Who’s an Education Entrepreneur?

May 23, 2012

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.