As it turned out, that smartphone app—the brainchild of Emily Durham GEd’10, the only Penn student to reach the competition’s final stage—didn’t finish in the money. But both of the business plans that did also came away with something more valuable: venture-capital funding.

The runner-up was a software tool developed by a TFA alumna that classroom teachers would be able to customize to track and quantify student progress in fine-grained detail, on a day-by-day basis. So it might crunch all the data from homework assignments and pop quizzes, for example, to clue in a teacher that her kids are, say, getting a handle on multiplying decimals but still lagging with fractions. (The system is also currently being marketed, somewhat less inspiringly, as a way to streamline the implementation of classroom discipline.)

The winner was a fledgling company called Digital Proctor, which has developed a keystroke-based authentication tool designed to detect “outsourcing”-style cheating in Web-based classroom environments. (The underlying assumption, which is supported by some evidence, is that everyone has a more or less unique style of touch-typing.)

There’s little doubt that each of these tools addresses a fast-growing niche in the American education marketplace. The Obama administration lists “building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction” as one of the four specific ways states can win coveted grants from its Race to the Top initiative. And the explosive growth of online education hardly needs commenting upon. But still, the notion of a graduate school of education lending its weight to something like a cheating-detection business—or Sabrina Kay’s for-profit college, for that matter—strikes some people as, well, novel.

Entrepreneurship wasn’t a word I used much before I came here,” says GSE Dean Andy Porter, who came to Penn from Vanderbilt in 2007. Asked about the education business-plan competition, Porter goes straight to the question that probably occurred to most people who heard about it: “Why in the hell would we do something like that?”

“Well, the GSE here at Penn wants to be the place the rest of the world looks to for ideas,” he says in answer to his own query. “Our mission is to provide leadership in education … and in education, the kind of research that tends to make a difference usually has a development phase to it—you create a curriculum, you create a program, you create a tool—so we try to promote good research and development. Then of course you want to get good visibility for your ideas.”

Linking them to the profit incentive is sometimes the best way to do that, he says. For instance, several years ago Porter developed a psychometric assessment tool that district administrators can use to evaluate the effectiveness of principals. “I’ve had various ‘tools’ I’ve invented over my career, and some of them I’ve kept in the public sector,” he says. “But this assessment-of-school-leadership thing I put out in the private sector, because I didn’t think it would ever get out there and be used if someone didn’t have a profit incentive.” So he sold it to a company that has since deployed it in about 2,000 schools.

“The profit motive can get lousy stuff out there—and does,” Porter allows. But in his view, that’s all the more reason for Penn GSE to insinuate itself into the process. “If you can make it a two-step deal,” in which the University brings its research expertise to bear on a product first, “and then you get somebody in there selling it, I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”

So does Joel Greenblatt W’79 WG’80. The hedge fund founder, philanthropist, and University trustee also serves on Penn GSE’s board of overseers. “There should be more educational entrepreneurship,” he says. “And I think Doug Lynch is trying to lead the way.”

Greenblatt has been on the front lines of education reform as an instrumental backer, along with John Petry W’93, of the non-profit Harlem Success Academy and Bronx Success Academy charter schools in New York. The lauded seven-school network (whose goal is to charter a total of 40 schools in high-need communities) is run by Eva Moskowitz C’86 [“Alumni Profiles,” May|June 2009] according to a philosophy that Greenblatt describes in terms that are strikingly similar to the advice Lynch had for Sabrina Kay.

“[Moskowitz] started out with the idea of stealing liberally from the best practices from other successful charters,” he says. “And the [measure of] success for us is that if we’re successful, other people steal as much as possible from the things that we’re doing, that work. Otherwise, well, it’s not exactly a waste of time—because the project will end up helping a lot of kids that are directly affected—but the real goal is to set up something that can be used by others … Not much has changed in the way teaching has been delivered over the last 100 years. Now that information can be shared, and communication technologies have improved, this is an amazing time to really pursue different ways of helping kids.”

“Public K-12 education is a $700 billion business,” he points out. “Philanthropy can’t be the answer. All the philanthropists can do is set up models that can be copied.”


 


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