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UPenn Launching Degree Program Aimed at Future Charter School Founders

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By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis. Cross posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog.

Plenty of universities and organizations now have ed-tech accelerators, incubators, or business plan competitions designed to give startups a boost, either financially or through support from experts.

The University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education is no exception, with its Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan competition and the related Education Design Studio incubator for winners and semi-finalists. But now the school has come up with a new master's degree in education entrepreneurship aimed at those trying to launch charter schools or manage or redesign existing schools. 

The four-semester executive program is unique among university offerings because it will focus on bringing business sense to educators, and school those in the business field on education policy and concerns, said Jenny Zapf, the director of the program, which is scheduled to start this fall.  

"A lot of folks in business want to do good work and help the education sector but they don't have a firm grasp of the culture," Zapf said. "A lot of education businesses are launched and fail because...educators have an entrepreneurial bent, but don't necessarily have the business skills."

This idea of teaching entrepreneurial skills related to technology has been catching on for a while now (the University of Maryland has a master of technology entrepreneurship program), but the idea of studying entrepreneurship in education seems fairly new. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, is in the planning stages for a new master of education innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship degree, which will be part of a proposed Center for Research on Entrepreneurship and Acceleration of Technology in Education (or CREATE), both scheduled to roll out in fall of 2015, said Michael Hobbs, a spokesman for the UNC School of Education. The school's professor of education innovation, Keith Sawyer, will oversee the creation of the program, and in a blog post said one of the goals of it would be to create "a new generation of educational innovators and entrepreneurs."

Sawyer said the degree program will focus on educational technology, but will have a core grounding "in the science of technology innnovation management," he said. "So much educational technology fails and is quite bad...because the people making it don't know anything about the science of how people learn."

Bobbi Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation at Penn's Graduate School of Education, said that despite the fact that there is an abundance of incubators and accelerators out there, she gets calls several times a week from people wanting advice about how to start a charter school, for example, or how to launch a turnaround school. Charter schools are big business these days, but many shut down after a short time, due to a lack of experience on either the education side or the business side, she said.

Education entrepreneurs need to learn about the legal issues involved in such ventures, have a grasp of financing strategies, marketing and management theories, and a fundamental understanding of education and the role it plays in our culture and society. They'll take a course on strategies for managing technology and growth, for example, and one on leadership in entrepreneurship.

The students in the program will likely attract "a unique group," Kurshan said. "Many are coming from an academic background, but they want to do something entrepreneurial."

The University of Pennsylvania's master's program will include a practicum in which students will work with existing schools, businesses, or mentors, and a capstone project which will likely result  in a business plan, Zapf said.

The first year the program will take up to 25 students, she said. It has already had applications from people all over the world, including Ghana, India, and Singapore.

Want more ed-tech news? Follow @EWmdavis on Twitter.

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