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Disruptive Innovation could deliver what young people want and need, now--K-12 education transformation necessitates a change.

Taking K-12 education transformation from pipe dream to pipeline

Disruptive Innovation could deliver what young people want and need, now

Key points:

Across the U.S., most K-12 schools continue the cycle of pounding a square peg into a round hole. Learners and their families want relevant and engaging learning experiences that help them chart personal paths to success. In the age of AI, our economy and society need talented young people who can lead and collaborate in diverse teams, adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and think critically and creatively about the technical and social issues of our day. Meanwhile, the century-old industrial model that most schools operate demands compliance so teachers can push students through standardized content at a uniform pace. And then, to deal with the inevitable reality that students don’t all succeed with a uniform approach, schools rank and sort students on narrow dimensions of success into tiered learning tracks.

For the benefit of our young people, the modern workforce, and our society, we need a dramatic overhaul in how we do schooling. But that overhaul never seems to happen. Why are our school systems so resistant to change?

Thirty years ago, Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, noticed a pattern that helps make sense of schools’ rigidity. Looking across many industries, he recognized that leading organizations systematically struggle to adopt certain types of innovations. His research led to a groundbreaking theory—the Theory of Disruptive Innovation—which influenced the strategies of leaders like Steve Jobs, Reed Hastings, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The theory makes clear why the inertia among schools is so hard to overcome. Fortunately, it also points to a path forward.

Understanding the challenge of stagnation

The COVID pandemic sparked monumental shifts in the operating systems of our society: how we work, how we buy products, how we experience entertainment, etc. As the whole world was reshaped, many education observers also saw promising opportunities for K-12 schools. Families, who had a bird’s-eye view into what and how their children were learning, responded with clarion calls for change.

Many district leaders and educators rose to the call—often through investments in extra tutoring and in curriculum and teacher development aimed to support students’ social and emotional needs. Yet, despite the dedication and careful intention of the people in the system, K–12 schools have largely knee-jerked back to their traditional mode of operation and have shut down many of the innovative options they created in response to the pandemic.

The takeaway? Despite ground-shifting conditions ranging from motivated activism to waves of funding, shifting our schools can seem like an exercise in futility.

This rigid reality has real consequences. As average academic performance lags, other data sources show that young people desire greater fulfillment and engagement, and many aren’t even regularly attending school. In other words, the primary beneficiaries of schooling aren’t satisfied. On top of this, there is rising urgency among economists and business leaders to address workforce preparation in better ways. Thriving companies need creative thinkers, problem solvers, and confident leaders.

Change isn’t a consideration. It’s an imperative.

A different way of thinking for a more effective strategy

Christensen’s groundbreaking theory—disruptive innovation—emerged from studying a pattern he noticed across many industries. Well-established organizations—from producers of sail-powered ships to earth excavators to disk drives—consistently failed to adopt innovations that ultimately transformed the prevailing products, services, and business models in their industries. Time and time again, when these innovations came along, established incumbent companies were destabilized, and new entrants rose to dominance.

Why were companies unable to adopt disruptive innovations? The answer lies in a concept Christensen called “value networks.”

A value network is the environment that an organization lives in. Value networks determine the resources an organization has access to, the rules it must follow, and the permissions it needs in order to operate. In the business world, a company’s value network consists of the external entities that it comes to depend on for its survival and success—its best customers, its suppliers, its distributors, and its investors.

Christensen’s research revealed that incumbents fail to adopt disruptive innovations because their value networks lead them to ignore or deprioritize these innovations. The early versions of disruptive innovations weren’t the products and services that a company’s best customers wanted to consume; they weren’t the solutions their distributors wanted to sell; they weren’t solutions that could be made with resources from existing suppliers; and they weren’t the solutions that their investors saw as having promising profit potential.

In short, when a value network doesn’t want an innovation, the entity doesn’t spend its financial and reputational capital pursuing it.

Consider the example of Blockbuster Video. Born in the era of VHS a generation before the Internet became mainstream, Blockbuster built its business catering to customers who liked being able to drop by one of its retail stores on a whim to pick out a new release or a well-known classic.

When Netflix came along a decade later with DVDs-by-mail and then online streaming, that business model didn’t make sense for Blockbuster. The way Netflix provided movies couldn’t match what Blockbuster’s core customers had come to expect from the video rental giant. Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service lacked the instant gratification that Blockbuster’s in-store rentals provided. Customers had to wait for DVDs to arrive, which seemed less convenient compared to the immediate rental experience at Blockbuster stores. Netflix’s early streaming service offered a limited selection and required a reliable internet connection at a time when high-speed internet was not widespread or robust. Additionally, the social experience of visiting a Blockbuster store, often seen as an entertainment activity in itself, was absent in Netflix’s model. For many of Blockbuster’s customers, browsing aisles, discussing movie choices with store staff, and the overall store ambiance were integral parts of their movie-rental experience.

Blockbuster’s business model was highly attuned to serving a customer base that valued the experience it offered through its physical retail stores. Those customers—a dominant influence in Blockbuster’s value network—didn’t want to get movies via mail or streaming. Thus, if the world had depended on Blockbuster to bring about the era of video streaming services, we would likely still be getting most of our video rentals through retail stores.

Why today’s schools aren’t changing

The same pattern holds true for the incumbent schools that provide most K–12 education.

Delivering a new version of education requires a massive retooling of how schools operate. It’s not just about upgrading curriculum and training teachers on new methods. It’s about getting rid of the idea that everyone receives the same lesson at the same time; that what you learn should be based on your age; that students need to be in classrooms to learn; and that standardized test scores are the best way to gauge success and potential.

But most conventional schools—be they district or charter schools—have value networks that won’t support these kinds of changes. Conventional schools’ value networks typically include local, state, and federal education agencies; policymakers; students and their families; employee unions; taxpaying voters; postsecondary education systems; community organizations; vendors; teacher preparation pipelines; and philanthropic donors. Despite all the talk of change, the dominant influences across these value networks don’t really want to radically redesign schooling. Instead, most believe the solution to education’s woes is not whole-scale reinvention, but instead, better resources—better curriculum, better professional development, more staff, more funding, and better accountability systems.

Ultimately, this means they just want improved versions of the schools they’re accustomed to working with. Hence, schools’ value networks keep them stuck in what Christensen called “the innovator’s dilemma.” Meanwhile, our society is stuck with a fundamental disconnect between what our schools are designed to prioritize and what our learners and society actually need.

In order to enable a reinvention of education within this lifetime, new value networks must be created to spur and support new educational designs that can bloom, grow, and evolve.

Pockets of promise

In a handful of regions across the country, schools and programs with a different paradigm of learning have emerged from new value networks centered on the needs and values of young people and modern economies. These schooling designs prioritize learner agency, collaboration, curiosity, and community; and help youth understand who they are, discover their interests, and define their purpose through a full spectrum of intentionally designed academic and experiential learning. The goals, and the measurement of those goals, are set and owned by each young person. And critical to the entire process is the development of deep relationships and social capital via educators, mentors, and other relationships developed outside the confines of a classroom. As defined and codified by Education Reimagined, this learner-centered educational design is gaining traction within communities as an emerging alternative to conventional schooling.

Consider two public school examples that demonstrate how to create new educational designs aligned with these values.

At the Met High School (Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical) in Providence, Rhode Island, (the first school in the Big Picture Learning network) all academic learning, relationship-development, skill-building, and experiences are grounded in the interests of the students. Each high-schooler forms their unique pathway and pursues specific projects to help them achieve goals they set—in deep partnership with their advisor who guides their journey during their entire four-year experience, and the mentors who champion them and their work. Their quarterly presentations of learning encompass the full spectrum and complexity of the academic concepts they unpack, and the real-world skills they develop as they pursue specific projects. The enrollment structure, governance, foundational partnerships, budgeting, and staff all operate in service of this real-world, interest-based model. And the Met is not an individual standalone; over the past 25+ years, the Big Picture Learning network has grown to more than 100 schools across the U.S. and an additional 100+ schools in 12 countries around the world that seek to promulgate this approach despite sometimes fierce opposition or—at best—benevolent neglect from the authorizing environment.

Additionally, consider Village High School in Colorado Springs. Its learners receive all of their core academic content—English, history, social studies, and math—through competency-based online courses. This format eliminates the need for scheduled class times and allows learners to progress at their own pace and test out of modules that they already have expertise in. Online courses at Village High School also create time and capacity for an array of in-person electives inspired by teachers’ and learners’ own passions. They cover a myriad of topics, often in an interdisciplinary format: from Adulting 101, Renewable Energy, and Beekeeping to Comparative Religions and International Relations. The grading model in electives is also different—closer to a workplace evaluation than to conventional points earned on assignments and tests. Learners and teachers sit down together to discuss learners’ progress and work, then decide on a grade together. This conversation could also include plans for improvement, or new ways to demonstrate mastery.

Despite strong headwinds to change, the innovations at both schools prove that a reimagining of what schooling looks like is possible right now, providing our young learners with the experiences and skills they want and need for a fulfilling life following graduation.

Creating the conditions for K–12 innovation

What will it take to create the circumstances where new school designs like the Met, Big Picture Learning, and Village High School can take root and grow?

First, they must be designed with fully aligned intention. With rare exceptions, this often means they must be built from the ground up. They can’t come from trying to reform conventional schools. Time and again, the value networks of established schools either dilute or deprioritize any efforts to reimagine the conventional model of schooling.

Second, these new designs need the ability to target who they initially serve. They can’t break the mold if at the outset they are expected to offer everything that students, families, and communities have come to expect from conventional schools. Rather, they must start by serving students and families who are truly seeking something different. Often this means those who have either left, or been pushed out, by conventional schooling, or who are willing to give up the benefits of conventional schooling in favor of a more unconventional experience.

Finally, policymakers, district leaders, and the public need to be okay with the fact that these programs are going to pursue a different set of priorities. They aren’t going to necessarily stand out as besting conventional schools on conventional metrics of performance—for example, college prep curriculum, test scores, and access to conventional electives and extracurricular activities. Rather, their quality should be evaluated based on what makes them appealing to their initial target customers—i.e., students and families that want flexibility, personalization, reliable career pathways, or access to learning experiences unavailable at conventional schools.

From promise to practice

The world needs new models of schooling that can renew the promise of education as the engine of individual prosperity and societal progress. Currently, schooling options like the Met, Big Picture Learning, and Village High School exist only in small pockets across the landscape of K–12 education. But as education stakeholders come to understand the pivotal role value networks play in enabling innovation, they’ll discover more opportunities to create the conditions for new education systems to emerge, improve, and scale.

But this scale can only happen through the determination, activism, and voices of the learners and communities. Those who understand these innovation imperatives must use their influence as voters, volunteers, community organizers, donors, and entrepreneurs to bring new value networks of schooling into reality. Building a new education system is an economic, and frankly, human imperative.

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