Growing pains: Can disruptive innovation benefit students?

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Why do organizations struggle so much with the innovator’s dilemma? It’s not hard to grasp.

Kodak, DEC, Sears, Xerox and Bucyrus Erie saw their empires fade because when disruptive innovations appeared, they did not look like opportunities that made sense to chase. For example, with profit margins of film/processing/printing so high, why would Kodak shift willingly and readily to a lower-margin business in digital photography?

But if organizations don’t figure out a way to adopt a disruptive innovation, then the organizations will miss out on the upside.

Rocketship schoolsThe same principles of disruptive innovation apply to schools, even schools in the famously innovative Silicon Valley. What’s the incentive to launch disruptive change when the culture of schools and classrooms are so well entrenched with something that might not be as good initially? Just as Kodak desperately wanted to maintain those film sales, school districts and charter schools desperately want to maintain maximum student reimbursements. Lose students to other options, and you lose revenue.

The challenge of implementing disruptive innovation within a school has never been more apparent than in recent weeks, as skeptics turned giddy when Rocketship Education, one of the most innovative school systems in the nation, stumbled.

Richard Whitmire, left, and Michael Horn, right.

Richard Whitmire, left, and Michael Horn, right.

For several years, Rocketship had been one of the darlings of the personalized learning world, as it pioneered new education practices in which traditional teacher-led instruction is blended with online learning software that adapts to each student’s learning needs.

It all seemed to be working. In the low-income Latino neighborhoods of San Jose, students attending Rocketship schools hit unheard-of rates of proficiency in math and decent proficiency rates in reading. What could go wrong?

Two years ago Rocketship, introduced a disruptive innovation — a learning environment that combined students from multiple classrooms into one large classroom, perhaps better thought of as a flexible learning space with more students and teachers — and things did go wrong.

Some of what Rocketship did was on-target, but it pushed too far too fast and test scores fell at all their schools. Considering that Rocketship was just launching nationally beyond California, the optics were awkward. Really awkward.

Charter school critics were elated. How dare you experiment with the lives of children! Especially poor Latino families! Chastened, Rocketship dropped the experiment and tapped the brakes on its national expansion. To date, that’s been the story line: The Rocketship setback was a classic example of how you can’t expect schools to innovate, let alone launch disruptive innovations.

Maybe. But there are two other ways of looking at both Rocketship’s decision and the larger question of whether schools can and should push real innovation.

First, too often we look at school performance in relatively absolute terms, rather than understanding the counterfactual — in this case, what students’ options would be if a school were not around.

Take Mateo Sheedy, the Rocketship school that suffered the biggest setback. Mateo Sheedy embarrassed itself as its test scores fell. The 2013 student proficiency rates for its students fell to 62 percent in English and 76 percent in math (from 2010 proficiency rates of 83 and 90). On the surface, it might appear that the innovation backfired, and that Rocketship was guilty of ruining its students’ academic lives.

But if Rocketship were not around, where would its students go to school? And would the school be a better option than what its students experienced in the 2013 academic year? To answer the question, it makes sense to look at Gardner Elementary, a San Jose Unified school located less than a mile away from Mateo Sheedy. The schools serve a similar demographic of students, both in terms of the percentage of Hispanic students and in terms of the poverty rate. The proficiency rates for Gardner students in English and math for that same year: 19 percent and 32 percent, down from 30 and 45 in 2010.

How much negative publicity does Gardner receive for quietly bumping along at the bottom, year after year, and sinking even further in 2013? None.

Meanwhile, what about the students at Mateo Sheedy who learned less math and reading during the “disruptive” school year? As is typical of other agile innovators, Mateo Sheedy and the other Rocketship schools mostly recovered those losses during the last school year, according to Rocketship. That’s something Gardner has never been able to do. But guess who continues to get the black eye in the press? Rocketship.

And that’s the brutal reality of American education. Schools such as Gardner, and there are hundreds just like it in Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles and elsewhere, are oddly rewarded by not being singled out for harsh criticism — for launching no truly disruptive innovations. It’s not that San Jose Unified hasn’t tried to fix things at Gardner — They have. But those fixes have never been radical enough to produce real change. Just as corporations like Kodak aren’t rewarded for taking disruptive risks, nor are our schools.

Second, given this reality, the question for schools nationwide is how do they tackle this innovator’s dilemma? The answer is that, for the most part, schools should launch aggressive sustaining innovations in their core academic classes, not disruptive innovations. Disruptive innovations are typically inferior from the point of view of existing users, so it doesn’t make sense to launch them with students and teachers in core academic classes. Because of this fact, disruptive innovations typically get their start in areas where the alternative is literally nothing at all, so that they can compete at the outset with nothing where they are infinitely better.

There is much wisdom in mimicking this approach within schools. By launching disruptive innovations outside of core academics where students have no options, it takes the innovation out of the spotlight. And by its very nature, the innovation will be better than what students would otherwise have. If we view schools from this perspective, it creates many opportunities for innovation.

For schools like Rocketship, this means that they should continue to launch disruptive innovations — those that challenge the very notion of a classroom with its students grouped by age and only one teacher in it. But they should not launch them in reading and math; instead they should debut them in subjects like foreign language or other enrichment opportunities that the students would not otherwise have access to. (Subjects not currently offered make for ideal experiments.) As the disruptive learning models improve, one by one the schools can migrate from the old to the new.

And over time, our schools will deliver students the growth they need, even as they grow, too.

Michael B. Horn is the cofounder and executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation To Improve Schools. Richard Whitmire is author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.

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