School Reform: Teacher Entrepreneurs Need Not Apply

Summary: Innovation and entrepreneurship by teachers tend to be dead on arrival because of a broader school culture which favors hierarchical directives.

How are teachers to be established as the cornerstone player in a decentralized school culture, as I argue needs to happen if we are to set our ship of schools on a more successful course? The impatient in me secretly harbors and urges insurrection; the cautious in me acknowledges the problems are too complex for any black and white approach; the honest in me acknowledges I myself as a high school counselor was more likely to simply keep my head down, mouth shut, and blunt my own intuitions.

The problem is one of systems, how they are set up and the power relations within them, and more generally of a culture that stifles too much individual initiative on the teacher level. How to change culture, how to power disruption to dysfunctional pathways as they now are?

One answer may lie in the role of disruptive innovators, cultural entrepreneurs.

Jonathan Rauch has written thoughtfully in the Atlantic about death and dying in America, following the recent death of his own father. His most recent effort in this May’s issue, “How Not to Die,” tells of the work of Dr. Angelo Volandes and his wife, Dr. Aretha Davis, to alter what they depict as the inhumane and expensive practice in American medicine of “heroic” measures to extend life in the face of certain and imminent death. It is an aspect of culture deeply imbedded in our medical practice, understandably originating in the medical community’s core focus on healing, but also more nefariously in the business/medical culture which reimburses for procedures rather than outcomes.

Rauch arrives at this investigation because of stories, including that of his own father, where families have felt they have lost control of medical choices to the doctors in charge.

Volandes and Davis hope to change this culture with videos designed to inform critically ill patients of the choices they face in dealing with their illness and the end of life, from heroic measures (with positive and negative consequences), to partial intervention, to palliative care designed to enjoy last days as comfortably as possible.

The early data from use of their videos with patients indicates the video informed patients will choose the less intrusive path – the palliative care – at a higher rate than their docs would have chosen for them.

Change of culture is the topic, and is clearly the Volandes/Davis target. Rauch goes on to say that medical culture is highly impervious to innovation. In fact, to my ear he could be talking about the educational culture: “Medical training discourages entrepreneurship, embedded practice patterns marginalize it, bureaucrats in medical organizations and insurance companies recoil from it.”

Rauch has an Ah ha! moment as the article progresses. He realizes Volandes has a personality pattern he has encountered previously in Silicon Valley — the “entrepreneurial obsessive-compulsive disorder:  the gift, and curse, of unswerving faith in a potentially world changing idea.” Think Bezos, Gates, Jobs, Brin, and before them the Hewletts and the Packards.

He finds hope in initiatives powered by individual docs he ticks off that challenge standard medical thinking and practice as do Volandes and Davis. For example, Dr. Brad Sutter of Sutter Health at Home, “who is building a new late-life-care system that bridges the gap between hospital and hospice,” and Dr. Woody English of the very large Providence Health and Services, who has introduced the use of the Volandes videos to his organization. Both men by their efforts challenge what is both a lucrative and ingrained habit of the medical establishment.

David Brooks makes a related argument in a recent column on China and a key cultural weakness as it seeks to enter the world of first economies. (“China’s Branding Issues” published in the Worcester Telegram 6/7/13).

He notes that much of the history of American economic progress has been powered by the genius of individual entrepreneurs who have tapped the culture of dissent and “branded” the dreams that have circulated without a focal point until coalesced into brands such as Apple and Nike and their iconic products.

A similar mechanism has channeled the angry energies of the Black Power movement of the 60’s and 70’s into progressive political action as well made constructive and subtle contributions to other byways of American culture.

In China by contrast, a culture of dissent is at best only nascent, and Chinese elites have little of the regard their American counterparts have for those less powerful. This comparison will strike no one as new, but the insight that the cultural pathways of Americana allows the burbling up from less enfranchised depths the yearnings of the less powerful is useful and brings an intriguing twist to this country’s mythology. Not only by the ballot box but via the interstices of a flexible economy, previously inchoate needs are given voice in the brandings created by entrepreneurs.

The irony for China may be that citizen unrest around issues such as the environment that continues to earn disfavor with the party may one day mature into a more cutting edge wealth incubator, perhaps on the way to a more democratic society.

Who will be the entrepreneurs who lay down pathways of reform in American schools? What about folks such as John Danner, formerly a Silicon Valley venture success, who founded the innovative Rocketship Schools, a growing charter school option? Danner was essentially an outsider to schools, previously successful in a free-wheeling technological universe, whose school legacy could be said to give voice to parents whose children lag in the academic skills race. The success or failure of his venture is less important in the short run than the fact that his innovation has continued life.

More to the point, can common American school culture incubate the kind of coalescing, innovative entrepreneurship of our economic leaders or our medical pioneers? Is school culture flexible enough first to tolerate, then incubate, then install and celebrate the unique products of teachers’ creative minds and will?

Notwithstanding isolated exceptions, I fear the answer is generally no. While in a significant minority of schools I believe teachers and administrators work collaboratively, and ecumenical leadership listens well to teachers, my take is that the general culture that governs the broad reaches of our nation’s schools is sadly more akin to the bureaucratic, hierarchical, top down flavor of the evolving Chinese experiment or the ossification of the American medical/business complex than the more dynamic flavor of our economy in general, or even of our politics, for that matter, current stalemates notwithstanding.

Entrepreneurs, I am afraid, need not apply. Prospective young innovators too often move into other enterprise after the yoke of too much direction and frankly the difficulty of the work together prove too much for them. Forty-six percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years for a reason. Finnish teachers tell us professional autonomy draws them to teaching; absent that autonomy many would exit to other careers.

If teacher innovators in fact are to be allowed to flourish in schools, then the structures by which they are governed have to become more flexible, more on the order of the wider culture, which implies that more must be expected of teacher professionalism, in exchange for much more discretion in their authority and prerogative. By this means we may finally incubate native teacher entrepreneurship.

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2 Responses to School Reform: Teacher Entrepreneurs Need Not Apply

  1. Deb says:

    Digesting this one…interesting.

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