By disposition, I am an optimist. For a person of my particular predilections it is, to echo Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times.
It is the best of times because, based on almost any indicator imaginable, it is the best time in human history to be alive. Just look at the decline in poverty over the last 200 years. Harvard professor Steven Pinker says that we’re living in the most peaceful time in the history of our species. The data back him up. When you consider that from the dawn of history through the year 1800 there was almost no improvement on most quality-of-life indicators, or the fact that there is no country on earth today with a shorter life expectancy than the country with the highest life expectancy in 1800, it is difficult not to feel grateful. Smallpox has been eradicated, and polio and guinea worm appear to be next, potentially saving tens of millions of lives every year. The pessimists were wrong. There are more of us, and yet we are richer and healthier than we could have possibly imagined 50 years ago.
It is the worst of times as it seems much of the fabric that has held together the interests and individuals that have made such prosperity possible is rending at the seams. Anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise, progress seems to have stalled on issues where our nation has made great strides, and a new group of our fellow citizens finds itself in crisis. Our nation is over-represented by folks at the bottom of the trunk of the “elephant graph.” Our politics are dreadful. Our universities are being overrun by people who appear to be afraid of ideas that are different than their own. Attachment to societal institutions that have long helped unite people during trying times is growing weaker each year.
It was against this backdrop that I walked into the Sprint Accelerator, a loft-like rehabbed warehouse in Kansas City’s Crossroads District. On this unseasonably hot June morning The Lean Lab, a nonprofit organization that works to develop and incubate educational entrepreneurs, welcomed its 2016 class of fellows to our fair city for four weeks of work on their nascent projects. They invited community members, educators, entrepreneurs, and researchers to listen to their pitches and give whatever advice they could to improve their projects.
Group after group took the stage, and it was hard not to be taken by their optimism. Each outlined the problem they were trying to solve: kids aren’t eating healthy food, and cafeterias waste inordinate amounts of it; foreign language instruction is based too much on memorization and not enough on conversation; crowdfunding platforms are not well designed to help teachers raise money for their classrooms; high school students can’t get unbiased information from colleges about what it is really like to go there; parents aren’t able to have meaningful conversations about what goes on in school every day with their children. They all identified serious problems, and they offered intriguing solutions. Over the course of the next month, each group will prototype and refine their products with a big final pitch at the end of the fellowship in the hopes of winning one of two $25,000 prizes.
People hoping to improve the nation’s education system could learn a lot from these budding entrepreneurs, who by and large were former teachers or had teachers on their teams. Rather than offering platitudes or infeasible plans to completely reshape the education system, they looked to solve clearly articulated, discrete problems that are right in front of them. Rather than be overwhelmed by all of the problems that face our schools and students, they focused on what small thing they could do to make the lives of kids, teachers, and parents better.
I have no idea if these products will ultimately work or not. But, if I’m being honest, I’m no more or less confident than I am about most new education reform ideas I come across. What I am confident about is that creating space for people like these optimistic entrepreneurs to solve problems is the way to maximize the likelihood that new and better schools will emerge and grow. (If you want a longer-form treatment of why I think this is the case, you can check out the introduction to Rick Hess’s and my new volume Educational Entrepreneurship Today.)
I left the building that day invigorated and feeling like my optimism is well founded. I wish all the teams, and entrepreneurial educators all around the country and world, good luck and Godspeed. I can’t wait to see what you develop.