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Entrepreneurship series: What the ‘Otis’ video offers educators

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Sam Reed and Chris Lehmann have both done posts on the role of entrepreneurship in education recently. I really don’t like the word. Call me immature, but I haven’t been able to separate entrepreneur from money, specifically, scheming to take away somebody else’s. Oddly enough, while watching Jay-Z and Kanye West’s new video for their song “Otis,” something clicked for me.

Two millionaires rapping about the joys of being millionaires isn’t exactly thought provoking at first blush. The opening scene of the video shows a team of people chopping and customizing a Maybach, a car that goes for upwards of $380,000. What becomes of the car is a door-less, roof-less, flame-throwing party of a vehicle. It is new, interesting, even reckless, but it is theirs. And it looks really, really fun. The car is the manifestation of having an idea and doing something interesting with it.

You can decide for yourself how subversive it is to chop up a Maybach, but I like the metaphor and think it strongly correlates to the situation many educators find themselves in. I work for a system that has a budget over two billion dollars. Folks, we’ve got more than a Maybach to play with. But how has that been going for us lately?

From the secretary of education on down, we’ve spent over a decade with the new reforms. Top-down reforms almost exclusively at that.

Teachers are the problem, so we’ll fire the bottom 10 percent.

Schools are the problem, so we’ll increase the day and the year and hand over management to a charter operator.

Accountability was apparently lacking, so we have a behemoth of a standardized testing regime to sort us all out and decide the winner and losers.

Those with the money and influence to impact public education look to Singapore and Finland and think they have found the first-class education system for us.

Jay-Z has a verse in this song that made me realize the connection from car to school: “Build your fences we building tunnels, can’t you see were getting money up under you?" The edu-reformers of our day have built the fences high around us. Scripted curricula and the accompanying narrowing of the curriculum is the highest fence I see.

It’s going to take some entrepreneurship on our parts to dig our tunnels. And we’ve already started.

There are great things going on in classrooms across Philadelphia. Look at Fresh Artists, and try not to cry; I failed. Look at the West Philadelphia’s Automotive Club. Children are being given opportunities to construct their own knowledge, to learn about their passions.

Unfortunately this type of pedagogy is largely underground. It is not represented in the Eligible Content and the Corrective Reading. It is certainly not represented in the Study Island reports or the PSSAs. This type of pedagogy is represented by the work your students do, and share, and take home to their families.

Let’s get our swagger back this school year.

Let’s do something really difficult and really fun with our students. We have a better story to tell and a better party to attend. Print the invitations this year and tell everybody you know to show up.