Life Lessons: Educating the Next Entrepreneurs
As he crisscrosses the country to talk with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeats a particular refrain. “We have to educate our way to a better economy,” says the secretary to each new audience. The words ring true—people recognize the relationship between academic performance and earning potential—but what exactly does it mean to “educate our way to a better economy”?
Many interested in this question fixate on the first half of the secretary’s statement. They highlight the need for more rigorous learning standards in math and English, or point to the importance of recruiting, supporting, and rewarding effective teachers. But before jumping to these strategies, we should take a closer look at the second half of the sentence. What is the goal? What does a “better economy” actually look like?
A better economy must be more closely attuned to the demands and rhythms of twenty-first century markets. Today’s markets rapidly follow innovations, while staid institutions and static business models quickly become obsolete. Technology disrupts one thing after another. To succeed in this new, dynamic environment, a workforce must be comprised of individuals who have both the academic foundation and the creative mindset necessary to spark innovations. These employees must be able to recognize opportunities amid obstacles, set and achieve goals, and refine the skills necessary to solve real-world problems. Furthermore, with all net new jobs over the last 30 years generated by startups, individuals joining the workforce for the first time are likely to be employed by small businesses that will depend on them to perform multiple functions. In short, a better economy is one that prospers through the innovations of entrepreneurial citizens.
If we share this vision, then we must define the obstacles to achieving it. What stands in the way of educating the next generation of young people to build a better economy driven by the engine of entrepreneurship? We face twin challenges: raising the performance of all students to the level of the world’s best, and more closely aligning the expectations of school systems and markets.
U.S. students’ achievement lags behind that of students in all of our developed-world competitors, and those lagging the farthest behind are students at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, most of whom are from minority households. These persistent achievement gaps deprived our economy of as much as $2.3 trillion—or 16 percent of GDP—between 1998 and 2008. The most significant contributor to this problem is the achievement gap between middle-class white students and the predominantly black and Latino students in low-income communities. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas, nearly half of African Americans and Latinos score “below basic” in math in fourth and eighth grade; only 1 in 5 white students scores in that range. At the upper end of the spectrum, less than 1 percent of top-scoring twelfth graders are black or Latino. As the U.S. population shifts to “majority-minority,” as has already happened in California and Texas, our international achievement gap will become even more pronounced.
However, closing the gap associated with race and income is not enough. If our vision is of achieving a sustainable, entrepreneurial economy, we need to look beyond the skills that are being taught in our schools today. NAEP measures math, reading, and other foundational subjects, but succeeding in today’s global arena requires knowledge and skills beyond algebraic equations and sentence diagrams. Our schools are still captive to an industrial-era approach to education, moving students through an assembly line of arbitrary grade levels without pausing to consider what skills the market demands of the young Americans they produce.
“Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe,” Bill Gates said when asked to comment on the state of American high schools. Many U.S. districts are undertaking a wide array of education reforms, but they are largely focused on the question of how schools should be structured and managed, whether that means encouraging school choice, devolving school budgets to principals, giving teachers incentives, or building online systems that provide teachers with real-time academic data.
While structural reforms are certainly needed, we must also turn an ear to students, who are disengaging as early as middle school. We can shake our heads at stubborn, shortsighted teenagers, or we can acknowledge that they are on to something. More than 80 percent of dropouts in the United States tell us that they would have stayed in school if they felt it was applicable to real life. Meanwhile, 37 percent of young people already report having interest in starting their own business. One can only imagine what would happen if we start entrepreneurship education programs early enough in schools so students see the entrepreneurial path as viable. Structural reforms will not make school relevant or rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit. How and what we teach must be better aligned with how students learn and what is necessary for their future success.
Seeding the Entrepreneurial Mindset
We have created a vicious cycle. The perceived irrelevance of education reinforces students’ decisions to drop out or set low personal goals. Students’ poor performances in turn reinforce educators’ narrow focus on the fundamentals of core subjects, such as math and English—making school feel even more irrelevant to students. Breaking this cycle is critical to our ability to “educate our way to a better economy.”
My experience in leading the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), where we have worked with more than 350,000 students in middle schools and high schools worldwide, suggests that entrepreneurship education can set in motion a virtuous cycle that surmounts these twin challenges and moves us closer to the entrepreneurial economy we envision.
Post a Comment