After graduating from Arizona State University in 2004, Akshai J. Patel spent five years teaching elementary school in Phoenix, one year educating teachers in Chile, and three years acting as managing director of the Phoenix charter school he co-founded. He then spent 10 months juggling dual roles as the part-time director of his charter school on one side of the country and as an MBA student at Columbia University on the other, where he is learning to expand his charter school into a network as well as launching his own educational software product.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. However, it’s not unusual. A jam-packed career with lots of twists and turns is becoming increasingly common for modern educators. Gone are the days when becoming a teacher meant 25 years in the classroom.
Pearl Rock Kane, a professor of education at Columbia’s Teachers College, explains that working in education today has completely different implications than it did even a decade ago.
“It’s a much more interesting career,” Kane says. “Teachers are in and out of the classroom—they try something and then come back to teaching. The boundaries are much more fluid.”
Partly responsible for this newfound flexibility is the booming market of education, as entrepreneurs have launched charter schools and online schools, created apps and software and assessments, and infiltrated K-12 and higher education. “Obviously, this is an explosive area,” says Cliff Schorer, an adjunct professor and entrepreneur-in-residence at Columbia Business School. “Education is very far reaching. It could be many things. It’s not just isolated to teaching.”
Nancy Flanagan, an education writer, senior fellow with the Institute for Democratic Education in America, and retired Michigan public school teacher, says that entrepreneurship in education has the dual appeal of turning a profit and doing good. “It’s more glorious than just ‘We’re going to sell a product, and we’re going to make money,'” she says. “There’s a psychological benefit to being an entrepreneur in education”—the feeling of fighting the good fight. Yet Flanagan and others wonder whether the education gold rush is the best way to fight to improve the nation’s schools.
Between textbooks, standardized testing, and educational resource companies, education has always been somewhat of a business. The upswing really started to kick in during the 1980s with the release of A Nation at Risk by Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, which cited the mediocrity of American public schools as a threat to the nation’s position as a world leader. The first charter schools emerged in 1988. In the 1990s, there was a spurt in for-profit education companies after the passing of what’s known as the 90/10 rule, which allows for-profits to receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from federal financial aid. And since the turn of the century, the technology boom, widening app marketplace, and growing popularity of online education have created even more room for innovation outside the classroom.
At the same time, alums of new teaching fellowship programs, especially Teach for America, have had a substantial presence in education entrepreneurship. A 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that of 49 top entrepreneurial education companies, 15 percent had leaders who were TFA alums—a higher percentage than any other organization studied.
Miriam Altman, a TFA alum who is now a master’s candidate at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, spent three years in the classroom before pursuing her education entrepreneurial venture, Kinvolved. “I knew I wanted to do something in public service,” she says. “TFA helped me identify education as that issue.”
Patel, also a TFA alum, says for a long time, he thought that he would go to law school. After teaching with TFA, though, he decided that education would be his route, whether that meant working as a teacher, an administrator, an entrepreneur, or some combination of the three.
Patel and Altman might be temporarily out of the classroom, but the products they’ve developed are back in it. Kinvolved, a Web app that lets teachers track attendance and send absence reports to parents via text message or e-mail, is being piloted in a handful of schools. And Patel’s DeansList, a software tool for tracking and reporting student behavior, is being tested by teachers throughout the country, including at Brooklyn’s Explore Charter School.
Patel and Altman are firm believers that their former teacher status gives them street cred. “You definitely have so much more credibility being able to say I was a teacher, and the whole idea came from an issue I saw with my students,” Altman says.
But as teachers like these leave the classroom, it raises the question of the proper place for bright, ambitious educators.
“The calculus is tough,” Patel says. “We need great teachers in the classroom, and we need great leaders in school administrative positions, and we need great business people working on solutions to help make the jobs of school administrators and teachers easier. And I don’t think I’m totally comfortable saying one is more important than the other.”
Anthony Cody, a retired Oakland public school teacher who blogs for Education Week, warns that creative teachers hungry to innovate are essentially being squeezed out of the classroom and into the marketplace.
“As a nation, we are turning teaching more into a content delivery, script-following practice instead of a creative endeavor,” Cody says. “I think we should have a lot more opportunities for teachers within the classroom to be creative, and instead we have people like Tom Segal who are arguing that innovation is the sole domain of profiteers.”
Earlier this month, Cody and Segal, a venture capitalist with Rethink Education, got into a spat over the role of for-profit innovation in education. “One problem with turning education into a hotbed of entrepreneurship is that many advocates of ‘reform’ also stand to make big profits,” Cody wrote on his blog. “In this environment, it is hard to tell if the objective is better outcomes for students or simply more dollars on the bottom line.”
Segal responded that the profit motive is necessary for innovation, and that nonprofits will ultimately “kill innovation.”
Cody says that the high-stakes accountability system introduced by No Child Left Behind and carried on through Race to the Top have created a system where traditional public schools are proved to be failures. “This then creates a market opening for charter schools, for virtual charters, for all sorts of ‘innovations,’ many of which are inferior to the products they are replacing,” he says.
Cody and Flanagan say that it is not innovation they are opposed to as much as it is how the system that promulgates it is essentially starving traditional public schools of opportunities to succeed.
“I believe that every child deserves a free education, and I don’t like mixing that up with the marketplace,” Flanagan says. “There was always the idea that you could get a first-class education in a public school, and we’re losing that.”
Still, former teachers who have crossed over to the realm of entrepreneurship insist that they can achieve their lofty goals by working outside the classroom. “Teachers can only do so much, so it’s really important to have people outside the classroom who are working on initiatives that will affect the direct work in the classroom,” Altman says. “My hope is that we’ll be able to create a shift in the way that the education system works and really do something revolutionary to affect a lot of kids at a higher level than I could’ve done with just 100 kids a year.”