Education Entrepreneurs Stumble in Business Venture

Throughout the years, I’ve engaged in similar discussions with numerous education CEOs, advocates, and entrepreneurs. Many of them express their frustrations with being pulled into distracting “culture wars” despite having a solid product or program and aiming for significant expansion, whether through legislative promotion, national initiatives, or other endeavors.

My phone rings when unexpected opposition arises, and the inquirer wonders, “How can I redirect the focus towards the positive impact of our work and away from the distractions?”

For example, during a recent conversation with the head of a social and emotional learning program, he emphasized that their program gained traction in both red and blue states. “It’s non-political,” he emphasized. “It’s about providing lasting, sought-after skills that address common concerns. This approach has helped us avoid much of the unnecessary confrontation.”

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However, their organization recently engaged in legislative advocacy and funding efforts, leading to unexpected criticism. As he questioned, “We already operate in numerous red states with a proven track record. Why the sudden backlash?”

The shift occurs when selling a product or program transitions into advocating for policies, presenting a distinct offering: an agenda, a worldview, a value-laden perspective.

This transformation, from proposing a solution to endorsing larger-scale initiatives, mandates, or interventions, leads to increased scrutiny, necessitating trust and generating conflict. Skeptics and critics then scrutinize your every statement, written word, or funded support.

It can be easy for successful program creators to become immersed in their accomplishments, paving the way for funding and commendation. Yet, moving from certainty in their model to uncharted territory often poses challenges.

The key lies in recognizing the difference. Their expertise in operating a specific program doesn’t automatically translate to proficiency in altering regulations, funding, and policies.

A parallel scenario unfolds in reading and math programs where entrepreneurs emphasize a desire to avoid being embroiled in educational controversies. However, choices become unavoidable when transitioning from an optional program to determining essential standards, texts, curricula, and instructional methods.

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Finding solutions isn’t straightforward. The allure of expanding successful models persists despite frequent disappointments. For an insightful analysis, even after three decades, refer to Richard Elmore’s seminal 1996 article “Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice.”

Here are two crucial considerations.

Firstly, successful model creators often downplay challenging aspects to appeal to education insiders, inadvertently alienating skeptics unconvinced by ed-school jargon and drawn to rigor, fueling resistance particularly in conservative areas. Understanding and managing this tension from the outset is essential.

Secondly, recognize the diverse expertise needed for success. Operating a program differs significantly from understanding educational finance, adapting programs, navigating political contexts, or scaling up effectively. Building a team with a diverse skill set from the start is crucial to prevent stumbling later on.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

The post When Education Entrepreneurs Face-Plant appeared firstjson Education Next.

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