This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
I recently participated in a provocative panel session entitled “Entrepreneurship in Education.” My co-panelists Christina Rose Dubb, the executive director of the Spells Writing Lab, and Michelle Loucas, the co-founder of Philly Free School, embodied the social entrepreneurial mantra of “doing well by doing good.”
It’s debatable whether education reforms of the past decade driven by privatization and corporate influence have made any significant impact in narrowing the “achievement gap.” So I can understand why some educators would cringe at the thought of teachers as entrepreneurs.
I am not proposing that teachers sign up as free agents and place shingles up in front of our classrooms. Nor am I proposing we place billboards in front of our classrooms and provide our services to the highest bidder. However, I am proposing that some successful principles of social entrepreneurship could improve teaching and learning in our struggling schools.
What is the role of entrepreneurship in education?
According to Howard Hess, in Educational Entrepreneurship, "Our schools today confront challenges that our education system isn’t equipped to answer.”
If education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century as President Barack Obama claims, what role should the principles of entrepreneurship play in education? Should it be driven by corporations or by teachers on the front line?
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his book Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy, posits that the function of entrepreneurs is to “reform or revolutionize the pattern of production” in a given field or market.
Educators similarly can change our pattern of teaching and learning by embracing new ways to engage students. In a sense, educators and policy makers need to shift the “bottom line” from economic and narrow standardized test driven results, to more holistic measures that value creativity and risk taking.
Leveraging passion for literacy
Christina Rose Dubb, director of the Spells Writing Lab, is an example of a teacher turned social entrepreneur. Dubb leveraged her passion and expertise in literacy to provide unconventional learning opportunities that engage and inspire students, both in the classroom and in life.
Spells, located in North Philadelphia, offers its services free of charge and incorporates artistic disciplines such as music, film, and the visual arts. Invention and discovery is at the core of the Spells Writing Lab’s work.
During the “Entrepreneurship and Education” panel, Dubb emphasized that the word “lab” is deliberately included in Spells’ brand. She encourages students to experiment and not be afraid to make mistakes.
Forget everything you know about schooling
Michelle Loucas, co-founder of Philly Free School, is not trying to fix education as it is, but to provide a whole new way of schooling.
The Philly Free School is a new private school enrolling 40 students this September (20 spots are reserved for tuition-assistance students). The school operates similarly to the Sudbury School model, which embraces an open democratic system. This system creates an atmosphere free of competition between students and encourages a pleasant learning environment.
There is no curriculum. No grades. No teachers. No tests!
Loucas, who taught in public schools, coordinated service learning projects for Need in Deed, and worked as a coordinator for the master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, has been incubating her social entrepreneurial vision for a number of years. She and her founding partners are willing to allow the staff and students at Philly Free School to invent and discover alternative ways of learning. (I plan to do a Q & A with Loucas to learn more about this bold program.)
Social entrepreneurship in classroom settings
Teachers at the classroom levels can find opportunities to apply social entrepreneurial principles to their practice.
One of the benefits of new teachers, entering the profession from traditional education programs and alternative certification routes such as Teach for America and Teaching Fellows, is that these “new bloods” are not afraid to take risks.
A former colleague, Zofia Wleklinski, is using Donors Choose to help fund her “Decades of College Dreams” project to support her students in preparing for the college selection process.
#engchat, a network of English teachers connecting with one another via Twitter to share ideas, resources, and inspiration is a project initiated and sustained by Meenoo Rami. Rami, a Philadelphia Writing Project teacher consultant, attracts teachers from all over the country for rich conversations and sharing every Monday from 7- 8 p.m. Her moderated Twitter sessions provide great value to teachers and an audience for authors and educational thought leaders such as Diane Ravitch and Jim Burke.
#engchat hosted a session on August 29 with Holy Epstien Ojalvo, Ediitor of the New York Times Learning Network on how to teach about 9/11. Rami is seeking to improve engchat’s web presence, and may seek some grant funding to improve its innovative web 2.0 teacher network.
Michele McKeone, autistic support educator and budding social entrepreneur, used her know-how in digital media literacy to develop an application, Autism Expressed, that circumvents cognitive/behavioral variations.
McKeone received support from the Corzo Center for the Creative Economy at the University of the Arts to incubate her startup project. McKeone plans to remain in the classroom where her teaching practice will provide constant research and development for her specialized products and services.
Habits of entrepreneurial teachers
During the panel session at Swarthmore, I explained that as an entrepreneur turned teacher I believe there are many connections between teachers and entrepreneurs.
- Dreamers – entrepreneurial teachers have a vision of what they want their classrooms to look like.
- Doers – entrepreneurial teachers make their classroom come alive with decisive action.
- Discipline – entrepreneurial teachers pursue learning opportunities with discipline.
- Details – entrepreneurial teachers spends lots of time on planning the details for any classroom venture.
- Distribute – entrepreneurial teachers spread the ownership of their classroom ventures with key students, staff, parents, and other stakeholders.
Instead of restricting and limiting teachers with” bottom line” and corporate-driven reform, teachers should be allowed to unleash our innate entrepreneurial powers to improve teaching and learning at our schools.