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Who’s an Education Entrepreneur?

Jason Tomassini, a talented scribe who’s just joined the ink-stained ranks at Ed Week, alerted those of us who were asleep last weekend to a “spat” between Diane Ravitch, the education historian with the itchy Twitter finger, and Justin Hamilton, spokesman for the US Department of Ed. In the dustup, a mostly honorable group got sullied; herewith, a few words of defense.

As Tomassini details, the trouble begins with this gauntlet Ravitch throws on Twitter: “Who will transform education: entrepreneurs or educators?” In a series of tweets Ravitch assails “entrepreneurs,” who “will sell the schools and kids and outsource teaching,” and then quickly focuses on for-profit entrepreneurs. She tweets, “Entrepreneurs need to make a monetary profit. Does that lead to quality education? Nope.” Allies of both duelers join in, and Idit Harel Caperton, the founder of an educational game design network, calls Ravitch on her blurry definition of entrepreneurs. Ravitch clarifies: “By entrepreneurs, I refer to profit-seekers, not generators of new ideas.” But the common ground doesn’t last long, as Ravitch picks up her previous line of attack: “I have never met a teacher who looked for ways to make a buck off his/her students, like for-profit orgs now prowling for $.” We hear no more from Hamilton after that (Tomassini concludes he has found something better to do with his Saturday night), but Ravitch continues, assailing the Department and Secretary Arne Duncan for his “deafening silence” on the “terrible education provided by for-profit entrepreneurs.”

We need to reclaim the term education entrepreneurs.

I’m sensitive on this point, not just because NewSchools helped to make the term popular, but also because of comments I heard last week at the Education Writers Association conference in Philly. In a panel I moderated on blended learning, Chris Lemann, the thoughtful principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, offered up a tough critique of entrepreneurs. He’s no foe of innovation—Science Leadership is a tech-enabled magnet high school that’s won awards from Apple—but he has taken offense, rightly, at foolish talk he’s heard at innovation conferences from folks with big eyes for profit and little respect for teachers.

These are not the education entrepreneurs I know. Here are some of the folks I think of when I hear the term education entrepreneur:

  • Alexandra Bernadotte: Based on her own challenges as a first-generation college student, Haitian-born entrepreneur Alexandra Bernadotte developed and pursued a vision for an organization that would support students in their journey towards college success. She founded Beyond 12 to help high schools and colleges use data to get better at helping first-generation college students succeed. Beyond 12 also provides college coaching to give students the academic and social support they need to earn a college degree.
  • Eric Westendorf and Alix Guerrier: Both Eric and Alix are grounded in the reality of urban public schools, Eric most recently as Chief Academic Officer and  then principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C, and previously as a teacher in North Carolina, New York, and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Alix has taught school in places as diverse as Boston and Brazil. The two came together at E.L Haynes to found LearnZillion, because, as they write, “we wanted to solve a problem. We knew what lessons our students needed but we didn’t have enough time to teach each student the right lesson. To create more time, and to share best practices across classrooms, E.L. Haynes’ teachers began to capture their expertise on screencasts. We posted them on a homemade website and coupled them with a short quiz to help us track student progress.” Now, their library of micro-lessons is going national to provide a resource to teachers across the country.
  • Norman Atkins: Two decades ago, Norman helped establish The Robin Hood Foundation, which works to end poverty in New York City.  About 10 years later, he co-founded North Star Academy middle school in Newark, one of the highest performing urban schools in the country, which became the flagship of Uncommon Schools, which stretches from Newark, to Brooklyn, and to Rochester, NY. Now, he has gone on to create yet another venture: the Relay Graduate School of Education, a startup that has attained the status of an institution of higher education. A cooperative project of Uncommon, KIPP New York, and Achievement First, Relay provides hands-on training to a new generation of teachers.
  • Daniel Jhin Yoo: Daniel was a special educator working with 7th and 8th graders in East Palo Alto. There, he writes, he “struggled with keeping track of individual student goals and never felt like there was enough time to collaborate with everyone.” Bringing together his twin careers as a special educator and a software engineer, Daniel created Goalbook, which helps educators work as a team to support special-needs students by collaborating around individualized learning plans.

The list, chosen somewhat at random, reflects a mix of nonprofit and for-profit, but all share a sense of urgency about making education better in low-income communities, and in most cases, a deep understanding of the realities of those communities and their schools. NewSchools helped to make the term “education entrepreneurs” popular more than a decade ago, in answer to a call from Al Gore to use the principles of Silicon Valley to improve education in low-income communities. We use it to describe folks who are building autonomous organizations that live and die by their results, and thus are motivated by a powerful sense of urgency. Education entrepreneurs can be nonprofit or for-profit; for the folks we talk to every day, mission is the most important thing, and few expect to end up rich. Some organizations have a hard time deciding which to be. For some, particularly in the tech space, operating as a for-profit is the only viable path to the startup capital or engineering talent the organization needs.

Increasingly, education entrepreneurs are seen as vital to wider change; it’s instructive, for example, to look at Reconnecting McDowell, a partnership between the American Federation of Teachers and the state of West Virginia to bring major change to a county that ranks last in the state in education, but first in overdose deaths. It’s exciting to see entrepreneurial efforts such as Engrade*, and even Idit Harel Caperton’s Globaloria, as partners in that work.

But no matter the financial model, the entrepreneurs we know have little in common with Ravitch’s “prowling” profiteers. Her comments seek to drive a wedge between teachers and those who work to improve public education through entrepreneurship and advocacy. (Indeed, her original tweet links to a blog post spotlighting exactly that division.)

Let’s hope we don’t have to choose between heroes inside and outside the classroom, as it’s hard to see education improving without both. And let’s reclaim the term “education entrepreneur” for the folks it most commonly describes—folks like Alex, Eric, Alix, Norman and Daniel. They’re not in competition with teachers. They’re helping them.

*Engrade is a new partner and is not yet listed on the Reconnecting McDowell website.

5 Responses to “Who’s an Education Entrepreneur?”

  1. Having witnessed so many education companies’ unsavory approaches in action, this is an issue I’ve pondered myself – is there a place for for-profits in K-12?

    I’ve come to similar conclusions: yes there is; with caveats.

    Ed entrepreneurs are the makers of new tools, innovative environments and paradigm-challenging instructional designs. Our innovation is possible because we can at least partially operate from outside the system and all its gridlock, though this distance is also the greatest danger to ed entrepreneurs, and can lead to plenty of misguided effort or worse.

    It is rarer to see for-profits truly stick to mission-based principles, focusing on the bottom line of the students and educators we serve. But it IS doable – we aspire to this every day at Flocabulary – and should probably be demanded of all ed entrepreneurs.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. I agree strongly that we will need people working together across different sectors in order to improve education in our country. However, I also think that there is a very legitimate concern with for-profit interests that have been and continue to be influential in the public sector.

    Entrepreneurial passion, motivation, and focus is key to tackling, unencumbered by bureaucracy, the seemingly intractable problems of our society. But if that entrepreneurialism is devoted solely to the bottom-line of profit, their influence on the public sphere will be skewed.

    A possible solution to this antagonism between for-profit interests and advocacy for the public commons is to take Muhammad Yunus’ advice and develop “social businesses” — businesses devoted to a cause that earn enough to sustain operations, but are unable to take dividends beyond that.

    I think this concept of the social business would be perfect for education entrepreneurs.

  3. Entrepreneurs are needed in all areas of society. Not the kind of people that want to make a dime of anyone they can but the kind of people that want to streamline a process for maximum efficiency or invent a way whole new way to do something that gives a better product. The education system could definitely benefit from a person looking at it like a business so they concentrate on losing as little money as possible and ending with the best possible product.

  4. From watching the documentaries on the charter school systems (like Waiting for Superman) and having to participate in a course on public education systems in California, I can see where the concerns are with Entrepreneurs in academia.

    Yet in this society, with capitalism driving the decisions of our policy makers and our education systems skewed by zip codes and tax numbers, it may be a different outlook to have a business-minded entrepreneur “sharing” the reigns of education and redirecting the model of how schools can gain the financial support to produce successful students.

    There are some entrepreneurs who are blinded by the money, but in today’s society, everyone can be an entrepreneur and in any field.

    Who knows — maybe an entrepreneur can help widen the career choices and job opportunities of the future generation! And as the author says, let’s have teachers and academic professionals reclaim the term “educational entrepreneurs!”

  5. Jonathan,

    Great post. There are many phenomenal education entrepreneurs out there.

    As the son of a professor and as someone who remains close with faculty at a number of universities; I think the overwhelming frustration is one of hype, hyperbole and histrionics.


    People who have dedicated their life to education are frustrated with hearing young 20-somethings (of which I am one) heralding their own startups as “revolutionizing education” or “disrupting universities” (of which I am guilty.). It is the hyperbole, not the profits, that is marginalizing the efforts of education entrepreneurs and alienating teachers and entrepreneurs.


    Change. Disrupt. Future of. Revolutionize. Kill. Bubble. Broken. Revolution.

    This is the kind of language that is commonplace among education entrepreneurs and investors alike, and it’s causing the movement to lose credibility. Space X’s mission is simply to make rockets and the space industry more affordable by an order of magnitude; Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open– they use none of the colorful language that we education entrepreneurs and investors often use to describe our mission.

    To be clear; those who are actually “changing” the world, do not need to describe themselves as doing such.

    Imagine, you are a 60-year-old professor, who has spent 30 years working for your university — literally your entire life in school as a student or teacher; and a 19-year-old (I could name a few) calls college or our school system “broken” and offers zero solutions on how to change it, fix it, nor has dedicated years to helping the system.

    So, since I am obviously an education entrepreneur, I believe we are mostly here for the right reason; people should rightfully question the motives of the investors — there is not much transparency in the Limited Partner structure who are backing some of the education-minded venture capitalists. (NSVF does a great job of being transparent with this, by the way). So I think the lack of transparency of who exactly is profiting (or stands to profit) from many of the for-profit venture-funded education startups is certainly a valid question.


    I blogged my complete thoughts here:

    A professor, who happens to have degrees from both Princeton and MIT, recently wrote this to me in an email:

    “I applaud MIT’s move, but I doubt it will be the universal game-changer that some people might expect. The programs “draw primarily from MIT’s advanced course material” which frankly is likely to be out of intellectual reach for most people. I was not an undergrad there, but I know that for the undergrads calculus is the lowest math course offered.

    So, with that as the starting point, I suspect that the student pool will not overlap with University of Phoenix a whole lot! Now, there are lots of interesting advanced courses that people could learn from but if it is still a robust MIT education the vast majority of US students would be out of their comfort range.

    Not so for professional engineers, for example, who are accustomed to the subject material and need a new twist – it would be great for them. I would love to sit in on some amazing lectures by amazing people there – that would be great and I would let wonderful material wash over me in great big waves!

    My guess is that they will begin with the Sloan School because that is where the greatest interest (and success rate) might be. I would welcome the opportunity to be wrong, and to see thousands of kids suddenly getting MIT certificates for free. Perhaps in China or India where the individual work ethic is stronger…”

    While I do believe we all need to work together, as entrepreneurs, I believe we’d be served best by toning down our language a notch; presenting our ideas and products with humility and without hyperbole, and by working closely with teachers and educators to enhance the work they are doing.

    And for startups like ClassDojo, EdModo, Schoology — the most successful Education Technology ventures — that is exactly what they are doing. Founders like the great education entrepreneurs you listed here. Founders like Zach Sims at CodeCademy are building tools to help people learn; they’re not shouting from the rooftops about how education needs to be reformed or changed or revolutionized (of which, I, to be sure, am guilty) they are building great products and meeting real needs in the world.

    That attitude will win the day.

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