Education Innovation As An Investment In Academic & Economic Growth

In the summer of 2016, we at The Lean Lab partnered with the City of Kansas City, KC Social Innovation Center and the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City to support high potential education innovators working to better Kansas City education — a bold statement acknowledging the intersections of education, city government and economic development. It was a nod to the fact that our school children of today will build the economy of our future. With $50,000 earmarked in seed funding for education innovators from the City, we were able to amass an applicant pool from 28 different states, 17 cities and 3 countries, signaling that Kansas City is, in fact, a desirable place to innovate in education. Which begs the larger question — can innovation translate into student outcomes and eventually, economic impact?

Lean Lab Cohort 3 Fellows, ClassTracks & PledgeCents, recipients of the $50,000 awarded through the Economic Development Corporation and City of Kansas City.

In the fall of 2014, I was working late at night in my home office. The Lean Lab had just wrapped up the inaugural Incubator Fellowship cohort, where we supported 6 idea-stage education entrepreneurs seeking to create bold initiatives to better Kansas City education: a new community school, a technology to streamline grading, a mentorship services for girls. Post-program, my co-founder and I had decided not to return to our salaried public school positions, instead taking the leap to pursue The Lean Lab full time. We were becoming entrepreneurs in our own right, in order to simultaneously support the growth of other entrepreneurs.

With this turn, we were no longer educators solely focused on student achievement outcomes — we were now immersed in a civic environment that was hoping that entrepreneurship and innovation would propel us out of a delayed economic recovery. After all, our fellows were not only working to close the opportunity and achievement gaps through their innovations — they were also creating new jobs, filing new patents and generating revenue.

That night, I came across the city’s Strategic Plan, Advance KC — a plan to catapult KC above its midwestern city peers. The plan was comprehensive, calling for coalitions and aggressive goal setting. When it came to economic development, the plan was cautiously optimistic. Though bounce-back from the recession was not as swift as one might have hoped (higher unemployment rate than similar sized cities, insufficient funding and support for promising early stage entrepreneurs), the tone remained hopeful. When it came to the topic of education, however, the mood shifted. Referred to as “the elephant in the room,” and the “800-pound gorilla,” education was not viewed as optimistically as other sectors named in the report, which went on to state, “Many stakeholders direly warned that, until the Kansas City schools were ‘fixed,’ the city had no hope of truly achieving ‘next level’ success.”

It was this report that prompted me to shoot off a too-long email to Kansas City’s Economic Development Corporation. The EDC came on board and supported our next fellowship cohort and we gained a powerful collaborator who intrinsically understood the potential long term economic payoff of investing in education, and we began our own march as an organization that drives both education and economic outcomes.

Fast forward three years, and we’ve begun to make some progress. At a macro level, while available seed funding for early stage entrepreneurs has become more accessible, we still aren’t seeing aggressive growth in jobs in the tech industry, or in registered patents (critical markers of a healthy innovation ecosystem). That being said, we are seeing an uptick in educational attainment. In fact, KC ranks 10 of 30 comparable cities in having residents with an associate degree or higher. Dig deeper, and you’ll see that Kansas City Public Schools has received full accreditation and a new charismatic leader in Superintendent Dr. Bedell. Dig some more, and you’ll find that the metro area saw 29.3% population growth since the year 2000, suggesting that more and more families are willing to take a risk on the “elephant in the room” — our public school system.

Similarly, on a small local level, we’ve been trying to do our part to tackle education issues by way of economic development. To date, we’ve incubated 17 early stage education ventures that have gone on to impact over 5,000 Kansas City children attending public schools in the metro area through our Incubator Fellowship program. Our fellows have gone on to raise more than $700,000 in funding and have created more than a dozen jobs. With the help of EDC and the City of Kansas City, we were able to grant $50,000 to early stage education teams last year, and recruit nationally to bring talented education entrepreneurs into the Kansas City community to create change.

But we’re not done. Today, roughly 50% of our city’s students aren’t reading on grade level by third grade. Today, only 17% of our public school students in the city (between KCPS, Hickman, Center & charter schools) are achieving above the national average (21) for ACT scores. Today, the number of total patents filed has declined, as has our GDP. There is work to be done, which is why The Lean Lab will begin recruiting a world class 2017 Incubator Fellowship Cohort this spring. We hope to attract fearless, bold innovators, looking to create radical change for our Kansas City students, and in doing so, will raise the tide for all.