The nation's schools could be experiencing Disruptive Innovation--and it means more than just upheaval for the K-12 system

Is this the moment in history when K–12 school systems get disrupted?

The nation's schools could be experiencing Disruptive Innovation--and it means more than just upheaval for the K-12 system

With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, schools are once again closing their doors this year. Meanwhile, the toll on many educators, students, and families feels crushing. It may be the biggest understatement of 2020 to say that the pandemic has thrown K–12 environments into turmoil.

By forcing conventional classrooms online, the pandemic exacerbates the challenges of keeping students engaged and on-track through single-paced, whole-group instruction. Frustrated by this reality, a sizable proportion of students, parents, and teachers have left their schools to seek alternatives such as homeschooling, virtual schools, micro-schools, and learning pods. These shifts beg the question: are we witnessing the beginning of K–12 disruption—the type Clayton Christensen described?

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Before I dive in on answering that question, let’s clarify what Disruptive Innovation means. Disruption, as defined by the Christensen Institute, is more than just upheaval. In our research on how organizations and sectors change, Disruptive Innovation describes a phenomenon whereby the incumbent technologies and business models in a sector get displaced by new technologies from new entrants in that sector.

The phenomenon starts when new entrants come up with seemingly inferior solutions to serve people who are unserved (nonconsumers) or overserved by established incumbents (low-end customers). Then, over time, these new entrants improve their offerings into compelling alternatives to incumbent solutions. The disruption of the sector unfolds as the people previously served by incumbents migrate to good-enough solutions from new entrants that also offer greater affordability, customizability, and convenience. Consider, for example, how Amazon disrupted conventional retail by initially setting up a website to sell books; or how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster by initially mailing people DVDs.

When Clayton Christensen first described this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, it captivated the attention of the business world because it explained how leading incumbents in an industry—the organizations that seemed to be doing everything right—were routinely upended by new entrants with seemingly inferior products. The implications for business strategy were huge, and the term quickly became a buzzword in both board meetings and startup communities.

Thomas Arnett

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