Monday, July 30, 2012

So You Think You Can Be an Entrepreneur?

A couple of months ago, there was a twitter exchange between Diane Ravitch and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's press secretary Justin Hamilton about entrepreneurship. Ravitch blogged about it here and there was an especially good summary of it on an Ed Week blog here.

My own tweet was:

Certainly some teachers are entrepreneurial and we should encourage and even teach students to think entrepreneurially (see this amazing project Chad Sansing did with his students). Entrepreneurship plays a unique and needed role in our country, though we should be certain to teach students to be ethical at the same time--to avoid being greedy, avoid treating workers badly, and to not dodge paying taxes

But really, teachers are not entrepreneurs and Diane Ravitch most certainly isn't one (no offense, Diane!). On the contrary, teachers should be intellectuals and thinkers. Indeed a piece in The New Republic, embracing the bill that would eliminate continuing contracts (aka"tenure") in Virginia, putting teachers on one-year contracts, was disturbing as Ravitch said because it's based on the premise that teachers don't have ideas that need protection, that they aren't intellectuals as higher education academics are. Since the majority of K-12 teachers are women, this assertion has a sexist ring to it. However, I mostly find these assumptions and conversations disturbing because they are anti-intellectual. They totally disregard the idea of education as an intellectual endeavor and of teaching as intellectual work.

These ideas also seem rather anti-entrepreneurial. It's a one-size-fits-all concept, that we can fix education by every teacher and educator becoming an entrepreneur. Being a successful entrepreneur--one with a truly original and workable idea--is rare. And now all of these reformy education types are calling themselves entrepreneurs. Are you kidding me?! On what planet does making your greatest goals that all kids will score the same way on the same unreliable tests make you an entrepreneur? That aspiration and the rigidity that accompanies it is not "innovative" or "revolutionary;" it's dreary, dull, and uninspired. So much of current education reform takes the creative, ingenious, critical, and curious elements of the human spirit and just crushes them. Now, I don't believe this is the intent, it's a side effect, but it's a huge, deal-breaking side effect. Furthermore, those who brush aside or ignore such consequences show they fundamentally misunderstand how education and learning works in the first place and hence show they don't belong in the classroom or in any sort educational leadership role.

Then there are the cases where the goals of entrepreneurship conflict with what should be the goals of education, and are achieved successfully at the expense of a rich and meaningful education. For example, the Rocketship schools model is a very entrepreneurial idea: achieve greater efficiency by using more computers to teach kids the content of standardized tests. The adults that run and work for Rocketship make more money; the software, computer, and testing companies profit more than they would; and the government and taxpayers save money. Now I don't think it's a bad idea to have kids practice basic math facts or basic geography facts (see Stack the Countries, for example) on computers; on the contrary, teachers should have access to such tools and if they can cut costs and make better use of their time and expertise using them, so much the better. But with their narrow focus on math and reading and even narrower focus on boosting math and reading test scores (otherwise, they go out of business), I doubt that Rocketship's students are getting a very good education, and while the software they use may be so, Rocketship's instructional practices aren't particularly new or innovative.

So not only are we forgetting about the necessity of intellectuals and actual educators to a well-educated society, we are losing sight of what entrepreneurship means. Just because you call yourself an "entrepreneur" or "innovative" doesn't make it so. Giving central office bureaucrats ridiculous titles like "Chief Talent Officer" and "Success Initiative Portfolio Manager" and "Teacher Effectiveness Systems Support Analyst" and "Director of Special Education Product Solutions" and "Knowledge Management Liaison" won't transform them (or the people who work under them) into entrepreneurs. You're just exchanging one type of evasive, empty jargon for another. They're still bureaucrats, only many of them don't seem to even be good at managing a bureaucracy. Furthermore, just because entrepreneurs are successful at raising test scores or saving money doesn't mean the quality of education they are offering is any good or that their idea is good for students. 

If you want to try to be an entrepreneur, then go into business and product development! If that fails, go run a rental car franchise! Don't stick around education, making it dreadful and being an entrepreneur-wanna-be. It's pathetic. Too bad the amount of harm being done isn't.


  1. I think you raise several very important points. I think the distinction you make between the autonomy of someone who works as an intellectual, and the autonomy of an entrepreneur is a valuable one.

    I have another thought to add in. Entrepreneurship is based on the marketplace, and we are expected to enter into competition with others to sell what we have to offer. But there is another model by which people have advanced their individual well-being and even autonomy. That is through collective action, as in banding together using solidarity as the guiding principle. If you look at US history, we have a great deal of our rights as a result of the actions of individuals who banded together to counter the strength of a powerful (but small in number) elite. The labor movement ended child labor, and helped bring us social security and much of the safety net now being rapidly eroded.

    As educators, our autonomy derives in some cases from our ability to sell ourselves. But it can also come from our ability to stand together, to negotiate contracts that provide us with the due process protections that prevent us from being unfairly fired. Without these protections, many teachers do not have the freedom to speak their minds at faculty meetings, or even control what they teach within their classrooms.

    I also wonder about what we teach our children. We have so many projects where the students are asked to be entrepreneurs, to run their own businesses. The guiding ideology being taught is usually to get ahead through competition. Why are we not teaching our students how their grandparents were successful? In many cases it was through the advance of labor organizations, which helped build a middle class standard of living now rapidly eroding.

    1. I agree that Rachel's distinction between an intellectual and an entrepreneur is a highly valuable one.

      Anthony, I want to challenge one aspect of your presentation here, but I want to be clear that this isn't intended as any kind of a rebuttal, but rather as a desire to broaden the discussion. You said above that "entrepreneurship is based on the marketplace, and we are expected to enter into competition with others to sell what we have to offer. But there is another model by which people have advanced their individual well-being and even autonomy. That is through collective action"

      This focus on competition is undeniably a strong component of the marketplace. However, some businesses can be rightfully said to be organized through collective action as well--it's just a matter how that action is delineated. A firm is an organization of people based on a contract that has been legislated not only by the demands of the marketplace, but by the needs and demands of its various stakeholders--investors, producers, workers, consumers, etc. This can result in a variety of ownership and organizational forms, such as coops, and worked-owned businesses.

      There's an understandable general distaste and distrust out there towards business and the marketplace, but I think it's important to maintain cautious perspective in regards to markets rather than completely disavowing them altogether. I'm not pretending to speak as any kind of expert on these ideas, by the way, I'm just putting them out there as a thought experiment. The question, I think, is not if schools are part of the marketplace or not -- I believe they are, whether they are managed by the state or by a privately held for-profit or non-profit -- but whether and how we choose to regulate their connections to the market. My personal belief is that schools should be viewed as public commons, and be thus more heavily regulated.

    2. @Mark - Gosh, what a great comment. I had a similar reaction. Lately they often do, but markets and acts of entrepreneurialism don't have to work in opposition to collective action, collective ownership, or even the common good; they don't have to be destructive or all powerful. There are many forms that the entrepreneurialistic spirit and that business can take. The project that Chad Sansing did with his students (linked to in the post) is an example of this. The real problem is not the markets, it's that increasingly they're not adequately regulated and checked and those at the top have become way more powerful and rich than is good for a healthy and equitable democratic society.

      Perhaps someone who knows a lot more about this than I do could come along with a good critique of his ideas, but I've been impressed with what I've seen of the work of a Harvard Business School professor named Michael Porter. He talks a lot about the imperative of business to serve the common good--that what's good for communities is good for business.

    3. Also, predatory, the markets and entrepreneurs don't have to be predatory. But I feel like that's tied up in the way our economy is set up and also in some of our cultural conditioning. Which I guess gets back to the crux of what Anthony was saying--how students are taught to get ahead, to compete.

    4. To build on Anthony and Mark's points, I would offer a couple more.

      First, lots of people use "entrepreneur" as a fetish. The reality of entrepreneurial-ism is that, by five years, over 90% of new companies fail. And most new companies are not started in dorm rooms. They're started by people very good at something who get tired of working for the Man. Or they're laid off. Or fired. For most entrepreneurs, the ones who don't fail, there's not enough money to justify long hours, risk, and expenses. Instead, the joy of being an entrepreneur is in other things.

      Second, promoting entrepreneurs above other types of people is very Rand-ian. Entrepreneurs are not John Galt. Truly successful ones, like Bill Gates, might think they achieved success all by themselves, or with a few friends, but the reality is the opposite. No taxpayer funded infrastructure, for example, and you have no means to create businesses, jobs, wealth. No education funding, no educated workers.

      Worshiping entrepreneurs also is another way to justify unfair and out-sized rewards garnered by a few. The Instagram founders are more lottery winners than entrepreneurs. They experience a windfall. And, while I disagree with what Bill Gates believes, I respect he and others created Microsoft and nurtured it for decades, creating jobs and opportunities. That's what real entrepreneurs look like, in the most extreme case. Most entrepreneurs look like the local flower shop or consultancy.

      Which leads to my third point, how entrepreneurs and teachers might or might not be alike. If the reality of being an entrepreneur has nothing to do with instant wealth, and mostly to do with overwhelming odds of failure, then what makes it worth starting a business?

      The answer is the same as what makes it worth being a teacher. Entrepreneurs, like teachers, have to translate their passion so they can reach people who, in turn, work together to achieve a goal. Entrepreneurs only succeed if they can inspire and motivate and pull from people the best they have to offer. Entrepreneurs only succeed if, at the same time, they can assess and meet the needs of the people they work with, employees and customers. Great teachers do the same with their students. They succeed only if their students succeed in realizing a little bit of their potential, with the course work as the medium.

      Another similarity is in creativity. To succeed, entrepreneurs and teachers have to be creative in how they solve problems and achieve their goals. My first boss put it rather pithily, "When you're a** deep in alligators, it's hard to remember you came to drain the swamp." Successful teachers and entrepreneurs find ways to remember to drain the swamp. They find ways to keep their passion mostly front and center, then work in flexible ways to identify issues, identify the needs of the people they work with, identify possible resources to meet needs and resolve issues, then work to make it all happen.

      As you can (hopefully) see, to say teachers and education should be entrepreneurial is rather glib, in most cases. People rarely mean what I described, the reality of starting and sustaining a business and the reality of teaching a group of students over a school year. Both are very difficult and not for everyone.

      Finally, the worship of entrepreneurs above others denigrates all the other possible ways to contribute to society. There is equal glory in being a plumber, social worker, cop, consultant, teacher, and so on. Everybody adds value. Everybody is needed.

    5. Marx called it "the Fetish of Capitalism". The Bible calls it "the Golden Calf" or the "Moneylenders in the Temple."

  2. I think both you and Anthony together have touched on something at the core of our disagreement over public education. The more I think about social studies, the more I think it mostly boils down to negotiating the interests of the group versus those of the individual in about a million different ways.

    Obviously, we all think of this conflict differently in different contexts, but I think those of us so resistant to the application of business terms and practices on public education think of it as a perversion of a system that should be intended to help us negotiate our conflicts with and for the group. Clearly corporate reformers see public education as a system meant to be exploited by the individual for monetary gain - either in the name of preparing oneself for college, making more money by boosting test scores, or making profits off the operation of a chain of charter schools.

  3. The other issue this "entrepreneur" mindset raises for me is that of the trendiness associated with education reform cycles. In stark contrast to more successful school systems, where change comes through the natural process of collaboration, study and reflection, here we launch from trend to trend as though the Next Big Thing (a curricular product or intervention, a new practice promoted by hordes of consultants, etc.) will cure what (we assume) ails our schools. (Note how an entrepreneurial mindset opens up profit opportunities in a way an intellectual one doesn't...that's a post unto itself.)

    In this kind of setting, the entrepreneur mindset flourishes, both because the idea of entrepreneurship is itself a trendy thing, and because entrepreneurs are expected to produce the Next Big Thing to fix all problems (though teachers often discover that it's a lot like the Last Old Thing that was eventually demonized and supplanted).

    The problem is that trendiness doesn't help students or schools. Trendiness is ok if you're talking about clothes and accessories; flesh-and-blood students need to be guided by a group of competent professionals who actually understand their craft, not people trying to keep up with or create the latest trend in order to burnish their credentials as entrepreneurs.

  4. @Sabrina This is such a great comment. Definitely, trendiness is a factor here. I feel like The Next Big Thing mindset is a way to make education more exciting and glamorous. Such a mindset may attract much needed attention to neglected problems. However, it also attracts dilettantes and fame seekers who are unable or unwilling to roll up their sleeves and do decidedly un-glamorous work.

  5. I'd like to think I'm an entrepreneur. I've been self employed for 23 years. I've worked for a wide array of clients and industries including commercial printing, electricity distribution, commercial bathroom supplies, diet supplements, art museums, suppliers of the incarceration industry, disaster relief charities, advocacy campaigns, and education publishers and materials providers.

    I think entrepreneurism is a discrete set of skills that generally includes:

    * Discovering sources of untapped demand.

    * Identifying ways to improve return on investment.

    * Using trial and error to improve marketing processes.

    I don't see how any of these skills relate directly to teaching. Now I can *think* of a way to make them relate. But to me that's more of an exercise in forcing a business analogy onto education. Which is how these treatises on business approaches to education always sound -- forced.

  6. The zeitgeist in education props up entrepreneurs and stifles intellectuals. As reformers spread the meme that American public education is in dire straits, they open the door for entrepreneurs to step in and tout solutions.

  7. Great conversation!

    Exploring the idea of a public intellectual vs. entrepreneur:

    The average number of readers on an academic paper = 1. (Arthur Levine, former Columbia University professor, offered that statistic.)

    Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, Drive, and upcoming, To Sell Is Human= a #1 bestselling author with millions of readers.

    It's pretty clear which one more closely fits the definition of an entrepreneur.
    More interesting question= who is the more public intellectual?

    Artists need to be entrepreneurs these days. Not the sleezy, greedy kind. They need to market their music or art. Intellectual property laws protect (but have actually failed to protect) artists. Teaching is both intellectual and artistic.

    It's not all about competition. It's about offering something unique, and the ability to communicate to many people. Seth Godin's book Tribes suggests that successful artists or thinkers have tribes following them, collectives of people that support one another.

    My latest blog post, in this same vein--educators selling ideas is not the problem. The problem is knowing exactly what we're selling...

  8. Great post and interesting conversation. I am an educator and have been for the last twenty years. The last thing I ever thought I would call myself is an entrepreneur, but my desire to make a positive impact on education has lead me down that path. One similarity I find with being an educator and an entrepreneur is that it is easy to villianize both.

    I resent those who see education as simply an opportunity to make a profit..especially those who willfully seek to destroy it so as to manufacture the tools to rebuild it. I think it is important to recognize that innovation has always been a part of advancing the teaching profession and that we depend on the entrepreneurial spirit (from inside or outside) to provide solutions. For me the distinction comes from the purpose of the innovation. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who are driven by the desire to support teachers rather than replace them.

  9. I love this conversation! Great post, Rachel. All of you make incredibly valid points. What is often lost when the talk is about entrepreneurship (especially by entrepreneurs such as Gates) is the help they had from outside sources and the latitude they were allowed for failure. This is incredibly important. Remember, no government funding for the military's pursuit of computer technology, no World Wide Web - a lot of entrepreneurs gone right there due to lack of funds.

    The comment about serving the public good is important. Back in the 1950s Elvis was king and bringing in a lot of money for Columbia Records, a well known fact. Did the executives give themselves huge bonuses for "their" success? No, they invested/diverted that money into the classical music section of Columbia Records, thereby creating one of the great bodies of classical music recordings in the 20th century and also fostering many orchestras throughout the U.S. (the St. Louis Symphony and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestras come to mind firsthand). Classical Music did not make money then, or at least the kind Elvis brought in. The executives understood that they were not going to get a huge return on investment. They did this for a lot of reasons - cultural cache, prestige, you name it. The point is, instead of taking money for themselves they invested and spread the money around creating a diverse artistic world and employing a lot of people who would otherwise be unable to make a living doing what they loved (ask any cellist or violist you know about that).

    In terms of immediate return of profit, try this on for size: Van Gogh's artistic career was entirely supported by his brother Theo, an art dealer. Van Gogh sold one painting during his lifetime. Raise your hand if you would like one for your living room? Not every idea or creative act shows an immediate return of investment. Patience and time plus risk is the equation we must keep in mind in regards to any endeavor we undertake.

    The creation of art has many parallels to entrepreneurship. Both need fostering. Both need room for failure and multiple attempts at success (remember, Edison had 500 attempts at making a filament for the lightbulb work). Not every attempt will bring back a huge return of investment and there will always be those that fail to ever take off. Having room to fail is probably, to my mind, the single largest factor in success. And you must remember that you will not always see an instant return for the investment you put in. How true is this in learning and education?
    As teachers we all know of students we have had who were not their best academically or personally while they were with us who went on to success later. The generosity of time is an important ingredient.

    In the current reform movement, there is no room for failure - not for the student, not for the teachers, not for the schools. If there is no room for one, there is no room for the others. All are connected. The school/Administration must give the teacher room to try things, just as the teacher has to be able to give this same generosity to the student, and just as the student must feel that freedom to fail in order to find success. This is the key ingredient that is lost when the word "profit" or the phrase "economically viable" takes first place in any discussion about education.

    Turning education into a "profit making entity" will do for the education of our children, what greed has done to the music and movie industries - it will limit their horizons, financially, creatively and in terms of ambition. Success and worth will be measured by "how much" they bring in. What a loss for all of us.

  10. Stirring points of discussion, all. I would add only that the attempt to transplant business models to education so far seems to have resulted in the Rosemary's Baby of business and education both: bloated managerial bureaucracy; bottom-line, data-driven pathology; itinerant CEO/superintendents who come and go like rock stars and enjoy golden-parachute contracts.

    A couple years ago I picked up The Management Myth, by Matthew Stewart; he's an ex-business management consultant who now owns up to all the hustling and pseudo-science that drives most business fads (particularly as taught in the prestigious business schools). The parallels to education are striking. Worth your time, if you can spare it.

  11. Just to bring up something general: for me, anyone can be an entrepreneur. Of course as long as you're running an online business or you got a store somewhere in a mall, you are an entrepreneur. I say I agree with Ariel, competition is a harsh word but offering something unique does matters. And no business booms without connections.