Lynch would not have been the least bit surprised by Kay’s purchase of a for-profit college as a “laboratory” for her dissertation work. That was how she’d banked eight figures to begin with, as the founder of California Design College. After studying computer science and industrial design at California State University at Long Beach, Kay, whose parents owned a clothing business, intuited that computer-aided design (CAD) would figure hugely in the future of fashion design. In 1991 she struck a mutually beneficial deal with a software company that was having trouble finding buyers for its new, quarter-million-dollar CAD suite. Give me the software for free, she said, and I’ll train your first generation of customers. It worked. Kay hired space and faculty, built a curriculum, recruited students, and won the all-important regional accreditation. Her graduates got job placements at a rate that even Wharton might envy—consistently above 90 percent. And the software company had a growing market of fashion designers trained on its proprietary platform. A decade of work paid off in 2002 when she sold the school for a reported $15 million to Education Management Corporation, a publicly traded company that would shortly be acquired by Goldman Sachs. (EDMC, which runs 71 for-profit colleges, is once again a NASDAQ-listed firm, currently valued at $2 billion.)

If you think that talking about education—much less education reform—in terms lifted from venture capitalists is vaguely sacrilegious, listening to Doug Lynch might send you sprinting for the nearest exorcist. Ever since he was recruited to GSE in 2004, as a trained economist who’d never worked for an education school, Lynch has ordered his life as an administrator and classroom teacher around one guiding belief: that America’s best hope for improving its educational outcomes lies in opening the marketplace as wide as possible to entrepreneurs. And graduate schools of education, it follows, should be doing everything in their power to equip and enable them.

Lynch has challenged and changed the status quo at Penn GSE over the past few years, though not necessarily in a way that’s attracted a lot of outside attention. He negotiated a partnership with Teach For America wherein GSE would administer a custom-built certification program for TFA recruits—an idea he considered a “home run” but only managed to pull off after being “drawn and quartered by the faculty,” some of whom, he recalls, “basically said, ‘They’re the devil. What are you doing? They undermine everything that we’re about.’” (Because most TFA corps members only teach for two years before pursuing different careers—and there’s a lot of evidence that it takes three or four years of classroom experience to make teachers really effective—some scholars criticize TFA for sending inexperienced, if well-intentioned, college graduates into the country’s neediest classrooms. “There are folks who argue eloquently that teaching is an intellectual endeavor, and that it takes a long time to get good at it, and we’re one of the few decent ed schools in the country, so we should be sort of preparing the Jedi masters,” Lynch elaborates. “And here you are signing a deal with these 21-year-old kids who are going to last two years.” But the faculty came around, he says, when they started interacting with TFA recruits and realized, as Lynch puts it, “’Oh, these are really smart, committed kids—and they really do need our help, because they’ve [only] gotten five weeks’ training.’”)

He started the program in which Sabrina Kay enrolled—a first of its kind among Penn’s peers in that it was designed for senior-level executives in charge of corporate-based education and training. (“At first faculty were like, ‘What the hell?’”)

His most emblematic initiative, though, came to fruition in 2010: an annual education-business-plan competition, sponsored by GSE and the Milken Family Foundation, whose two top cash prizes were richer than the ones offered by the well-known Wharton Business Plan Competition.

“If you take early childhood all the way through K-12, higher ed, and then what you could call corporate learning,” Lynch likes to say, “more money is spent on education than on healthcare.”

But, he’ll add in his next breath, that market is strewn with barriers to entry. “If you’re an oncologist and you have an idea for how to cure cancer, there’s a whole system in place to help you vet the idea and bring it to market,” Lynch says. “Nothing like that exists in the world for education.

“And the interesting thing is that it’s not like curing cancer—a lot of these things are fairly, in theory, solvable,” he adds. Just not the way education reformers have gone about it in the past. “The old approach to education reform is that a bunch of policy wonks get in a room and sort of orchestrate the whole thing centrally: ‘We’re going to change the whole system, and we’re going to legislate it.’ Well, that’s been tried sort of for the last 50 years, and that’s gotten us pretty much nowhere.”

So he advocates jettisoning that top-down approach and replacing it with what amounts to an army of entrepreneurs who can test out ideas great and small—rather the way Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis envisioned state legislatures serving as the “laboratories of democracy.”

“The hypothesis is that by creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to experiment,” Lynch says, “and they could be for-profit, non-profit, it doesn’t matter—that folks who think that they have an interesting solution to a problem that they’re seeing out there, whether it’s access to college via technology, or training teachers better through a new sort of strategy … whatever the thing is or the idea is, rather than trying to orchestrate it from up high, allow all these things to sort of percolate.”

And the unfortunate reality, Lynch concludes, “is that there’s no mechanism anywhere in the country to do that.” Which is why he wanted to sponsor the business-plan competition—along with a new network of for-profit education companies, non-profit foundations, and (mostly) venture capitalists that would serve as a built-in audience for it. Dubbed NEST (Networking Education Entrepreneurs for Social Transformation), it was what Lynch envisioned as a “safe place for people to meet”—everyone from the Walton Family Foundation and the KIPP charter school program to La Guardia Community College and Rosetta Stone.

“Part of it is sort of being a yenta,” Lynch explains. “One of the big problems [in the education marketplace] is what they call ‘deal flow.’ Once you’re University of Phoenix, it’s pretty easy to get capital—you’ve got 500,000 students; you’re sort of worth a gazillion dollars. They’re worth, like, $10 billion or something. That’s pretty easy. The problem is, think of University of Phoenix 30 years ago, when somebody said, ‘Okay, I have this idea for a totally different way of running a university. Oh, and by the way, I’m going to make it for-profit.’ It was impossible for them to raise capital.”

Lynch wants to spread the message far and wide: whether you want to be the next University of Phoenix or you just have an idea for a smartphone app that forces eighth-graders to solve an algebra equation before they can fire off a text message, Penn GSE wants to play the enabler.

 


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