Most Innovation Efforts Won’t Transform K–12 Education

Here’s what leaders should do instead
Students study green crabs up close in New London, Connecticut, with the New England Science and Sailing Foundation’s travel program.
Families’ desire for unconventional learning experiences can nudge school leaders toward more innovative educational offerings, like New England Science and Sailing Foundation’s field programs in Connecticut.

Calls to transform U.S. K–12 schools grow more pressing each day. Yet the complex web of relationships and expectations that shape most schools—referred to in innovation theory as their value networks—create formidable barriers to change. These networks, which for public schools typically include families, unions, higher education, and state and federal agencies, dictate what schools must prioritize to keep seats filled, funds flowing, and doors open. But those priorities simultaneously make innovation a challenge. The schools of the future that our society needs won’t come from transforming our existing schools. They’ll have to come through launching new versions of schooling from new value networks.


The mechanisms of value network resistance

The most innovative approaches to schooling aren’t compatible with the processes and priorities of conventional schooling. At the frontier of innovation, new models are pioneering practices such as mastery-based learning, self-paced blended learning, learning through projects and real-world experiences rather than coursework, and modular learning ecosystems. These practices challenge many of the basic assumptions of conventional schooling: that grade levels should be based on age, that schools should be open 180 days a year, that credit for learning should accrue on a semester-based calendar, that learning happens primarily in classrooms through teacher-directed instruction, and that test scores determine potential. In short, the most transformative new models of schooling entail a massive reevaluation of how schools operate, how teachers teach, and the priorities schools pursue.

Unfortunately, efforts to rethink the basic assumptions of conventional education consistently fail in established schools because strong forces within those schools’ value networks generate pushback.

Most parents made it through conventional schooling themselves—so when they consider what’s best for their kids, the devil they know is better than the one they don’t. Most kids have learned to “get by” in conventional schools—so they don’t want the rules changed on them mid-game. Most teachers, administrators, and staff have spent years to decades honing their expertise within the conventional system—so, for very rational reasons, they favor efforts to improve that system over efforts to reinvent it. Teacher preparation programs see most of their graduates taking jobs at conventional schools—so their programs center on preparation for conventional settings. Most policymakers and education reformers have spent significant political capital trying to improve conventional schools—so they aren’t ready to call their efforts a loss.

All of these groups will voice support for K–12 innovation. But when innovation means upending conventional practices and rethinking core priorities, nominal supporters become sources of resistance.


The role of value networks in fostering innovation

When education thought leaders talk about new models of schooling, they often focus on the influence of visionary leaders, engaging programs, or a guiding philosophy. But look deeper and you’ll find that successful new models of schooling emerge from distinctive value networks.

In 2010, Nathan Gorsch was an assistant principal at a conventional high school in Northeast Colorado Springs. By most standard metrics—academics, graduation rates, athletics, etc.—the school where he worked was successful. But he’d noticed that many learners were significantly disengaged as they went through the day-to-day of school. Eager for an opportunity to create something different, Gorsch became convinced that he couldn’t effect change from within the conventional school where he worked. Instead, in 2014 he became the principal of the district’s online school—a program serving students and families who wanted or needed something unconventional.

Gorsch then pitched to his superintendent the idea of growing that school into a blended-learning program focused on learner engagement. With the district’s support, he and a small team of teachers took advantage of the flexibility afforded to an online school and launched a pilot in 2015. That program evolved and grew over time, honing its ability to support students’ success with its flexible online curriculum while expanding its interest-based in-person electives. Today, Village High School has approximately as many students on its waiting list as it has on its roster.

Around the same time that Gorsch was launching his pilot in Colorado, educators in Massachusetts were on the verge of creating another unconventional program. At that time, Rachel Babcock and Josh Charpentier led alternative education within Plymouth Public Schools. After a careful look at their track record at getting students on a path to academic and life success, they faced a stark reality. A large proportion of their students were slipping through the cracks. While wrestling with this problem, they concluded, as Babcock notes, that rethinking their approach to meeting the needs of their students “was really hard to do in a district where they’re always trying to apply the same policies to every student.”

With the support of their district, Babcock and Charpentier went on to create Map Academy, a charter school that leverages competency-based progression, asynchronous instruction, and blended learning to tailor education to students’ individual needs. The model is a lifeline for students whose lives don’t conform to the rigid schedules, calendars, and due dates of conventional schools. It’s also a model that creates more bandwidth for educators to build relationships with their students. Today, Map operates at maximum capacity, with many students on a waiting list.

Photo of Village High School
Nathan Gorsch’s observation that some conventional high school students were not engaged in their coursework prompted him to start a more engaging blended-learning experiment that eventually evolved into Village High School in Colorado Springs.

The shape of new value networks

As we’ve studied programs like Village High School and Map Academy at the Clayton Christensen Institute, we’ve identified key value network features that give rise to unconventional models of schooling.

First, new models of schooling need to start with a clean slate. Realistically, established schools don’t change their value networks because a school’s value network is the lifeblood of that school: the families who volunteer and vote, the teachers who keep classrooms humming, and the state agencies that set the rules and provide the funding. No rational leader of a conventional school is going to dismiss the existing value network and try to build a new one. Doing so will either cripple the school or get the leader fired. It’s only in very rare instances—often in small school systems facing poignant failure—that a whole value network shifts on its own. Hence, you need to create a new school that can assemble a new value network from the ground up.

Second, new models need to start off serving what I refer to as “frontier” students and families. In some cases, these are students who have dropped out of conventional schooling because their lives don’t conform to its norms, rules, and expectations. They may need flexibility in scheduling or pacing—such as students with major medical challenges, students who struggle with school social dynamics, or students pursuing intensive interests outside of school. Some are in families that have a very different notion of what schooling should be—often valuing small learning communities, self-directed projects, family-centered education, entrepreneurship, or travel over conventional coursework. In all cases, these students are looking for something different, not something better. They willingly give up sports programs, honors and AP tracks, traditional electives and extracurriculars, and the campus social scene to get an education they want or need.

Third, new school models need autonomy from the policies, administrative hierarchies, and metrics that state agencies and districts set up for conventional schools. This is why many innovative new school models today—such as Acton Academies, Wildflower Schools, KaiPod Learning, and Colossal Academy—operate in the private microschooling space, where most policies created for conventional schools don’t apply.

Within public education, charter schooling can be an avenue to gain autonomy from district policies and administrative structures. Realistically, though, any charter school that must prove to its state and its authorizer that it offers a high-quality version of conventional schooling is still locked into a conventional value network. But some charter schools can find exemptions from the state policies created for conventional schools by being classified as alternative schools or virtual schools.

Similarly, school districts can often secure degrees of autonomy from conventional value networks by creating virtual schools, hybrid homeschools, alternative schools, or career and technical education (CTE) programs. States often give these categories of schools different rules to follow, waiving conventional seat time and attendance requirements and allowing alternative metrics of success. Nonetheless, these schools and programs must also have district-level autonomy over decisions about budgeting, curriculum, scheduling, staffing, and success metrics.


Stakeholder roles in building new value networks

Our research on innovative schools also brings to light the roles that various education stakeholders can play in creating the value networks where new models of schooling will emerge and expand.

At districts, efforts to transform education should center on launching skunkworks programs. These will not be shiny new magnet schools. Rather, they will be virtual schools, alternative schools, hybrid homeschooling programs, or CTE programs. Their aim will be to develop new approaches for serving frontier students. Unfortunately, effective district leaders who are highly attuned to the priorities of their district’s overall value networks tend to focus their time and energy on conventional schools and treat their virtual, alternative, and CTE programs as mere stop-gaps. For districts to become vehicles for reinventing schooling, more leaders will need to adopt a dual transformation approach—maintaining and improving their conventional schools while simultaneously putting resources and energy into launching and evolving unconventional models of schooling. Additionally, they will need to allow these models to scale as they attract more students and educators—potentially taking over wings of their conventional campuses—rather than capping their growth or trying to fold them into conventional schools.

State leaders can create favorable funding and policy contexts to support new value networks. As mentioned earlier, new models of schooling spring up in many states under the policies created for virtual schooling, alternative education, independent study, and career and technical education. Yet far too often, these policies still keep unconventional schools tied to conventional practices—for example, by mandating on-site instructional minutes or requiring credit hours as the currency for gauging learning. Instead of dictating the resources schools must use and the processes they must follow, states should work with these new models of schooling to set quality standards aligned with the outcomes they aim to deliver for frontier students. The freedoms afforded by education savings accounts (ESAs) present an another way to encourage new value networks. To be clear, not all students using ESA dollars will be “frontier” learners, and not all schools accepting ESA funding will break the conventional mold. But ESAs do create conditions where new models of schooling such as private microschools can emerge.

Private philanthropies could become a major catalyst for the value networks that support new models of schooling. First, they could make more grants to schools and programs created specifically for serving frontier students. Second, they can rethink their metrics for success to give more weight to the alternative value propositions that unconventional schools offer. Third, they could spur the growth of new models of schooling by incentivizing them to evolve into attractive options for mainstream students.

If entrepreneurs want to help transform education, they need to be judicious about where they get their investment dollars and their sources of revenue. Many entrepreneurs sell their investors on a story of how their cutting-edge products or services will disrupt conventional schooling. Yet when those investors then expect a clear and rapid path to growth, they steer the startups they fund toward the known and measurable market—selling turnkey products and services to conventional schools. Inevitably, choosing to play in the conventional value network shapes the company more than the company reshapes schooling. Only companies with funders that can patiently and enthusiastically serve the small and nascent value networks of nonconventional schools have the potential to help transform education.

For educators and parents frustrated with conventional schooling, it might be time to push your district to launch the kind of program described above. If that path proves untenable, you might be able to find what you’re looking for in a virtual charter school or regional alternative school. If neither of these paths offer worthwhile options, it might be time to join the private microschooling movement and appeal to your state to create an education savings account program to fund the private options you’re looking for.


Inventing the future of K–12 schooling

Reform and innovation within existing schools is important. But in the end, that work can only lead to marginal improvements in those schools, not the dramatic transformation of schooling needed for our rapidly changing world. If we really want to reimagine or reinvent education, we need a parallel approach. We need to build new schools and programs with their own distinct value networks. With the right support, these unconventional options will evolve over time to become attractive alternatives to conventional schooling for a growing number of students, families, and educators.

The schools of the future that American society has long sought are here today. They just live in niches and pockets at the edges of the K–12 landscape. For these schooling options to grow, evolve, and become compelling mainstream alternatives to conventional schooling, we need more administrators, policymakers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, educators, and parents to escape the gravitational pull of conventional education and its value network. It’s time to establish the value networks that can foster new models of education.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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