- The metrics used to gauge the quality of conventional schooling can hinder the growth and innovation of microschools, learning centers, and homeschool co-ops.
- To foster new models of schooling, philanthropists, researchers, and policymakers must resist the impulse to impose conventional metrics and instead develop new quality measures that align with the unique aims of these programs.
These are interesting times on the frontiers of K–12 education. The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed a small but noteworthy student migration into the wild west of schooling. Many of the programs in this space—which often get described using labels such as microschools, learning pods, learning centers, homeschooling cooperatives, etc.—are using the open plains outside the world of district, charter, and private independent schools to pioneer new approaches to education.
As these models have proliferated, many philanthropists, researchers, and policymakers find them intriguing as expanded options for families and potential pathways for breaking the mold of traditional schooling. Naturally, however, a key question for anyone throwing their weight behind these new approaches is how to gauge quality. These stakeholders want assurance that any programs they might support with their financial, political, and social capital are doing good for students. But as they search for metrics to gauge quality, these efforts could actually be the death knell for the innovation happening in new programs.
New metrics and value networks
To understand the dangers that lie in metrics, we first need to understand the role of value networks in shaping definitions of quality.
No organization is an island. Every organization survives and succeeds through interdependence with its broader environment. The environment within which an organization lives is what Clayton M. Christensen called its value network.
The value networks of programs at the frontier of education are made up of external entities such as the families and communities they serve; the suppliers and partners they engage with; the regulatory contexts they choose to operate within; and the public, philanthropic, and tuition-based funding sources they turn to for growth capital and sustainability. As these programs grapple with questions about their operational strategies, required resources, funding mechanisms, and more, those decisions determine the value networks in which they operate.
Over time, as relationships within a value network take shape, programs become interdependent with their value networks through the exchange of goods, services, or revenue, as well as through the permissions and authorizations a program must maintain in order to operate. Thus, the composition of a value network exerts significant influence on an organization’s business model and its priorities.
One of the key insights drawn from Christensen’s research into the phenomenon of disruptive innovation is that different value networks foster different organizational priorities, and hence different metrics for gauging success. This is why incumbent organizations fail at disruptive innovation. The value networks that established organizations sit within, and the business models they’ve developed within those value networks, make them systematically unable to pursue disruptive innovations because disruptive innovations run counter to priorities and metrics that pervade and distill from their value networks.
Sony’s lesson for education
For example, let’s consider the rise of Sony’s transistor radios in the mid-1950s. At that time, the vacuum tube radios, with their high quality sound and strong signal reception, dominated the radio market. The large, stationary vacuum tube radios were evaluated based on their sound quality, range, and volume. When Sony first introduced its transistor radios, they were deemed inferior by these measures. However, transistor radios were portable and affordable, which appealed to a completely different set of customers: teenagers.
These young consumers weren’t looking for the highest sound quality or the furthest range. They wanted something they could afford, carry to the beach or park, and listen to rock-n-roll music out of earshot of their parents. Sony’s transistor radios fit these metrics perfectly.
Eventually, as the technology improved, transistor radios began to match vacuum tube radios in sound quality, ultimately overtaking the market. But if early transistor radios had been expected to go toe-to-toe with vacuum tube radios from the start, Sony’s business would have failed. What’s worse, the development of solid-state electronics that run on transistors and microprocessors instead of vacuum tubes would have been stunted.
The limitations of traditional metrics
There is a similar pattern playing out with new programs on the frontier of K–12 education.
For decades, the value networks of conventional schools have relied on metrics such as standardized test scores, instructional minutes, comprehensive content coverage, and the quality of physical facilities to evaluate the quality of schools. These metrics reflect the conventional model of schooling’s assumptions about what is valuable. Standardized test scores, for instance, measure a narrow band of cognitive skills, with a heavy emphasis on mathematics and English language arts. Instructional minutes and curriculum coverage ensure that schools deliver a broad and standard body of content knowledge. Quality facilities ensure that schools are capable of offering the range of academic, extracurricular, and recreational activities that society has come to expect from schools.
However, applying these metrics to new educational programs can do more harm than good. By holding these programs to the same standards, we risk pushing them towards the same conventional outcomes.
Most new educational programs are not just seeking to ‘do school’ better—they are trying to ‘do school’ differently. Some exist to serve students who have struggled in conventional settings—such as students who have felt lost or ostracized in larger school settings or students whose dispositions clashed with the discipline of classroom- and text-based instruction. Others focus on giving students and families distinctive experiences that aren’t available in most conventional settings—such as project-based learning, self-directed learning, culturally-affirming learning, or the flexibility to pursue interests beyond academics. To succeed at what they’re trying to do, these programs need value network partners that align with their unique aims.
However, as these new models look for external support, many find themselves interfacing with donors, researchers, and policymakers who show a bias toward comparing these new programs head-to-head with conventional schools on conventional metrics. For example, policymakers might insist that new models only be approved for public funding if they offer the same courses that students at conventional schools are required to take. Alternatively, policymakers might insist that all teachers at new programs be credentialed by the state’s teacher credentialing body. Similarly, a funder may insist that the new programs they fund administer the NWEA MAP Growth assessment to their students and then base future funding on how the students perform compared to national norms. And this is where traditional metrics become a potential stumbling block as new programs feel compelled to prioritize conventional goals and practices in order to meet the expectations of these influencers in their value networks.
In short, the rise of new educational programs illuminates an opportunity to rethink both the purpose and the processes of K–12 education. As these innovative models develop, they navigate the creation of new value networks. But when the players in their value networks bring with them a bias for conventional quality metrics, they risk stifling the potential of these programs. Instead of focusing on developing innovative models of education to address unmet needs and interests of students and families, programs can find themselves caught in the gravitational pull of conventional education.