uncertainty are also central to policy debates over entrepreneur-friendly reforms such as education savings accounts, online learning, and expanded school choice programs. After all, such programs are, by their very nature, unproven.
So What Can We Do?
If you, like me, appreciate the entrepreneurial impulse and think that it has something to offer the nation’s education system, then there are steps that can be taken to try and advance the cause.
Funders can make small bets, as well as large ones. This can help address both the fear of “failing big” and the sense that so much of education reform today is imposed by outsiders on local communities. Insofar as the groups receiving the majority of funding are outsiders that come to town with their already-baked models, well-intentioned philanthropy can unwittingly exacerbate this divide.
An easy rule of thumb here is for funders to be sure they are devoting some modest percentage of their investment giving—whether that is 5 percent or 20 percent—to new ventures. Fortunately, the resources to support the developing, prototyping, and testing process tend to be only a fraction of what it costs to contribute meaningfully to an established operation.
Entrepreneurs can start with “tiny schools.” Given varying tolerance for risk and limited resources for experimentation, prospective entrepreneurs should take a good look at New Orleans’ 4.0 Schools and their idea of “tiny schools” (described by 4.0 CEO Matt Candler in his chapter). Creating a new charter school typically entails a dozen or more employees, scores or even hundreds of students, and a budget north of $1 million—meaning that failure is slow, expensive, and enormously disruptive.
Tiny schools mean that educators with a promising idea can start with 5 to 10 kids on Saturday mornings in a public library or school cafeteria. Such a model allows entrepreneurs to experiment, fail, improve, and iterate over the course of several sessions at very low cost and next to zero risk to students. Just as evolutionary change accelerates when new generations are born more often, so entrepreneurial invention benefits from shortened time horizons and more rapid iteration.
Tiny schools accomplish two central tasks. First, they lower the risk of starting a new school. If the idea bears fruit, it can be ramped up. If the teaching methods do not connect with students, at worst, students have lost a couple of Saturdays. Even if the transition cannot be made to a whole-year model, only a few students are affected.
Second, they lower the cost of experimentation. In starting an entire charter school, substantial philanthropic and then public dollars are spent on an experiment. It might work out; it might not. While over time there is reason to believe that this will lead to better schools, it is an expensive way to get there. By bridging the gap between nothing and a whole school, tiny schools create space for rapid iteration and improvement.
State leaders can complete a comprehensive regulatory review. Although mundane, rules regarding subjects such as procurement, teacher preparation, new school creation, reporting, facilities, special education, online provision, staff development, and charter school authorization can create huge, counterproductive hurdles to new providers and new models of provision. Although these regulations may have made sense at one time, many no longer do.
State leaders would do well to put together a blue-ribbon panel of experts to scour the state education code for outdated and ill-suited statutes and regulations that may be stymieing entrepreneurial solutions. They can also encourage districts, charter authorizers, and schools of education to conduct similar surveys of their own operations and publicly report on where and what they are streamlining.
Don’t Go Gaga for Entrepreneurs; Foster Entrepreneurship
The exciting source of dynamism that created everything from Rover to the next cool app to teach students to read is entrepreneurialism, not any particular entrepreneur or entrepreneurial venture. Exciting new entrants age, grow, and evolve. Some succeed and some fail. Those that succeed, with time and success, tend to become members in good standing of the stodgy old establishment. That is the cycle of entrepreneurial life.
Entrepreneurship does not guarantee success. If anything, it ensures that there will be failure. Of course, if a half century of school reform has taught us anything, it is that system reform is also sure to produce failure—except on a much larger scale and without the dynamism, inventiveness, and self-correction that characterizes vibrant entrepreneurial sectors.
For all its imperfections though, educational entrepreneurship offers a degree of imagination and natural winnowing that seems especially well-suited to the sprawling, diverse, and pluralistic nation that we live in, and it creates an opportunity for truly world-changing products to emerge. Those who believe in the power of the entrepreneurial impulse would do well never to cling to any particular venture. The social good is best served by creating the conditions in which entrepreneurs can thrive if—and only if—they are serving the best interests of students.
- Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane, Educational Entrepreneurship Today (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016).
- Stacy Childress, “From Generation to Generation: Fifteen Years of Education Entrepreneurship,” in Educational Entrepreneurship Today, ed. Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016).
- Matt Candler, “Go Small or Go Home: Innovation in Schooling,” in Educational Entrepreneurship Today, ed. Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016).