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Entrepreneurship series: A different bottom line

By Samuel Reed III on Sep 2, 2011 04:27 PM
Photo: Creative Commons Licence By Ecastro's Photostream

The habits of entrepreneurial teachers can transform classrooms.

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.   

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on September 3, 2011 1:00 pm


Zofia's last name was not spelled correctly, it's Wleklinski. Secondly her Donor's Choose project was not for special education students. The project is for the college prep elective called AVID, which is for academically middle range students who are first in their families to attend college. While students in Special Education can be in AVID, it is open to all students. 

Submitted by Hope Moffett (not verified) on September 3, 2011 4:47 pm

I routinely think that education has much to learn from business but it seems that corporate education reform is picking all the wrong parts. In studying marketing, organizational behavior, and economics, I learned half of what I use to teach in my classroom. Business has the profit incentive to research what works, what appeals to people, what motivated people, etc. While the public sector might never have that kind of funding in this climate of budget cuts, there is no reason why we can't benefit from business knowledge and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on September 3, 2011 4:35 pm

Hello Hope;

I am glad you were able to translate what you learned in tradional B-school classess into your teacher practice. I  just read this article "Selling Altruism" where a Standford professor gets students to use an entrepreneurial mindset to tackle problems in improvised communities. 

By the way, you said " I use to teach". So are you now going to take your teaching experience and translate that into a social  entrpreneurial project? 

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on September 4, 2011 4:54 pm

Before I started teaching, I did jobs to pay the bills/loans but also community organizing work. It was excellent preparation for teaching. I learned how to coordinate the "nuts and bolts" while focusing on the big picture. I learned to plan short and long term. I learned to "shift through" the rhetoric and concentrate on what matters. These qualities are similar to Sam's 5 "d's" from the business community.

My hesitancy with embracing the term "entrepreneurial" is the connection to corporate capitalism. I associate business decisions with individual gain but community organizing with community gain. This may be stereotypical but the "team" rhetoric, for example, used in giant box stores doesn't convince me that all members of the "team" benefit. Unfortunately, too often education is also based on "I can get mine." (As a parent, I've experienced this with the competition to get into Masterman in 5th grade, and the select high schools in 9th grade. Some people to go any length to get their child "in" - especially fellow educators.)

I'm open to finding ways that business models may benefit education but we also need to look at other models. To date, most of what is adapted from the business world is the individualistic, "by any means necessary" mind set. (There's also the "data driven" manipulation of numbers that determine AYP...)

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on September 4, 2011 2:40 pm

The more time I spend thinking about this idea, I see the distribution compentency being the key cog. Classroom isolation is a real and destructive force. Thinking you are the only one who wants to do something different, who needs to see someone doing something different is a lonesome place to be. 

We now have The Notebook, Twitter, edcamp, educon, tedxphillyed, Philadelphia Writing Project, and so many other places to share and learn together. The more we can leverage these resoures and distribute the great work teachers and administrators are doing, the closer I think we get to the education our students deserve.

Thank you Sam for sharing not just these ideas, but the people and places that are doing it.

Submitted by tom-104 on September 4, 2011 6:00 pm


Thanks for sharing that article link, I just posted it to  my social networks.

I think Denning validates both Timothy Boyle and my  stance that we need to hack up of education, reject  the corporate-driven "reform" agenda and harness teachers  innovative and creative powers to  fix education.

Submitted by tom-104 on September 4, 2011 7:00 pm

The preceding comment is not from me. I don't know what happened but it seems my original post was replaced by this comment.

My original post linked to a Forbes article by Steve Denning, "The Single Best Idea for Reforming K-12 Education". It is at:

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on September 4, 2011 7:07 pm


I apologize, while  responding to your original comment, I inadvertently deleted it.

Thank you for resending the link.

Submitted by Ken Glass (not verified) on October 7, 2011 8:21 pm

Over 90% of businesses fail. A higher rate that failing schools. So what can schools learn from the business approach? Rhetorically speaking, nothing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 8, 2011 9:01 am

They can learn not to do what most of these businesses are doing,

Submitted by Rochelle Christopher (not verified) on February 16, 2012 3:28 pm

The school system failed my daughter who was particularly gifted. After years of having them say, " Your daughter is so smart, there is nothing we can do for her," I took her out of school for her junior and senior year. She was getting D's. She was never showing up for class. She never really understood what she was reading. But the school system could do nothing for her. When I finally took her out of school and taught her how to do project-oriented work, she finally graduated from high school with a diploma and with honors. Had I left her alone she would have dropped out in 10th grade. My point in this story is that teachers cannot just teach to the middle, they need to be teaching everyone. Yes, my daughter was gifted, but she would have become another statistic of the school system were it not for another way of teaching.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2014 6:18 am

Let's see what there is now, share a laptop, microblogging, EDCAMP, Philadelphia Writing Project, and many other places and learning together, we can make use of these resources dynamically allocated, some great teachers and administrators are doing this work, we have more and more closer to our goal --- students should get education.

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