Entrepreneurship in Education

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Last week, I argued in favor more high-skilled immigration to bring additional entrepreneurial talent into the country for the near future. Today, I want to focus on an urgent policy issue that needs to be addressed to produce results over the long-run. Improvements in education are essential to equipping American citizens with entrepreneurial skills. Creative thinking and prudent risk-taking are no different than any other skills people are born with; they are likely to be useless unless the skill is developed through education and experience.

Education in the U.S. is struggling to stay competitive, especially in the sciences. According to the Department of Education, among high school graduates, only 17 percent are considered proficient in math. Not surprisingly, our 15-year-olds . Not surprisingly, our 15-year-olds placed 19th in science literacy and 24th in mathematics in a study involving 49 industrialized countries. Now we can see one of the reasons why few college students choose to major in engineering. It is estimated that 1 in 20 U.S. college students major in engineering, much lower than in other developed countries.

Fortunately, America still leads in university education. Though in many schools entrepreneurship is still confined to the business school, many universities have been promoting the study of entrepreneurship across all academic disciplines spurred by several insightful initiatives such as the Kauffman Foundation’s Kauffman Campuses initiative that help seed cross-campus entrepreneurship programs at dozens of American universities. While these schools are taking different approaches, all involve faculty and students from a variety of academic disciplines. As such, these campuses are allowing young people to explore their entrepreneurial potential.

Universities’ structures have enabled this type of entrepreneurial thinking about education (though they still have room for more innovative approaches). In contrast, the system of K-12 public education does not allow this kind of innovative environment where new providers and educational forms constantly appear. Their top-down hierarchies inhibit innovation. Teachers are not rewarded for being creative. There are a hundred different approaches to entrepreneurship education available, but their potential has not yet been fully exploited. For example, the GeoWorlds project is examining the impact of virtual learning environments on higher order thinking skills of urban high school students. Other new ideas include immersive learning, 3D Internet-based learning, and emerging software programs. Of course, we also need to develop evaluation mechanisms for these new approaches to measure positive youth development. While results are still pending, these new approaches are at least helping the sciences get back their luster and attractiveness for students.

If we want to create successful ventures and spur innovation in the economy, we need to bring entrepreneurship education into the mainstream of teaching and learning at all levels. In order to do so, we should promote the design of new approaches to imparting twenty-first century skills and knowledge through appropriate incentives for teachers and school authorities. Only by allowing educators to be entrepreneurial can we hope to impart entrepreneurial skills among students.  I recently visiting with education experts at Council of Chief State School Officers and National School Boards Association. I was encouraged and impressed that these organizations understand this.  I hope our policymakers will back them up with the support they need to help our students unleash their smarts and talents for making jobs too.

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