Who’s a teacherpreneur (or not)?

Why the “$4 million teacher” should not be classified as a teacherpreneur.

This past week our new book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave, was published by Jossey-Bass. Teacherpreneurs are classroom experts who are committed to teaching and teach students regularly, but also have time, space, and reward to incubate, execute, and spread their bold policy and pedagogical ideas. You might also have read about the “$4 million teacher” from South Korea—and wondered whether the story of Kim Ki-hoon, penned by Amanda Ripley in the Wall Street Journal (August 3), might serve as a model of teacherpreneurism.

Granted, Ms. Ripley’s catchy and Tweetable headline—“The $4 Million Teacher”—suggests a bold way for those who teach to also lead and be rewarded handsomely for it. She claims that U.S. policymakers and educators have a lot to learn from South Korea, whose “top” teachers “can make a fortune” teaching in afterschool programs called hagwons, which solely focus on intense rote learning exercises and “extreme competition” among students in their test-score race to secure a spot in the nation’s top universities. In South Korea, private tutors like Kim Ki-hoon, who has taught for most of his 20 years in hagwons, now outnumber public school teachers.

In her piece, Ms. Ripley writes:

Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date).

What Ms. Ripley does not reveal is that hagwons promote a “manic obsession” for a few winning students to gain entry into the nation’s most competitive universities. She also ignores the fact that for years South Korean education leaders have been trying to tamp down the hagwons, because of “mounting student stress” and because their knowledge-based economy “requires creativity and innovation,” not intense competition among students and their teachers. She does not alert her readers to the growing recognition in South Korea that these cram schools and the “academic intensity” they fuel are “now blamed for a high suicide rate” and “divided families.”

As for Mr. Kim’s day-to-day work, my colleague Ann Byrd pointed out that Mr. Kim rarely, if at all, teaches. He leads a for-profit company that sells his lectures and instructional materials. Although Ms. Ripley labels Mr. Kim a teacher, she does point out that the “bulk” of his income comes from “the 150,000 kids who watch his lectures online each year” and the publishing company that he manages with 30 employees.

Defining the teacherpreneur

There is much to unpack here, and I have not had an opportunity to read Ms. Ripley’s book as of yet. But in the wake Teacherpreneurs’ release, I couldn’t help but think about whether some might consider Mr. Kim to be a teacherpreneur. He’s a “-preneur,” certainly—perhaps an education entrepreneur—but a teacherpreneur?

Absolutely not.

And here’s why. Teacherpreneurs incubate and execute bold ideas while still teaching students. They spread their expertise to teaching colleagues so that more students benefit from quality practices and policies. Teacherpreneurs must be well compensated, but establishing a new income stream for underpaid professionals is not the primary goal of teacherpreneurism. The goal is not to pit individuals against one another to see who can make the most money. Instead, it’s about rewarding a new culture of schooling, marked by highly personalized 21st-century learning for students, as well as growing opportunities for collaboration among teachers.

Teacherpreneurs are first and foremost highly skilled teachers, who adapt to instruction and work closely with students, families, and communities in doing so. It seems that Mr. Kim’s work ignores the best interests of students and communities, instead contributing to unhealthy competition and expectations. Teacherpreneurism is about creating student-centered pedagogical and policy reforms in the best interest of public education.

Ms. Ripley points out that Mr. Kim makes as much as he does because most private tutors of the hagwons do not make much at all. She does point out that the system in which they work is “ruthless,” but in no way does she alert readers (at least in her WSJ piece) to the dangers of education entrepreneurship gone amok—a few “winning” students and teachers further dividing an already isolated group of professionals.

Ms. Ripley rightfully notes that education for today and tomorrow needs to support students’ ability to think critically and adapt to changing circumstances. But she does not make clear that South Korea’s teacher-reward system and the hagwons’ emphasis on rote learning actually undermine the teaching of these skills.

Unlike Ms. Ripley, I do not think that Mr. Kim’s approach will help the United States build a workforce with 21st-century skills or support a system that gives all students equal opportunities to reach their full potential.

For that, we need teacherpreneurs.


*Images attribution: Mushon Zer-Aviv
  • BriannaCrowley

    Also missing

    Barnett, Thanks so much for this analysis of the “buzz-inducing” article with the misnomer in the title. In addtition to Ripley not emphasizing the disasterous effects of this tutoring/test-prep economy, she also makes no mention of how the government is trying to improve its public education system as a response to the test-centric pressures. She mentions the government “cracking down” on the hagwons by imposing curfews, but doesn’t mention any pro-active policy. I wonder if this is because it doesn’t exist or because it doesn’t fit the sensationalism of an individual becoming rich from after school tutoring. 

    I also wonder why she includes the comparative statistic with the advanced scores between U.S. and South Korea at the begining of the article if she doesn’t plan on providing an analysis of how these hagwons offer any new ideas to our own system of education and expensive tutoring options. There is a dangerous connection that is alluded to but not justified. 

  • Rob Kriete

    Exploitation of a competitive system


    I appreciate how you differentiate between visions of teachpreneurism here.  Clearly, Mr. Kim is exploiting a “ruthless” and competitive edcational climate.  

    As I begin my first year as a teacherpreneur, I will strive to create a fostering, collaborative environment for teachers to achieve their potential as classroom educators much like I have worked diligently to create this atmosphere in my middle school classroom for the past 19 years.  

    Equal opportunities for all students and teachers to achieve their potential is, in my opinion, true teacherpreneurism.

  • JustinMinkel

    Competition vs. Collaboration

    The term “Teacherpreneur” itself seems to pose the question of how to fuse the best of a free market system (innovation, competition) with the best of our profession (motive beyond profit, collaboration.)

    This question has become personal to me this week because we have a choice of two public schools for our daughter to begin kindergarten.  Both are diverse; both are lower-middle income; both are neighborhood schools with open enrollment to families anywhere in our town.  But after observing, we chose to send her to the further school, not the one closest to where we live, because we think she’ll get a more meaningful education there.

    For me, the choice has brought the familiar arguments about competition vs. collaboration, public schools vs. charter vs. vouchers, into a sharply personal light.

    American culture, from sports to business, seems obsessed with competition, and neglectful of collaboration.  Many of the reforms I agree with–i.e. Common Core, 21st century skills–are introduced with scare tactics about all the honors kids in India and China who are going to whomp “our” kids if we don’t do something fast.  But I don’t care more about kids in America than kids in India, in the same way that I don’t care more about kids in Northwest Arkansas (where I live) than in the Mississippi Delta.

    My question is how competition and collaboration can co-exist to create schools that meet all students’ needs.

    In the South Korean example, my one “devil’s advocate” question would be this: Are we sure that we know better than the many parents who choose to spend money on hagwons and Mr. Kim’s materials?  I tend to see high pressure and this type of competition as a bad thing, but the parents choosing this route care infinitely more deeply about their own sons and daughters than I do, and they know them infinitely better.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, Barnett and other Collaboratory members, both on the competition vs. collaboration question and on whether we owe some deference to the choices of “other people’s children.”

  • Barnett

    Great question posed by Justin

    I agree with you, Justin. I would not even come close to believing that I know more than the parents of the students served by Mr. Kim. In fact, I should have been made it more clear in my blog post that Mr. Kim is no doubt serving a need – and he is quite good at it. I just don’t see him as a teacherpreneur — whose primary purpose is to teach and lead so all students get a high quality education. Mr. Kim seems to have to compete with other hagwons in a winner-take-all type of system. In a democracy public education is for the public good, not private gain. This does not mean that the best teachers who help  their colleagues improve cannot be paid very well. I believe they must.  

  • JustinMinkel

    Genuine Teachers

    I agree, Barnett–thanks for making the time to respond.  I have taken time away from the classroom three times–first to complete a Masters in Elementary Ed, again to be a stay-at-home dad, and again for a professional sabbatical.  Each time, I was amazed how quickly I lost that daily contact with the realities of the classroom and the impact of recently passed policies/legislation.  Thanks for keeping us focused on that daily connection with students and classroom realities.