“The minute we stop thinking like entrepreneurs… is when we should call it a day,” said D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee at an event held by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, New Profit, Inc., and Public Impact Tuesday.
The event brought together a group of experts to discuss innovation and entrepreneurship in education. In addition to Rhee, the panelists included Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise Institute; Cynthia Brown, Center for American Progress; Bryan Hassel, Public Impact; Julie Kowal, Public Impact; Kim Syman, New Profit Inc.; Larry Berger, Wireless Generation; Derek Canty, College Summit; Deborah McGriff, New Schools Venture Fund; Carlos Monje, White House Office of Social Entrepreneurship; Jonathan Schnur, New Leaders for New Schools; and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT).
Historically entrepreneurship has been a rare practice in the American public education system. As a result, Brown said, “change has come slowly and we have achievement gaps both internationally and at home.” This gap is difficult for public education employees to address by themselves, but entrepreneurs all over the country are emerging with new methods for improving education.
A report released at the event, “Stimulating Excellence,” focused on this new generation of social entrepreneurs who have begun to transform public education with innovative solutions that aim to deliver a higher quality of education. The report profiled these entrepreneurs and collected ideas from them about how to support their growth as well as how to encourage more quality and results in education.
The entrepreneurs interviewed in the report cited the lack of a performance culture in K-12 education as the greatest constraint on their ability to succeed. “In the school system there is no link between everyday doing and student performance,” said Rhee. “The zero accountability culture drives me crazy.”
Dramatically better information and data on how good products and services are working is necessary to create this performance-based culture, and a commitment to a set of high-priority “power metrics” could be used to assess the quality of entrepreneurial providers as well as the status quo systems with which they aim to compete.
Additional sources of investment in public education from the private sector would also be a tremendous asset to the system. “1:100 is the ratio of research and development money the government invests in education as opposed to health care,” explained Berger. “And 3.5 percent is what’s left over after basic expenses like equipment and salaries.” There is clearly a void in funding that private investment could fill.
Right now there’s also a sense of urgency for government and the private sector to work together to improve education. “This really is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Monje. “We can’t rely on government and we can’t rely on individuals by themselves.” Creating policies that encourage entrepreneurship and social innovation is a way to move beyond the current stagnation public education faces. “We will find the most common ground by agreeing on the kind of overhanging anachronisms, barriers, and routines that stop creative problem solvers from solving problems,” said Hess.
One of these barriers is that public school leaders have to tackle stringent procurement systems before any additional funds or resources can be approved. “Flexible funding is vital for educators to be able to reallocate funds to what works,” said Canty. Turning school districts into “real customers” who have the agency to purchase the best educational services available will drive the market for providers to compete for funds.
But for competition to be most effective, we need to open the K-12 system to a diverse set of providers. “Right now the marketplace is dominated by a few providers and it’s very tough to start as a new entrepreneur,” said Syman. Policy reforms need to open some middle ground between the handful of billion-dollar education companies and the smaller industry players.
America’s children and future will be the beneficiaries if we can move public education toward a joint venture between government and private innovation. Both sectors bring things to the table that the other cannot and through policy we can work toward an effective and productive balance.
For more on this event, please visit the events page.