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Peter Bittel: Educational Entrepreneurship

Oct 11, 2015 by

business community

An Interview with Peter Bittel: Educational Entrepreneurship

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. What caused you to edit “Education Entrepreneurship?”

We face many challenges in education that are simultaneously grounded in how we run our schools and in the larger societal problems that very often come to the front steps of the school buildings.

Many kinds of solutions to our challenges have a common theme of leveraging resources in behalf of kids.

All too often we in education don’t think about leveraging since this approach has not been widely held in the past. Jamie Vollmer’s “schools can’t do it alone” has been widely read but often our proposed solutions remain consistent w our beaten paths.

If we try to present yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems we are doomed to repeat the lack of success

Vollmer chronicles the dramatic burden of mandates most often unfunded which underscore the specialized responsibilities school leadership is often unprepared by either training or experience and not supported financially.

United States business have a long history of addressing those functional areas where they have less strength. They decided some time ago that a private company “cannot do it all.” There are thousands of examples of these business approaches: GM creating a network of “on time“ suppliers, the explosion of electronic/marketing/benefits, recruitment firms supporting the public, private and not for profit sectors.

The nation has largely accepted that we live in a global economy and this reality has led to new trade, manufacturing, fiscal alliances to accommodate these changes. Schools on the other hand remain rooted in historic practice while out larger economy seeks new ways to be competitive.

An example of this rootedness to tradition is certainly schools approach to labor and employment. US professions have high demands for full time employees which is described as more than 2,000 hours a year when teacher and school leadership often have a less demanding time commitment. Schools in our global economy are still rooted in an agrarian calendar from centuries past.

2. What is the main point you are trying to make?

Education in a complex society must access all mechanisms for improvement and private/public entre partnerships are one of those points of access

3. A little historical perspective- back in the 70s and 80s they had this thing called “ deinstitutionalization” which closed down institutions and developmental centers- forcing parents to put their kids into public schools. Whatever happened to the money?

Segregation of children and adults legally ended in the 70s and by the 90s most institutions were closed. People were supported by community based programs with varying degrees of success based upon funding formulas, state leadership and the strength of the advocacy efforts. These programs remain line items in state budgets with backup of Medicaid funding.

The funds that housed people institutionally was for the most part transferred to community support. The funding was never adequate to provide community support or special education. We know that nationally it costs a school district 1.9X

4. Public schools have often been seen as separate from the church- but not from business and industry. Why has the partnership taken so long to come about?

While one might suggest that public schools have been separate from other institutions (business, religious, etc), we believe that increasing fiscal pressures make it essential that such old barriers begin to be broken down. One of the guiding principles of this book is that school leaders and policy-makers will be well served to explore potential partnerships with heretofore separate entities.

While stronger relationships with the business community—ones with practical benefits for all—seem more within the grasp of most schools and districts, there is no reason why partnerships cannot be formed with religious organizations or between public and private schools as well. Artificial barriers can limit creativity, which is one of the driving arguments behind the need for entrepreneurial approaches to collective challenges.

5. Technology surely plays a role- as services (such as speech-language pathology) can be administered on line via computer. How else has technology impacted education?

Technology, of course, has a huge impact on our society and on our education. Certainly, there is intervention provided remotely as you describe but the more common approach is by direct engagement. There has been dramatic impact of a Pearson on the market with both standards and interventions. There is a growth in this area of technological intervention in the classroom with startup companies like Dream Box which delivers math curriculum as an example.

Technology is a key area for entrepreneurial growth in education. The market delivery will always be more robust based on size and training than educators’ skill base. This is a perfect example of leveraging skills from outside of traditional schools to help kids.

There is certainly a great deal of speculation about the future of the virtual school.

6. How does this entrepreneurial partnership benefit both the schools and the provider?

A partnership serves to draw on strength and need. For the provider they have concentrated specialization that can be leveraged to address specific issues in schools. For school leadership it allows for performance based solutions freeing time and resources to address those areas that have internal strength.

The partnership is only focused on problem areas. If there is no problem to be resolved, there is no need for the partnership.

A common healthcare analogy seems to apply here. If I need a knee operation, I look for a physician who has performed hundreds or thousands of these surgeries.
The referral for specialized services allows the primary care physician be successful in supporting the overall health of the patient.

7. School often write grants-but sometimes there are “strings attached. “ How does a school make sure that they are performing ethically and morally?

School grant funding come with established monitoring and spending criteria. Internal checks and balances, and state and federal oversight, ensure that all funds are spent properly and correctly. In addition, municipal finance laws require that all expenditures be audited annually to ensure all financial resources are spent properly (morally and ethically).

8. Special education has often been seen as the most costly realm of education. What have the authors found about assistance for the realm of education out there?

Despite the federal government’s tacit promise to finance and equalize funding for special education, it has fallen far short. The lion’s share of the burden falls to the states and the districts, accounting for well over 80% of the funding. As we note in our book: The reality for most districts is the “cruel math” of special education. That is, programmatic, procedural, and legal mandates to provide special education services frequently outpace the available resources to provide them.

Moreover, the myriad of supports under the auspices of special education routinely exceed 20% of total operating budgets to address the needs of approximately 13% of the student population. Consequently, it is incumbent upon school leaders to either “build a better mousetrap” within their special education delivery system, or to cannibalize their existing fiscal resources that are earmarked for all students.
Given the paucity of funding, it is our collective experience that districts who have a four-fold strategic plan that encompasses the following will be the most successful in the short and long term: (1) provide special education services to students in the most fiscally responsible manner with particular attention to the “drivers” of personnel costs in the realms of related service providers, para-educators, and transportation; (2) envision special education as way to support struggling learners and thus have a strong RtI/early intervening model; (3) have strong site-based management to ensure “real time” programmatic and fiscal oversight of the special education services and programs; and (4) have a strong community outreach relationship to ensure an understanding of FAPE, LRE, and access to non-educational services.

9. Improving outcomes and reducing costs seem to be one of the themes of the book. Is this the central theme?

The US has increased spending schools a great deal over the last few decades; just ask anyone who pays real estate taxes.
It is clear that there is no new money to be earmarked for education especially when voters see so many competing demands from infrastructure, health care and defense to name a few.

Additionally, we are only beginning to address the issues of unfunded teacher pensions which have already had significant negative impact in Virginia, Louisiana and New Jersey. This liability continues to rise as courts have pushed back on a reduction in pension liability and we continue to recruit school

In this scenario, we have to improve our outcomes but have no new monies to do that. It is axiomatic that we rethink our fixed cost, the largest item in this category.

10. Educating while economizing – does this mean outsourcing or privatizing?

Public education has already gone through a good deal of the above. This entrepreneurship partnership must leave the school board and the school leadership in control. The partnership has agreed on performance expectations and reports on progress to school leadership.
The form and function of such partnerships will vary with the need and culture of each of the 15,000 different school districts in the United States.

11. There are local “mom and pop“ business and then you have your giant conglomerate, like Wal Mart or McDonalds. Where should a small rural district look first for help?

The answer to this question is really beyond the realm of this book; however, one of the editors did co-publish a book entitled “Creative Solutions to Contemporary Challenges Facing School and Rural Schools Across America” that focused on this very question. The present book does offer a series of ideas that school leaders and policy-makers can consider regardless of the size of the district—small and rural school leaders will certainly find useful information to assist them, too.

12. Where do grants and proposals fit into this big picture?

We do see the potential of grant funding as vital to school funding, particularly to support new initiatives that hold promise in improving educational practices. As such, we devoted an entire chapter to grants and alternative funding sources that include competitive and non-competitive grant sources, corporate foundations and business sponsorship of schools and educational programs.

13. Transition is one of those words that is becoming increasingly relevant in the realm of special education. Who has written about this and what do they have to say?

Certainly discussion and writing about transition from school to adulthood and work among special educators is not really a topic that has suddenly emerged from thin air. Lots of bright people have been writing and talking about what happens or should happen upon graduation of special education students for much more than a decade.

A recent computer search on the topic of transition of special education students from school to adulthood produced 200,000 results. Much of this work has focused on how the current process has come up substantially short in preparing students for transitioning to adulthood and work. Indeed the discussion has intensified in recent years culminating with the Federal Government (DOE) responding to years of research and scholarly writing on the topic by substantially revising (2014) their regulation governing transition by shifting focus from process orientation to one based much more on positive student’s outcomes such as gainful employment.

Because there has been so much good scholarly work it would be difficult single out a handful for consideration. That said I can recommend a chapter in our most recent book, Educational Entrepreneurship which fuses a discussion of creative approaches to transition and entrepreneurship.

14. Paradigms are like moving targets-how does a school keep up with the moving targets, especially in terms of teacher training, and professional growth and development?

One of our common recommendations is to ensure a robust professional development (PD) initiative. In this regard the authors, and school leaders with whom we work, acknowledge that each school district is different and therefore requires differentiated staff development. Therefore, we emphasize the following principles that can be applied and therefore evolve with the ever-changing student needs.

PD needs to be integrated, bringing together stakeholders in special and general education.

Presentation of information by highly qualified professionals with particular expertise in requisite areas via learning formats that will allow for practical demonstration of the information.

Practical application of the content within the authentic milieu of the Pre-K classrooms thus optimizing generalization of learned information, techniques, and implementation strategies.

Quality assurance via periodic review, data monitoring, and ongoing coaching and direction by the expert panel.

Contextual appreciation of stakeholder satisfaction.

Establishment of instructional quality, improvement, and assurance metrics:

1) Pre and Post assessments.
2) Confidential written course appraisals using a Likert-scale format.

Follow-up, confidential interviews with participants as appropriate.

15. The entire issue of applying entrepreneurship is a new one, and somewhat fraught with peril. Who has written about this and what are the main points?

We have been engaged in entrepreneurial partnerships for many years now. We have:
Engaged private companies in facility management, construction, transportation, standardized testing etc.
contracted out services to schools for children with disabilities and clinical providers established health centers in public school building operated by non-school employees
Entrepreneurship in schools will continue as a trend when our educators face the due challenges of increased expectations and reduced budgets.

16. I have written grants, and I have co-written grants and at the end of the day- what I hear is-this is more trouble than it is worth. How can one avoid the trap?

The only way to avoid the trap is to not need the grant money. Clearly, many grant programs have extraordinary requirements ranging from match dollars to establishment of complex coalitions, advisory groups, partnerships and draconian budget forms and reporting. Nevertheless if resources cannot be found elsewhere to support desired program demonstrations and research grant dollars may be the only option including all that comes with it.

One possible way to avoid some of the complexities of government grants is to explore private foundation support. On occasion the requirements for application may be somewhat less stringent and afford greater flexibility. This will vary significantly from Foundation to Foundation.

Ultimately, whether or not the pursuit of grant funding is “worth it” or not remains in the eyes of the potential applicant.

17. Improving student outcomes – should we just be concerned with reading, writing and math, or is it important to include geography, art, history, music, P.E., home economics in the scheme of things?

While this particular book did not look at the issue of what constitutes a robust or complete educational program, as authors we support the importance of offering a well-rounded curriculum to prepare students for 21st century expectations.

18. Charter schools, private schools and parochial schools – where do they fit into this picture?

Purposely we did not distinguish between the type of school in this book (public, private, or parochial) but, rather, examined common challenges that all three categories of schools share. This book, then, was meant to explore how schools can apply principles of entrepreneurship to educational settings with the goal of forging new creative solutions to some of the longstanding challenges.

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