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What ‘Shark Tank’ can teach America’s school leaders

school competition entrepreneurship

I’m addicted to the TV show Shark Tank. There, I said it. Since the show started playing in syndication, 3 hours a day, every night of the week, my social life has taken a pretty big hit.

If you haven’t seen it, the show follows would-be entrepreneurs as they pitch potential investors—including Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban.

I—along with millions of others—swim to Shark Tank because it embodies the central pillars of the American dream—hard work, ingenuity, perseverance, and a little bit of luck.

Rarely does an episode go by without reminding us that success requires creativity, a strong brand, and the ability to listen to customers and adapt based on feedback.

These same traits are echoed in the work ethics and business models of many of today’s most successful entrepreneurs—from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Tesla’s Elon Musk.

We’re starting to see this same kind of thinking in public schools, too. But it’s not happening nearly fast enough—at least according to best-selling author and former school principal Eric Sheninger.

In their new book, BrandED, Sheninger and PR guru Trish Rubin tout the concept of the “edupreneuer.” That’s a school leader who uses an entrepreneur’s mindset in their work, through problem solving, initiative, and innovation.

In a recent blog post, Sheninger reveals several strategies school leaders can borrow from leading entrepreneurs to stay innovative and stay relevant in the age of school competition.

Here’s a few highlights:

1. Get constant feedback

There’s a reason Uber asks you to rate your driver after every ride. Major brands constantly adapt their business using customer feedback. Schools should do the same. Whether through surveys, or social media, or one-on-one conversations with parents and staff, make sure you have a plan to engage your community and to flat out ask the question: How are we doing?

2. Be a learner, not just an educator

Nobody knows everything, even if they think they do. There’s always something more to learn about your schools, your work, and your community. That’s why candid feedback from students, parents, and staff is so valuable. But learning doesn’t stop with better community conversations. You also have to look at what’s happening around you. What are other districts in your region doing to improve the school experience? Are there charter schools or private schools in the area? Have you taken a look at their programs and approaches. Don’t brood at the first sign of school competition. Learn from it.

As Sheninger writes:

“Continue your study in the manner of a trend spotter. Look out—online, in apps, or through print resources—for the latest trends and research in leadership, pedagogy, initiating school change, technology integration, and whatever other topics inspire you. Search outside your own educational backyard to learn from other disciplines.”

3. Build your permanent campaign

Yes, schools have brands. The question is, are you in charge of your own brand or is someone else telling your story for you? Successful districts look to find “unique brand value (UBV),” Sheninger writes. In the environment in which schools compete, identifying your district’s value proposition, then finding a way to consistently demonstrate that value is critically important.

4. Be persistent…and patient

If your schools are losing students, it might be tempting to abandon your strategies in favor of a quick fix. Resist that urge. Neither success nor innovation happen overnight. These improvements require careful planning—and you have to have confidence in your strategy. Says Sheninger: “Don’t rush the process. Focus on the work of your students, staff, and district. In time, the results of your improvement strategy will come to fruition.”

What do you think of the concept of “edupreneurs?” What steps are your schools taking to stay innovative and deal with school competition? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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