In the education sector, we love standards. We have academic standards like the Common Core that define what students need to know as they progress from one grade level to the next. We have standards such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards or the California Standards for the Teaching Profession that define the competencies good teachers should possess. Accreditation standards define requirements that K–12 schools, colleges, and universities must meet.

We often think of these standards as regulatory mechanisms for ensuring quality. They serve as “consumer protection measures” for guaranteeing that our professionals and our institutions are doing their jobs correctly. But standards serve another important purpose that I think is often overlooked in education. Standards define the interfaces or connections between the various parts of our education sector. They “standardize” how different parts must fit together so that those parts can be developed independently and customized to different needs and circumstances while still being interoperable with the larger system.

To make this idea more concrete, consider some examples of standards from outside the education sector. Universal Serial Bus (USB) is an industry standard that defines the cables, connectors, and communications protocols used for connection, communication, and power supply between computers and electronic devices. We use it to connect our printers to our computers, our phones to their charging cords, and for a whole host of other connections. Similarly, Bluetooth and WiFi 802.11 are standards that define the protocols for wirelessly connecting electronic devices to each other. These commonly accepted standards make life convenient by allowing a host of different devices from different manufacturers to all work together seamlessly.

Our education standards serve a similar purpose. For example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards define an interface between teachers and traditional K–12 schools by specifying the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that teachers need to have in order to be effective in a traditional school environment. Because National Board Certification is a widely accepted standard like USB, it makes it easier for teachers who move across the country to gain teacher certification in their new state of residence. As another example, accreditation standards for teacher preparation programs define the interface between university-based teacher preparation programs and the K–12 school system. For one last example, consider how the Common Core State Standards are intended to define an interface for transitioning students between K–12 education and higher education without the need for remediation.

Unfortunately, many of our education standards do not work well as effective interfaces. For example, the New America Foundation recently released a report describing how many of the higher education institutions are not aligned with the Common Core. Similarly, many of the state-mandated teaching standards have some degree of misalignment with the teaching needs of innovative schools because they do not account for how teachers’ roles and skills differ in non-traditional teaching environments. This misalignment is the reason why organizations like iNACOL and ISTE have developed their own teaching standards.

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor explain that three conditions are required for interfaces to work well. First, we must be able to specify exactly which attributes matter in order for the connection to work successfully. Second, we must be able to verify that those specifications have been met. Third, the performance across the interface must be predictable—or consistent across all expected use cases. For education standards to define good interfaces, we first need to start thinking of them more as interfaces. We then need work to make those standards come as close as possible to meeting all three of these conditions.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.