Academic journal article Education Next

Why Big Impact Entrepreneurs Are Rare: The Dangers of Challenging Power

Academic journal article Education Next

Why Big Impact Entrepreneurs Are Rare: The Dangers of Challenging Power

Article excerpt

High-profile entrepreneurs like those behind KIPP and Teach For America are determined to transform K-12 education. But will their accomplishments ever amount to wholesale reform? Or will they end up crushed or absorbed by the bureaucratic behemoth of public education? Frederick Hess and Chester Finn charge that those entrepreneurs who succeed in the hostile environment of public education do so by compromising and accommodating in order to win friends and allies in the locales that comprise their markets.

But several entrepreneurs beg to differ. Michelle Rhee and David Keeling explain how skillful entrepreneurs can change school systems from the inside out. Steven Wilson argues that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who stand their ground when research and experience are on their side. Kim Smith shows how entrepreneurs can leverage their outsider status to set change in motion. Only Joan Snowden insists that entrepreneurs can never provide the big fixes education needs because their efforts are not scalable.

What Innovators Can, and Cannot, Do

Squeezing into local markets and cutting deals

K-12 education should abound with opportunities for entrepreneurial activity. Here we have a vast yet loosely coupled industry that serves 50 million students, encompasses more than 95,000 schools in 15,000 districts, employs more than 6 million people, and expends upward of a half trillion dollars annually. Given widespread concern about current performance, it would seem fertile ground for innovation and enterprise. Yet public schooling in the United States remains at its core a rule-bound, government-centric quasi-monopoly largely consumed by the politics of apportioning resources among longtime stakeholders. This closed ecosystem alienates creative problem solvers while erecting bureaucratic barriers against those who would devise new solutions. The result is a sector where successful entrepreneurs have historically been the rarest of beasts. Over the past two decades, many efforts to infuse K-12 education with innovation and enterprise have flamed out or settled into cozy symbiosis with the status quo. Today, an unprecedented (if still small) number of entrepreneurial efforts are taking root in the rocky soil of elementary and secondary education. Those who crack the constraints of our hidebound system--well-known names like KIPP and Teach For America and a handful of others--have become educational celebrities. And rightfully so. Their handiwork may be our best chance to provide U.S. children with a world-class education in the 21st century. They are deserving of both admiration and thanks.

However, as with so much of celebrity culture, there are traps for the unwary. Here, after making clear why successful education entrepreneurship is so hard, we explain why those who clear the many hurdles are not likely--and ought not be expected--to crusade as well for sweeping policy reforms.

Obviously, many entrepreneurs have no desire to produce systemic change--charter operators who wish only to operate a few good schools, virtual-school companies pursuing simply a reasonable profit, or alternative hiring ventures that seek only to bring more talent into the nation's classrooms. It is the few "change agent" entrepreneurs who are seeking to recast schooling. These leaders are often featured--in conferences, TV shows, and magazines--as the voices of reinvention.

Our focus is on just this subset of entrepreneurs who seek to transform core features of K-12 education, such as who teaches, how schools are designed, and who operates them. To date, their numbers are small and their scale modest, but the best known among them are prominent indeed, including Teach For America (TFA), the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), High Tech High, National Heritage Academies (NHA), the New Teacher Project (TNTP), New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), K12, and Edison Schools. Some are avowedly nonprofit while others strive to make money for their owners. …

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