What if there were total free markets in education in the United States, and traditional public education systems as we know them today did not exist? Education would be a product for sale, just like any other product on the U.S. market. The idea may be mindboggling, but many education entrepreneurs would likely see an opportunity that fits with their vision of how education systems ought to work. With such an opportunity unavailable, they must be content to effect change in education by working within the current system.
Education entrepreneurs are driven by the belief that public education organizations are agricultural- and industrialization-era bureaucratic entities, far too enmeshed in familiar operational customs and habits to lead the innovation and transformation needed for schools today. They see themselves as change agents who are able to visualize possibilities. They want to serve as catalysts for change that will deliver current public educational systems from a status quo that results in unacceptable educational outcomes for too many children. Social entrepreneurs have focused on transforming education for the underserved, to include children from low socioeconomic backgrounds and children of color – groups that have not been well served by the traditional public education system. It is important to note that education entrepreneurs do not see themselves as merely improving education – for them; improvement would be a byproduct of the larger goal of transforming the system of public education in the U.S.
The question then becomes: how do visionaries propose to influence a system that has seen no significant large-scale change for decades? The efforts of education entrepreneurs are evident in ventures such as charter schools, Teach for America teacher preparation efforts, and the preparation of principals through the New Leaders for New Schools project. On the surface, based on these projects, it may appear that traditional school systems and education entrepreneurs are engaged in the same kind of work.
In fact, education entrepreneurs and traditional educators view the world of education from two radically different perspectives. Aspects of the public education system are severely resistant to change. Our schools’ dependency on other organizations for resources and other types of support has caused them to be a reflection of these organizations, rather than units able to maintain discernible levels of independence. Existing resources do not restrict thinking among education entrepreneurs, nor are they beholden to any particular organization for support. This status ostensibly frees them to consider unlimited possibilities for K-12 education.
Another interesting difference between education entrepreneurs and traditional educators is the manner in which accountability is perceived. Education entrepreneurs likely view accountability from a customer-provider perspective, while educators, given the fact that they exist in bureaucratic structures, likely view accountability from a superior-subordinate perspective. Education entrepreneurs may speak of having an impact on the lives of children as a result of individual actions, and that the actions of a critical mass of entrepreneurial organizations will result in systemic change. Educators may speak of accountability in terms of meeting expected outcomes handed down from another organization.
Education entrepreneurs propose that educators are too entrenched in the day-to-day business of school operations to be forward thinking about possibilities for K-12 education, and most education researchers appear disinterested in investigating practical solutions to problems within the system. In fact the education entrepreneurial opinion of traditional education seems to fall somewhere between frustration and disdain. There is a sense of urgency among education entrepreneurs for radical transformation that results in improved performance outcomes, particularly when it comes to children who have not been served well by public education systems. The lack of ongoing and prompt action by public education systems leads some entrepreneurs to conclude that public education systems either do not feel the same urgency, or, if they do, that the very nature of the system renders them incapable of putting effective changes in action.
Perhaps the larger question is whether or not two systems (i.e., public education systems and education entrepreneurship) with different approaches to accomplishing an end, a fair amount of mistrust (and perhaps a lack of mutual respect), and different visions of how organizations ought to work, can come together to work toward the improvement of the educational system. Partnerships that have been formed by public school systems and education entrepreneurs are evidence of a brand of customized education that appears to be acceptable to both. As long as public schools systems believe they won’t be totally enveloped by education entrepreneurs, a workable and innovative model for public education may evolve.
Tagline - Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.