By Peter Boyle
They say you never forget your first love. Having unceremoniously dumped my first love years ago, to which I later returned, I can confirm the veracity of this old adage.
For me, academically speaking, my first love was entrepreneurship. The promise of entrepreneurship, of identifying a problem in the world – whether grand or mundane – and then using innovation, creativity, and business best practices to create and lead a venture to solve it, is certainly seductive. Entrepreneurs in the 21st century are leveraging technological gains and innovative business practices to solve innumerable problems, from the accessibility of taxicabs after a night out to ensuring clean water in the world’s underserved communities.
That promise – and the ensuing belief that I could do something about the world’s problems – led me to pursue a concentration in entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina. Professors like Ted Zoller provided proof that, with the right combination of disruption, innovation, and grit, ventures could do anything. Why not unleash the destructive creativity of the market for good, and solve society’s ills?
Then, I like to say, things took a turn somewhere. I fell in love again – this time with education. Entrepreneurship was soon out of the picture. Teaching English language arts in a middle school classroom in underserved west Phoenix holds much of the same potential for impact as launching a venture. Supporting the leaders of tomorrow as they unlocked the themes of Hawthorne, Orwell, Anne Frank, Gary Soto, and Harper Lee – and determining how they could unleash the power of the English language to be leaders in the world – certainly creates the positive societal change found in the best social entrepreneurship endeavors. And, the impact is visible and instant. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment at the end of a school year after a student enters your classroom unable to write a paragraph in English and leaves having made over four years’ growth in his language arts skills.
There must be a way to combine these two passions – entrepreneurship and education – which both exist to positively transform our world. Turns out there is. Actually, there are two.
I was searching for ways to expand my impact after I made amazing academic gains in my classroom with my teammates in the classrooms next to me and in close concert with our supportive family and community. Reaching 100 students a year is excellent. Reaching 600 is a movement.
School administration is a logical next step for teachers looking to expand their impact. But what about entrepreneurs looking to expand their impact through education? There’s a path for that too. In the fall of 2014, my brand new school opened – the culmination of my educational and entrepreneurial passions. Western School of Science and Technology: A Challenge Foundation Academy serves about 400 7th to 10th grade students at the same west Phoenix intersection where I started six years ago. We had the highest state test scores for any high school in our neighborhood and are looking to be the first A-rated high school in our community next year.
But you never forget your first love. Last year, being a school principal was rated the most satisfying career in the country. It is. But ask any administrator, and they will tell you: you miss the classroom. If entrepreneurship was my first academic love, then education certainly was my first career love. After three years outside the classroom, I had to get back.
If I had thought I had found a way to combine education and entrepreneurship previously by founding and leading a successful public charter school, when the opportunity arose for our school to partner with the SEED SPOT NEXT program, an extension of Phoenix’s renowned SEED SPOT social entrepreneurship incubator, I jumped at the chance.
Now I am taking the role of Professor Zoller and helping to support not just the learners of tomorrow, but also the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Entrepreneurship and education have molded in such a way that I am not only able to explore both in my own career, but I can support students to do the same. Students have already launched ventures to combat a lack of women in STEM-based fields, and to do something about the dark and unsafe streets here in Phoenix’s urban core.
I never forgot entrepreneurship – my first academic love. And, luckily for the benefit of my students’ game-changing ventures, I never let go of my second – education.
By Peter Boyle
When a high GPA and extracurricular activities aren’t enough – preparing high school students for real life
By David Levinson
I grew up in a small suburb in sunny South Florida and attended a local high school where I consistently ranked at, or quite near, the top of the class academically. By my junior year, I was hungry to become the valedictorian, make a big speech at graduation, win the presidency of a half dozen clubs while founding a few others, and pretty much make my application to any college a shoo-in for acceptance.
I found myself checking off the boxes. Straight As? Check. A ton of extracurricular activities? Check. Some solid recommendations from my teachers? Check. In all, I had the tools, the drive, and (what I had originally thought) the knowledge and skills to crush it at the college of my dreams.
I ended up getting into a private university that was one of my first choices. However, when I got there, I realized just how far behind I was on the skills that matter. Even though, on paper, I lined up well with my classmates, my experience knowing the world lagged far behind. I was new to many social issues, unfamiliar with important details in global and national conflicts, and unprepared to face the harsh realities of a world that did not care about my GPA.
I realized that my upbringing in a suburban “bubble,” through no fault of anyone in particular, had done little to prepare me for life outside of my neighborhood. I found myself playing catch-up, not only in understanding these key issues, but also in communicating, debating, and leading alongside my peers. My problem-solving skills relied on calling up my parents for advice. Pretty alarming for a student at an “elite” college. And I wasn’t the only one. All around me, I saw professors frustrated by the caliber of writing their classes produced, organizational recruiters disappointed by the array of skills in their candidates, and local partners uninspired by the leadership of student activists.
So what went wrong?
Although I eventually grew in my four years in college, I often think back on my high school experience and wonder how I, along with my classmates, could have done this growing up much earlier. It got me thinking about the importance of education, not as a precursor to college, but as a true institution that emphasizes growth of the mind and prioritizes developing real life skills. High schools need to place as much focus on the way we learn as they do on what we produce. We need exposure and access to all that is around us, and we need to produce in response to what is occurring outside of the four walls of a school building.
My thinking revolves around three main principles for schools to consider, and ultimately, act upon:
Schools should emphasize knowledge and skills, not just outcomes.
Results matter, don’t get me wrong. However, the other side of the educational coin is the process, and rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge, teach, or coach students through that process. What’s the point of a student memorizing our past presidents if they can’t describe and analyze what each of those presidencies stood for? Yes, much focus from local, state, and the national government focuses on the results of our students, but even if we can’t change the way students are evaluated at the legislative level, we can at least change the way we acknowledge the journey in our classrooms. Programs like SEED SPOT NEXT prioritize not just the outcomes that are produced, but also the knowledge, skills, and especially the passions that are developed by undergoing the course.
Knowledge and skills are becoming increasingly more important. A report by the National Center for Education and Economy stated, “The best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services.” What won’t matter in the future is the “A” we earned on the exam, but it will be the knowledge and skills that got us there that will take us even further, and eventually, into employment.
Schools should de-emphasize conformity.
Most of what we do in K-12 education emphasizes conformity and adherence to a specific set of guidelines and principles. In fact, in an interview with a USA Today columnist Steve Strauss, he emphasizes that the current education system was created around the time of the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized a focus on memorization and predictable results, building employees and not thinkers. This is what makes us strong workers but stifled innovators. What is needed instead is a focus on exploration and understanding – a way for students to leverage their strengths and their interests to change the world. Social entrepreneurship is one sure way to make that possible. Helping students explore and own their strengths is another. Which brings us to the final principle – individual strengths.
Schools should prioritize individual strengths.
As Wang Zhao writes in World Class Learners, “For too long, students have been passive consumers and recipients of whatever adults give them: books, facilities, knowledge, tests, and disciplines. Schools have been built to facilitate effective consumption, rather than makers, creators, and entrepreneurs.” How often do schools explore student strengths? How much do we value what students are passionate about and what they want to do? Our students need a way to put what matters to them as individuals to good use.
Emily Anatole recently wrote about how the next generation of learners, “Generation Z,” are well aware of the world around them, and are already offering suggestions and solving problems in this uncertain time. How much are our schools facilitating that conversation? What kind of impact can our schools have if they tap into this potential, and lead each student to his or her own strength in the classroom?
Our schools, therefore, face a choice: hold on to the status quo, continue to produce students with inflated GPAs and little real-world understanding, or emphasize skills through global exposure and social entrepreneurship – skills that will impact not only their students, but strengthen society as well. In the short-term, our students will struggle with such a dramatic shift in educational approach, and their grades and test scores might reflect that, but in the long term, we will produce the kinds of thinkers, innovators, and citizens that our country needs, and we will ensure all students are ready for that first step on the college campus, and, ultimately, that first venture into the real world.