GERGEN & VANOUREK: Bold School Reform Missing

Press Releases

September 11, 2008

(From THE WASHINGTON TIMES, September 10, 2008)


Before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, a cadre of education reformers convened to forge an agreement on bold new directions in American education from kindergarten through 12th grade. It was an impressive array of mavericks, including D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former Colorado governor and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer, and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory A. Booker. It's significant that these unconventional leaders are heading some of our nation's most prominent school systems and cities.

Take Mrs. Rhee. A Korean-American double-Ivy League graduate and mother of two, she cut her professional teeth teaching in Baltimore with Teach for America and then founded the New Teacher Project.

"My goal is to make D.C. the highest-performing urban school system in the country," she said recently.

That's a tall order, considering the system's recent performance. One of her predecessors, Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., who fought in three wars and was awarded two Purple Hearts – and quit after 18 months of leading the D.C. school system – called running that system "the most difficult job I ever had."

A year into her tenure, Mrs. Rhee already has closed 23 schools, fired more than 30 principals, streamlined the central office and proposed a bold redesign of the city's teacher compensation system, according to a recent Associated Press report.

Mr. Klein (former chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann AG, a leading global media company) gave all principals in the Big Apple a choice of converting their schools to "empowerment schools" (gaining increased autonomy in exchange for heightened accountability, much like charter public schools) or selecting from a dozen school-support organizations on a competitive basis instead of using a central office with an automatic monopoly.

Though it's helpful to have mavericks at the helm, that's insufficient. Many of them have joined forces recently with entrepreneurial education organizations.

• Teach for America has recruited 17,000 teachers since 1990, ranked in the top 10 of Business Week's 2007 "Best Places to Launch a Career" rankings and on Fortune's 2007 list of "Twenty Great Employers for New Grads."

• New Leaders for New Schools earned a prestigious Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Award five years in a row and has accepted only about 7 percent of applicants.

• The New Teacher Project has recruited 13,000 teachers since 1997 and is one of the nation's best organizations for college graduates to launch their careers, according to a Princeton Review book.

• The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, which offers fellowships and incubation support for education entrepreneurs, has been inundated with applicants.

That's a great start, but how to further stimulate entrepreneurship and excellence in a kindergarten-through-12th-grade education sector comprising about 6 million employees? We need an operating environment conducive to fostering entrepreneurship and excellence. We need compelling incentives to entice entrepreneurs to enter the field, accompanied by a thorough dismantling of today's barriers to entry.

Too often, education entrepreneurs spend countless hours and precious resources navigating Byzantine bureaucracies, complying with layers of regulations and fighting nasty political skirmishes when they could be focusing on educating children.

They need policy environments that are dramatically more conducive to innovation and excellence (including meaningful standards, a policy embracing choice and competition, full funding for charter schools and other innovative models, astute deregulation, and results-based accountability). This must be accompanied by public-private funds that provide seed and early-stage capital to entrepreneurs with promising ideas, not to mention a more robust support infrastructure, including stronger intermediary organizations, talent pipelines, research and development systems, and proven replication approaches.

The upcoming presidential election may help – either way. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have maverick reformers advising them, and there is some evidence of policy convergence across party lines on many important reforms and leverage points (though sticking points remain, including vouchers, national standards and how to reform the No Child Left Behind Act). Unfortunately, neither has placed sufficient emphasis on bold education reform in the campaign so far.

There is no shortage of innovative ideas or reform prescriptions. What is missing too often – and is the limiting factor – is an environment in which dynamic entrepreneurs and talented professionals can thrive.

This column excerpts portions of a forthcoming book chapter by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek, "Talent Development: Looking Outside the Education Sector," in "The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship," edited by Frederick M. Hess (Harvard Education Press, 2008). Mr. Gergen and Mr. Vanourek are co-authors of "Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives." They can be reached at