Startup? Yes. Democratization? Not so much.

Topics: Future of Learning

Ten years ago, KnowledgeWorks captured the momentum of the seemingly innocuous entrepreneurial spirit in one of five disruptions to education included in its third forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem.

The forecast called it “Democratized Startup” and described it as the “transformational investment strategies and open access to startup knowledge, expertise and networks [that] will seed an explosion of disruptive social innovations.” And, while there have certainly been more space and increased desired for innovation recently, the changes have not exactly been socially driven.

These disruptions were major societal shifts that promised to have broad impact on the future of learning. We forecast that they would cause deep, and sometimes unsettling, change. But we also made the case that education stakeholders could use future uncertainty to spark creativity, not only fear. Read more >>

Opportunity: the power of edupreneurs

With Democratized Startup, the forecast described futures in which school administrators could “become district and regional innovation portfolio managers who break new ground to meet the needs of all learners by strategically allocating time, resources, and energy to local and global initiatives with different levels of risk and reward.” In other words, they could become edupreneurs, educators who are also entrepreneurs in their own field.

Today states such as Kentucky, Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina designate some districts or schools as having a special innovation status, which allows administrators to have more flexibility to respond to their local needs; draft specific innovation plans by school level, grade or campus; and receive exemptions from mandates such as those related to academic calendars, attendance, class-size ratios and decision-making and planning processes. Being able to apply this startup mindset to public education increases districts’ and schools’ ability to compete with charter schools and other learning institutions by offering more tailored learning experiences to the communities they serve.

However, not all entrepreneurial lessons translate well to a public good like education. While some brave edupreneurs have been challenging the status quo for good, others have been doing so in the name of profitability. Education leaders should beware of the potential downfalls of following innovative paths without both accountability guardrails and active participation from those most impacted by current inequities in the education system. Robust diversity and inclusion values are needed to underpin the endless pursuit of more equitable and just outcomes for every learner.

Challenge: But what about education?

Unfortunately, the democratization of education would come at a price. The forecast anticipated that opening the education landscape to new players, both big and small, would cause new agendas to come into play. As a result, education leaders would need to step up and “ensure that student learning remain[ed] the central focus and that innovations reflect[ed] the best current thinking about learning.” This focus should be non-negotiable. For example, for far too long popular reading programs have successfully marketed themselves to schools, but recent studies are now questioning those programs’ results and evidence-based claims. It has taken some time, but school districts have finally started to drop the programs.

For more on how economic interests could play out in the future of learning visit Scenario D in our sixth anchor forecast. Read now >>

Another case that exemplifies the challenge of conflicting agendas is the wave of charter schools that has become the perfect setting for fraud, waste or abuse scandals. Negligent administrators have stolen money from the state and taxpayers and have siphoned resources from public schools in dire need of funding. Such actions toy with learners’, their families’ and their communities’ futures by denying them access to the learning experiences they need and deserve.

Innovation for innovation’s sake is just an empty, flashy box full of promises. Only when innovation efforts are aligned with articulated and shared visions of the future can education systems reap the benefits of using collective creativity to solve their biggest and most complex challenges.

The bottom line

Education, as a public good, should not have a bottom line or try to adapt too strictly to business models focused solely on efficiency and profitability. Although innovation can be a wonderful way to explore our collective potential, its benefits are only proportional to the motivations, goal and social values behind it. Innovation will always have a place in education, as it should. However, education stakeholders must hold one another accountable in the name of more human-centered learning systems for every learner.

This post is part of a seven-piece series reflecting on the state of the challenges and opportunities introduced in KnowledgeWorks’ third anchor forecast, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, published 10 years ago. Read the rest of the series: