In 2005, Hurricane Katrina literally washed away the New Orleans public school system. You may not like the new charter school presence in New Orleans, but those schools came about because local educators seized the opportunities presented by Katrina and acted upon them as entrepreneurs. Organizational change in education is often preceded by an action forcing event. Now, in 2020, as educators struggle to cope with the pandemic that forced K-12 schools to deliver instruction online, we should, like the leaders in New Orleans, take this tragic opportunity to think entrepreneurially about reopening public schools.
In my entrepreneurial leadership in education doctoral courses at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, the pandemic converted online class discussions into real-time problem-solving sessions for students. The problems these educators wrestle with daily are no longer merely academic exercises. Instead they are professional challenges of a magnitude greater than what most of them will ever face again.
My students are teachers, principals, superintendents, college presidents and others. Many lead K-12 programs and are grappling with issues such as technology access and equity, when and how to open schools safely, preparing teachers to instruct online and union demands for teacher safety. More problematic, these issues also include how to educate students who cannot learn online, such as students with special needs, English language learners and early elementary children. Public education will never be the same. So let us take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunity caused by this action forcing event.
Thanks, in large part, to the edtech explosion, entrepreneurial leadership (EL for short) has become a hot topic in education graduate schools over the last 15 years. For practitioners and scholars, edtech brought a new world of thinking about educational leadership, which has brought entrepreneurial leadership preparation into the isomorphic world of education leadership studies.
Bringing entrepreneurial leadership to bear on the COVID-19 crisis also means designing and implementing programs and services differently. Successful ELs focus on opportunity, creativity, alliances and a willingness to take risks. When COVID-19 transformed daily school routines, it created a need for creative educational leaders who are not just asking why, but also why not. ELs focus on building both internal and external networks and alliances—an opportunity for school systems to develop more wide-ranging partnerships that can bring new political, social and financial capital to their schools.
In between family and doctoral responsibilities, my students manage systems that deliver education to thousands of learners. As such, they learned a good deal about entrepreneurial leadership and delivering instruction online over the last six months. And I, in turn, learned a lot from them through our online discussions. My students want to tackle our current educational problems head on with creative new solutions. Here are a few of their entrepreneurial action steps that could be adopted during the pandemic. Many could remain in place to bring real change to K-12 education in the future:
- Use design thinking and set aside time and space for all staff to engage in problem solving.
- Empower all stakeholders by establishing interdisciplinary teams, including parents, to address specific problems, which often leads to creative solutions.
- Apply critical thinking to all systems: Why are you doing each activity and how can we make it more equitable?
- Reorganize key activities: Keep 50 percent of all high school courses for juniors and seniors online.
- Postpone school wide testing and use pass/fail grading.
- There is also wisdom in borrowing from higher education: Colleges are bringing back their football teams. Elementary and secondary schools should safely bring back their special needs, English learners and youngest students with rapid testing and mask-wearing bubbles. Like colleges and universities are doing, build alliances with business and community leaders.
I often give my students a few pieces of advice for dealing with the challenges and opportunities that come with times of great change. For starters, take some risks. As many big city school superintendents understand, their time in office is limited. Therefore, they are entrepreneurial and take more risks.
Act like entrepreneurs and avoid missing opportunities. Educational leaders should be less risk averse, seize opportunities and try out new ideas, even if you only have 50 percent of the information.
And finally, parents and teachers were frustrated by the lack of transparency during the development of the school plans for this fall. Tell them what you are planning, get their input, make your decisions and stick with them.
In short, K-12 entrepreneurial education leaders can seize this opportunity, like they did in New Orleans, to create sustainable change. One thing is certain, after this nothing will be the same.