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The Trouble With Teaching Entrepreneurship -- And Why We Need To Get Better At It

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Decades of research have shown that students are very interested in being their own bosses. In the '90s, for example, a Kauffman Foundation study found that two-thirds of high school students wanted to become entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the same study found that more than 80 percent felt they had not learned anything about entrepreneurship in school. In 2011, the National Chamber Foundation and Junior Achievement got essentially the same responses from high school students in a nationwide study.

I've been trying to rectify this situation since the 1980s, when I set out to teach students that it was possible for them to be self-reliant and to start a business. We thought this would be a fairly easy goal, especially with the support of a policy from the new U.S. Department of Education stipulating that all career and technical programs should teach entrepreneurship.

But we were wrong. In fact, over the past 30 years, I've discovered many barriers preventing teachers from effectively teaching entrepreneurship. In fact, it became obvious that educators at the local and state levels were themselves among the major barriers to providing experiences in business creation. And because so many of these obstacles remain in place even today, it's worth examining them in detail.

Funding Has Been Paltry

In spite of very strong student interest in starting their own business as a career, state education program funding historically has not recognized entrepreneurship as a fundable high school program -- until fairly recently, that is, with the new Perkins Act for Career-Tech federal funding. As a result, those teachers who chose to teach entrepreneurship often did so on their own initiative and outside of the established curriculum. Even now, teacher training in most states barely addresses the teaching of entrepreneurship, if at all.

It's Extremely Hard to Change the Curriculum

It is now widely accepted that effective entrepreneurship education must be built around real-world experiences, not textbooks. But to the extent that current curricula address the subject, it tends to be done through textbooks, and teachers aren't expected to bring real entrepreneurial experiences into the curriculum. (Most couldn't do it anyway -- but I'll get to that below.) So why not change the curriculum? Well, K-12 curricula are tied to state (and federal) funding. It has always been difficult for individual teachers to make changes to curriculum in any discipline, and it is especially hard to do so now because of state and federal requirements.

Teachers Rarely Have Entrepreneurial Experience -- or the Right Mindset

Effective entrepreneurship training does impart specific knowledge and skills, but it must also convey a mindset -- one that embraces a certain amount of risk and is ready to learn and bounce back from repeated failure. Unfortunately, most teachers have never been entrepreneurs; others are failed entrepreneurs who went to teaching as a more secure career; and some don't even know a business owner -- not the ideal people to convey such a mindset. And because of this cultural divide, they aren't likely to encourage students to become entrepreneurs. Social studies classes would sometimes address entrepreneurship as an economic fact, but did not involve students in personal career exploration -- and other academic classes rarely if ever address the subject at all.

Colleges See Entrepreneurship as Their Exclusive Territory

Colleges of business have generally seen entrepreneurship education as their exclusive territory, although as a major it tends to be far less established or emphasized than management, finance, or marketing. The idea that it could be taught in other colleges or as part of a lifelong learning process, beginning in elementary or high schools, was not even considered. Where teachers took the initiative, written business plans generally became the outcome of entrepreneurship education programs at all levels, from elementary schools through college. Real life experiential learning was overlooked.

Author Dr. Cathy Ashmore is Executive Director for the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education, a national advocate for the growth of entrepreneurship education. Since 1980, Dr. Ashmore has been creating entrepreneurship curriculum and programs, training teachers, developing databases, studying young entrepreneurs, surveying business owners/teachers/students, organizing and managing professional development conferences, and managing advocacy initiatives nationwide. This article was adapted from Ashmore's essay in #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30-plus proven solutions to help end youth unemployment published by the Young Entrepreneur Council.