Scream It From the Rooftops: Autonomy Does Not Equal Entrepreneurship!!!!!

I’ve been on the road for the past two weeks and have been spending time with great city based education leaders from across the country.

A common struggle they face, and a common issue I see everywhere, is the confusion between autonomy and entrepreneurship.

To be very specific:

1) Autonomy is the granting of freedoms.

2) Entrepreneurship is the creation of new self governed organizations.

Autonomy is a management strategy. When it comes to serving disadvantaged families, management strategies have limited upside and a lot of downside in terms of the opportunity cost of not pursuing entrepreneurship.

We need structural strategies that grant true freedoms.

The magical moment is when you give an educator the opportunity to create the school of her dreams.

The magical moment is not when you give an educator the chance to pick her math curriculum.

The future is in handing power back to educators so they can create schools that you would want to send your children to.

The future is not in letting an educator opt-out of centralized staffing ratios.

To be blunt: an educator who is playing the autonomy game is still sitting at the children’s table.

The future is not autonomy. The future is trust, risk, freedom, and accountability.

I don’t think I’ve used five exclamation points in my life, but, people, if we don’t get this right, we’re going to stay stuck in cages of our own creation.

And children everywhere are going to suffer.

5 thoughts on “Scream It From the Rooftops: Autonomy Does Not Equal Entrepreneurship!!!!!

  1. Mike G

    Hi N,

    I quibble here on the language because it’s a post about language, and because you used 5 exclamation points, so it’s obviously something you care about.

    1. Big pic, I think I get it. You visit district leaders and policymakers. They claim “They’re already doing it.” What you see (and I see) is they give a tiny bit of freedom which leaves 98% of the old way intact, and call it change. To us, the glass is 98% empty. Hence, “The children’s table.”

    However, you’re also using the phrase “educators” when I think you mean “the people I meet with when I travel.” There’s the 100 or so large district leaders, and the various coterie of electeds, donors, pundits, etc.

    Plus 3+ million teachers and others. For some the 300,000 math teachers, for example, choosing the math curriculum is a potentially a big deal. Magical even. Could allow you to create the classroom of your dreams.

    Do you think a teacher can be “entrepreneurial,” even if he/she is not building a whole organization?

    2. Isn’t the more straightforward definition of autonomy = “freedom”….

    I.e., not the granting per se of freedom (though I realize you are talking, in your head, to a bunch of district leaders who withhold freedom). I think a closer word to the “granting part” is “emancipation.”

    1. nkingsl

      Mike – great to hear from you.

      1) yes an educator can be entrepreneurial in choosing a math curriculum but it won’t change the game at a systems level / I don’t really think teachers should pick curriculum at scale.
      2) Fine. Freedom. But you get my point. Making choice is different than starting organizations… and, in my mind, its starting orgs that is game changing….

  2. Chris Gabrieli

    Neerav: I love your continuing public thought leadership and dialogue on school system design. I certainly agree that there is a difference between autonomy and entrepreneurship. Autonomy, as Mike G points out, is freedom (whether granted now as part of a strategy for change, as part of receiving a charter or longstanding in any form). It is a resource, like money and time, that can be used well or squandered. There are a lot of charters with nearly total autonomy who use it poorly, right?

    You call entrepreneurship the creation of new self governed organizations. Not sure I really agree with that definition but I think I get your point. What I think you don’t distinguish is start-up energy versus mature, high-inertia state. Many/most new organizations have a lot of start-up energy, often in the form of founders and early participants drawn to the mission and the excitement of invention. It is a huge advantage in Silicon Valley, biotech and other start-up rich fields and it has been a huge advantage for the charter field.

    The challenge is that all start-ups either fail or mature into a different form where the rate of change and invention slows down and the scale and inertia grows. In tech, that’s how IBM yields to Microsoft yields to Netscape yields to Google yields to Facebook etc. The more mature players don’t necessarily disappear and they often provide very important and valuable services and products but they are usually less good at groundbreaking innovation. And they attract different people – less risk-oriented, more professional.

    It is also clear in mature organizations that granting greater accountable autonomy deeper down the ranks to the frontline workers and reducing/eliminating middle management layers that are a choke point between the front line and the overall leadership has been a hallmark of how American business transformed from a bloated, stagnant, vulnerable state in the 1970s to the envy of the world today. That is an autonomy strategy aimed at tapping into frontline employees appetite for more voice and meaning in their work. It does not depend on the overall organization being a start-up or a change in overall governance.

    Anyways, lots more to say on these topics and plenty of room for debate on how to best apply these models and metaphors to education improvement.

    1. nkingsl

      Chris, welcome to the blog!

      Few thoughts:
      1) My quibble would be that IBM and Microsoft are KIPP 10+ years from now – not districts!
      2) In other words, mature orgs in a competitive environment can still add value but they are different than government operated institutions, which I think are less likely to add value (though I might be wrong!).

      Look forward to more conversations.


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