Is Disruptive Innovation Driving K-12 Privatization?

If you’ve followed the K–12 education dialogue over the last decade, then you’re probably familiar with the term “disruptive innovation.” Edtech entrepreneurs and school choice advocates sometimes invoke it as an indomitable force that will redeem and transform broken school systems. Meanwhile, people on the other sides of these debates worry that “disruption” is a flawed yet rhetorically powerful narrative used to rationalize K–12 privatization. Somewhere in the middle are skeptics who give consideration to the idea, but wonder if disruption is an oversold term that is likely to underdeliver on its proponents’ promises.

So how do we make sense of the tumult of opinions? What is disruptive innovation and is it relevant in the current debates about K–12 education?

In the mid-1990s, Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe how large and well-resourced industry incumbents like U.S. Steel and RCA were toppled by upstarts like Nucor and Sony. Christensen’s 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, articulated a theory to explain this phenomenon and catapulted the term “disruptive innovation” into the popular business lexicon.

Talk of disruptive innovation in K–12 education took off when Christensen’s 2008 book, Disrupting Class, used the theory to conclude that online learning is poised to transform K–12 schooling. Since the book’s publication, virtual charter schools have continued to expand, and a number of innovative brick-and-mortar charter schools that make heavy use of online learning have made notable headlines. So, are these schools fulfilling the book’s prophecy?

For the skeptics and the deeply concerned, I want to offer some words of solace: K–12 public schools are not getting disrupted. And for the record, Disrupting Class never claimed that they would be.

First, charter schools are not disruptive innovations relative to traditional schools. Disruptive innovations always get their initial foothold by offering low-quality solutions either to people who lack access to mainstream options or for whom mainstream providers are uninterested in serving. But in public education, these footholds do not exist. By legislative mandate, all students have access to some form of public education, and schools are required by law to serve all students. This means that charter schools compete head-to-head from the outset with district schools for enrollment.

Second, full-time virtual schools and other purely online options are not disrupting traditional public schools either. At the heart of every disruptive innovation is a technology that can improve over time until it offers performance that is good enough to compete with incumbent providers on the dimensions that most customers value. When it comes to schooling, most parents value not just the academic learning that schools provide, but also the caretaking role that schools meet for working parents. This important benefit of brick-and-mortar schools has no technological substitute, which means only a small segment of the population will ever be interested in full-time virtual schooling.

Charter schools and virtual schools certainly introduce new competitive dynamics with which district schools must contend. But disruptive innovation is not an accurate characterization of how they compete.

To understand how disruption works in K–12 education, we need to recast the popular application of the theory.

When people tell the story of disruption in the computer industry, the narrative usually focuses on how desktop computer companies like Apple disrupted incumbent minicomputer manufacturers like Digital Equipment Corp. But we tend to gloss over the fact that there were other organizations—such as universities, automakers, banks, and airlines—that switched from buying minicomputers to buying desktops.

In K–12 education, schools are analogous to those other organizations. As online-learning resources improve, schools will increasingly adopt them in the place of traditional instructional resources. Thus, it is likely that textbook publishers and PD providers will be disrupted. Schools, meanwhile, will remain and become the benefactors of this disruption.

But as schools adopt online learning, they will need to think carefully about how to reengineer their classrooms to take advantage of this new technology. In a recent EdSurge article, my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher explains that many of the most innovative online-learning technologies have slow adoption curves because they are not plug-compatible with traditional schools.

Another industry parallel is valuable here. In the early 20th century, factory managers powered their equipment using a system of axles, pulleys, gears, and crankshafts that connected to a large steam engine at the center of the factory and organized their equipment to maximize efficient access to the central power source. Later, when factory managers first replaced their large steam engines with large electric motors, the new electric motors were less noisy and didn’t produce smoke, but they had little impact on productivity. It wasn’t until decades later that electrification doubled factory productivity as factory managers began putting smaller electric motors in individual pieces of equipment and then organized the equipment based on the natural workflow of materials.

The impact of online learning in education will follow a similar pattern. Most schools today are making online learning part of their classrooms. But substantial gains in student outcomes will only come as they reengineer schedules, teacher roles, grading, classrooms, and courses. As new online learning resources disrupt traditional learning resources, schools will in turn need to disrupt their traditional instructional models. Schools have the most fertile opportunities for this type of internal disruption when they use online learning to provide learning experiences that would be otherwise unavailable to their students.

Disruptive innovation is happening in K–12 education. But it isn’t going to replace traditional schools. Rather, it will replace the traditional instructional resources and instructional models that schools have relied on for decades. All types of schools—traditional and charter alike—stand to benefit from this disruption as it amplifies the capacity of their teachers to better serve their students. Let’s stop using the term “disruptive innovation” as a rhetorical tool and instead use the theory of disruptive innovation to help schools improve.

— Thomas Arnett

Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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