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Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities

reviewed by Larry Rosenstock - February 12, 2007

coverTitle: Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess (Ed.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Publishing Group, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792253 , Pages: 299, Year: 2006
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When I was asked to review Rick Hess’s recent book, Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities (Harvard Education Press, 2006), I was very happy to do so, partly because, having often been called one, I wanted to know what an educational entrepreneur actually is. On the one hand, the articles collected in this volume are informative and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in this emerging field—practitioner, student, or theoretician. On the other hand, I still don’t know what an educational entrepreneur is. There are eleven collected authors and almost that many definitions. But perhaps that is not such bad news after all. As far as I know, this is the first book attempting to define and analyze the impact of entrepreneurship in education, and as such, it includes a broad array of topics, perspectives, and conclusions.

One area of dispute is whether entrepreneurship in education is defined by privatization (either for-profit or non-profit) or innovation or both. Kim Smith and Julie Peterson take the position that educational entrepreneurs create “social value;” that they want to make an impact on the system, not just build a business. One of the most interesting elements of their article is a diagram describing “How Entrepreneurs Catalyze Systemic Change,” which shows a sequence of (1) public education bureaucracies making rules; (2) entrepreneurs breaking or circumventing rules; and then (3) new or adapted rules being formed. I found Smith and Peterson’s psychological attributes of entrepreneurs fascinating as well. They break down the typical “risk-taking” into component parts which ring truer to me: a lower tolerance for frustration and bureaucracy; and a greater optimism or an inability to see the possibility of failure (in my case it has even been called denial.)

Paul Teske and Aimee Williamson discuss perhaps the broadest swath of innovators and business builders, including in their very readable case studies Brad Jupp, the teacher union leader who created a merit pay system for teachers in Denver; Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, non-profits that recruit and train teachers and principals; and K12 and Kaplan, for-profit companies that provide on-line education (K12) and tutoring and test-preparation (Kaplan).

Joe Williams defines educational entrepreneurs as “educators who take risks to transform their classrooms, schools, and districts” (p.127). I like his focus on innovators working within public school bureaucracies, because, having spent twenty years at it myself, I think there are many thousands of these masters of creative non-compliance who take such risks at the classroom and school level and who are rarely recognized. Williams develops a colorful (but also accurate in my view) typology that includes “James Deans”—those of us willing to break or bend rules for the benefit of our schools, and “Bulls Managing the China Shop”—iconoclasts trying to transform entire systems, such as Howard Fuller.

At the other end of the spectrum, Alex Molnar offers the most restrictive definition of educational entrepreneurs, focusing narrowly on for-profit firms providing publicly funded K–12 education or tutoring services (the better to skewer them). Molnar’s political perspective is evident, but his data and analysis are no less valid and insightful. His analysis of data available thus far on for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) leads him to predict that to maximize profits, EMOs will likely gravitate toward running relatively large elementary schools with standardized curricula, which has proved true so far in their short history. Molnar is one of several in this volume to raise important questions about the $200 million market created by NCLB for supplemental tutoring in schools that fail to meet NCLB targets in standardized testing.

This collection features authors who cast for-profit education as the enemy (Molnar) and the hero (John Chubb), and everything in between. I can sit this debate out for now, because I have a more practical concern. After seven years of working to build a network of non-profit public charter schools, I just don’t think it is possible to make a profit in the running of K–12 schools. My many colleagues working in non-profit independent (private) schools would confirm this—even though they can charge up to three times as much per pupil as the state of California provides, they still must raise funds to make ends meet. Indeed, Hess notes that after 14 years of running schools, Edison’s first profit was made after it began NCLB funded tutoring. (In the future, on-line iterations of schooling may make profits more possible because of diminished personnel costs.)

Three articles in this volume, by Steven Wilson, Patrick McGuinn, and Adam Newman, provide extremely useful “landscapes” of the education sector. Newman’s piece is a bird’s eye view of the whole education industry, showing how the K–12 provision of education is in fact relatively un-privatized compared to post-secondary, pre-K and the many complementary sectors of professional development, assessment, testing, and tutoring. McGuinn and Wilson trace the landscape from a policy and regulatory standpoint, shedding light on why some parts of the education sector have proven relatively more or less resistant to privatization and/or innovation.

Hank Levin and Larry Cuban use the long view of history to throw some much-needed cold water on the revolutionary buzz about educational entrepreneurship. Both point out something I have long puzzled over—that the independence and flexibility in school governance that so many of us have fought for is not leading to very much change at the level of the classroom. Levin urges us to look not only at the short term opportunities for innovation, but also at the likelihood of long run sustainability of changed educational practices. Cuban uses a comparison to the progressive era (which did focus on actual pedagogical change) to show how traditional many of today’s educational entrepreneurs actually are. Both authors stress the importance of institutions and social movements outside of the education sector that exert pressure toward change or the status quo. In the current era, Cuban cites state standardized testing and college admissions (to which I would add parental expectations) as strong pulls toward status quo classroom practices.

Since I am neither a sociologist nor a student of organizational development, I found Robert and April Gresham Maranto’s chapter most fascinating. Building on the theories of William Ouchi, they analyze a handful of the leading entrepreneurial organizations in education today, categorizing them as movements, clans, cooperatives, or corporatist entities. Their conclusion, which partly explains the traditionalist trend identified by Cuban and Levin, is that the organizations that are most likely to radically change educational practices, because of their intensive training and/or the creativity and autonomy they give teachers, are the clans and cooperatives. Yet for the same reasons these are the least likely to spread rapidly in scale. Those easiest to scale up are the corporatist entities with more rigid dictates, standardized curricula and centralized management.

In the end, I find myself questioning the unit of study, educational entrepreneurship, and hoping for further work that will clarify this muddled category. I see at least three dimensions along which educational practices can be analyzed: (1) public sector versus private (profit or non); (2) traditional versus innovative; and (3) ineffective versus effective classroom practices. I worry that we will conflate all of these, assuming that most or all that goes on in the public sector is traditional and ineffective, while all that is entrepreneurial is innovative and effective. In my own experience, which began when I was a carpentry teacher trying to integrate technical and academic education in a public high school, I have found that the most effective pedagogy and school cultural practices are so non-traditional as to require the freedom from regulation enabled by non-profit charter schools. Thus I have spent the last seven years building High Tech High Learning, a network of small schools engaged in project-based education (which falls somewhere between a clan and a cooperative according to the Marantos’ typology). But I have also seen great innovation in the public sector; traditional private schools that deliver a highly effective education; and many charter schools with ineffective practices. So while I heartily concur with the various policy recommendations that will encourage more entrepreneurship, I am not at all sure they will lead in a linear fashion to more innovative and effective schooling for children.

The great value of this volume is in the unanswered questions it raises: will the innovations have any staying power? Witness the many innovative schools that have regressed to the mean once charismatic leaders have moved on. What about the fact that many new entrepreneurial organizations are actually traditionalist? Many entrepreneurs are “innovative” in their form of management, but classroom practices remain much the same. Does educational entrepreneurship actually lead to social change, via Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” so often quoted in this volume, or by providing models of new ways to educate? Or are entrepreneurs by their very nature apolitical, as Hess fears, due to the exigencies of focusing only on the success of their own schools or organizations?

As a practitioner slogging it out in the daily work of “keeping school,” as Ted Sizer calls it, I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to reflect on these questions and to try to measure newly created theory against everyday practice. I am grateful to all who contributed, and I look forward to the maturing of this emerging field of study.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 12, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13267, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:09:07 PM

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