Does proposed federal policy leave room for disruptive innovation?

By:

Dec 8, 2015

For years there’s been consensus that we need to hit refresh on the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Congress is now considering a draft bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that could actually pass before 2016. From our vantage point at the Christensen Institute, we want to consider carefully how much the draft affords space for schools to innovate, and which types of innovation stand to flourish if the law were to pass. Looking at the current version of the legislation, there are three key trends to keep in mind:

(1) Sustaining innovations in classrooms and schools

Although we often talk about disruptive innovations that radically change industries, there’s another type of innovation that we think is of equal importance in many circumstances: sustaining innovation. Sustaining innovations improve on existing performance metrics to serve existing customers better. Think, for example, of each successive version of the iPhone that has come out with new features and functions to delight Apple’s loyal customer base.

In large part, federal education law has always set out to incentivize—with both carrots and sticks—sustaining innovations in our schools. The current law aims to hold schools accountable for improving existing performance metrics over time, including boosting graduation rates and helping all students reach proficiency. Historically, this effort has seen mixed success. No Child Left Behind notoriously set a high bar for schools, but many think it failed to actually help schools figure out or fund the right approaches—or sustaining innovations on top of their existing models—to hit that bar.

We believe that seeding sustaining innovations in K–12 education will be vital to improve continuously against our target proficiency and graduation goals. Blended learning—particularly the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom models—can be one sustaining innovation that we can layer on our existing classrooms to pave the way to higher outcomes, both by allowing us to differentiate instruction with far greater precision and by dolling out content and assessments that match each students’ needs and strengths. Encouragingly, the current ESSA draft mentions blended learning as one such innovation, if schools manage to effectively integrate technology into their instructional core. To ensure that these and other innovations actually drive student outcomes, in addition to allocating funds toward integrating technology into classrooms, we’d encourage Congress to consider doubling down on education R&D to start to unearth which models work for which students in which circumstances.

(2) Disrupting the traditional value proposition of education

The draft legislation also offers some promising hints at a more disruptive approach to education. Disruptive innovations, unlike sustaining ones, do not compete against existing metrics to serve existing consumers. Instead, they offer more affordable, accessible, and foolproof options to new customers.

In many ways, disruption is already underway in the K–12 education system, relative to how we deliver content and structure assessment. Online learning is penetrating school systems nationwide by providing course options and learning experiences where students lack any alternative. But this disruption is not just promising in terms of increasing access: over time, as online and blended options have improved, they’ve ushered in the promise of scaling a highly personalized and customized approach to teaching and learning that could allow students to move at a flexible pace, along multiple and various pathways, and to demonstrate what they know in ways beyond just standardized tests. In other words, online learning can be an engine to disrupt how we have traditionally delivered instruction inside our factory-based model of school.

The booming online-learning market alone, however, will not accomplish this vision. Rather, we need policies and practices to support an entire school system, which embraces and optimizes for flexible learning pathways, on-demand assessment, and multiple measures of mastery. Although the current draft still remains by and large wedded to our traditional time- and cohort-based education system, it offers some inroads to a wholly new one. Specifically, the bill allows state systems of assessments to measure individual student growth; use multiple measures of student learning from multiple points in time to determine summative scores; and use adaptive assessments that can measure students where they are in their learning.

The final bill language also establishes an Innovative Assessment Pilot program, which will provide states with a path forward for the development and approval of new systems of assessments that better align to competency-based, personalized learning. We recently signed a letter with our partners at iNACOL applauding these efforts to pave the way to a new, more flexible vision of education in the future.

(3) Innovating beyond the reach of regulation

Finally, it bears noting that there’s a tautology to trying to sniff out disruptive potential in the text of a new federal education law; in fact, many disruptive innovations get their start in less regulated spaces.

For example, Southwest Airlines was able to disrupt the airline industry in the 1970s by operating beyond the reach of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which had heavily regulated pricing and routes for interstate travel. By flying short routes within the state of Texas at very low prices, Southwest developed a new market by serving people who previously could not afford to travel by airline. They managed to keep prices low by operating outside of regulations; by 1978, however, it had become clear that the safety measures of discount airlines were just as good as higher priced incumbents and CAB deregulated the airline industry.

This example illustrates two important phenomena when we consider disrupting traditional K–12 education: first, probably the most disruptive plays in K–12 education will occur beyond the scope of what ESSA sets out to regulate—perhaps in afterschool programs, summer camps, even schools outside the United States entirely. For those looking to disrupt, understanding what new law does not regulate is a good place to start (consider, even, untested subjects and grades in that mix). Second, regulations tend to give way to disruptive forces over time, as proof of concept convinces policymakers that a new way of doing may actually be better for customers or in this case, students. We’re already seeing this in allowances of multiple measures and innovation assessments built into the current draft.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Kara Casimiro

    Nice article, Julia. I enjoyed your recent presentation in Rhode Island on disruptive innovation and blended learning. I will be sharing your article with my colleagues in the Danbury Public Schools.

    Kara Casimiro
    K-12 Humanities Curriculum Administrator
    Danbury CT

  • mark gotz

    What do you see as the prime disruptive innovation that a private school could promote?

  • Julia,
    You have captured some of the key issues in this legislation. Your description of blended and on-line learning serving as a disruptive innovation is accurate, but equally promising is the use of competency based learning, whether it is an on-line format or not. The status quo will truly be disrupted when personalized learning systems are in place when working online and also when working with educators in the classroom.