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Squeezing More Entrepreneurial Juice Out of Public School

Lots of edu-promotions and press releases cross my desktop--new products crafted from technological fairy dust, new programs that will Change Everything, new books that will shift your paradigm away from those dusty, outmoded beliefs you've been clutching.

Everyone's an entrepreneur these days. There are edupreneurs and teacherpreneurs and even pre-schoolpreneurs (who are, I admit, incredibly cute and having a great time promoting the right stuff). Entrepreneurial endeavors are blazing hot. Start a school! Peddle your innovation! Sell your good name and hard-won professional reputation for the privilege of being a "fellow!"

All of this makes me queasy. How did we lose focus on the common good--the deeply rooted American ideal of schooling for democratic equality? Even the words we once used to describe a strong and healthy public school system, where the children of the rich rubbed shoulders with the children of immigrant bootstrappers--opportunity, trust, standing for our most precious resource: children--have been co-opted.  It's all about winning the grant, pleasing the funder, getting your name out there and (eduspeak alert!) scaling up.

This morning, however, I got a digital flyer that was almost Onionesque in its entrepreneurial fervor.

Seems that a brand-new edupreneurial initiative, Re-imagine Learning, was just unveiled at that uber-scholarly event, the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, decoratively enhanced by supermodels--and a $50 million start-up cache donated by fellow entrepreneurs, many of whom wish to remain anonymous.  John Legend was there--and inspirational remarks were made by Daymond John, the Shark Tank guy.

Founder and CEO of New Profit, Vanessa Kirsch, said, "I am a successful social entrepreneur and leader.  And I am also dyslexic...Over the past 15 years, I have worked with leading organizations in education reform to try to redesign the system.  I truly thought we'd really moved the needle - but I've watched my beautiful 12 year old daughter, Mirabelle, who is a dyslexic like myself, struggle in this system and begin to lose her confidence and sense of potential. We were not doing enough to ensure that this system worked for all kids. This was the inspiration behind New Profit's launch of what has become our Reimagine Learning network."

Before singing the song from Waiting for Superman ("an award-winning documentary"), John Legend said this:

"Our education system should exist to inspire, not simply to manage our kids... Our goal is to build a movement of educators dedicated to inspiring innovation and learning so that our system of education truly reflects the world we live in today. Let's stop funneling our young people through the system and start letting them discover the power and uniqueness of their own voice."

It's not exactly clear what the Reimagine Learning network will do with the $50 million start-up cash. Their mission: Making a difference in the lives of millions of students who may be marginalized or disengaged in school because of learning and attention issues or social emotional issues.

Well. That's a lot of scratch dedicated to letting students with "issues" discover their own power and uniqueness. And here's the thing--I don't know many teachers who aren't doggedly working toward that very end, usually by circumventing heavy-handed policies (let's call them funnels, as Legend does) that insist on standardized learning goals, large class sizes, and evaluation-by-tests.  The mandated, lockstep antithesis of "the world we live in today."

I have empathy for children like Ms. Kirsch's daughter, who lose their confidence and sense of potential. But launching a new network--the entrepreneurial "solution"--won't magically inspire kids in America, no matter how many TV stars and hip musicians show up at Fashion Week.

You can buy an individual child a good education--and discover, in the process, just how much that high-quality personalized attention costs. But if the entrepreneurs footing the bill for this venture really wanted to "make a difference" in kids' learning, attention and social-emotional issues, they might start with secure housing and jobs for the adults in their families.

The ultimate entrepreneurial school smackdown, however, emerged on the runway. Two hot new designers launched their new collection--lots of dark colors, bomber jackets, high-top tennies and grim-looking models. What's their company called? Public School.

No kidding.

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