Education reform is a cul-du-sac. It’s time to build new roads to new destinations. 


Sep 5, 2023

Is it possible to transform existing K–12 schools? Can innovative, future-ready models of schooling be built from the schools that are common across the education landscape today?

I suspect that if you were to survey the range of people working in K–12 education today—across school districts, state education departments, foundations, national associations, and intermediaries—the consensus would be a resounding “yes.” But is this opinion popular because it’s true? Or is it popular because most people in education work within existing school systems and have to believe that these systems can change, or else their efforts would seem futile?

During the summer, I enjoyed discussing this question with Kelly Young, the president and founder of Education Reimagined, and Michael Horn, co-founder of the Christensen Institute. The three of us share an unpopular view—that both history and innovation theory demonstrate that existing schools are incapable of transformation. For readers of this blog, I’ve broken down a few of the key questions from our discussion into bite-sized chunks below and added a bit of additional commentary.

Wouldn’t changes in state policy—ending Carnegie units and seat time, growth-based measures of learning, changing funding formulas, etc.—prompt existing school systems to transform the conventional model?

I took the first stab at this question by illustrating the mess that typically comes out of well-intentioned school reform policy.

“We end up passing a policy that just layers one more force into that messy set of forces that are pushing and pulling on them within their value network. So you may get a little nudge there or a little nudge here, but [that kind of policy change] doesn’t have the ability to fundamentally realign the value network.”

I want to elaborate a bit on my answer. At face value, using policy levers to incentivize transformation seems sensible. But in practice, it just doesn’t work. Most policy changes happen one at a time in a piecemeal fashion—not with coherence. Transformation of existing systems would require, among other things, whole-scale realignment of the priorities and practices embodied in the policies governing schools. But in our messy reality, politics rarely (if ever) converge with broad-sweeping policy change. Instead, the policies that get enacted just end up layering new expectations into an existing mess of competing policy priorities that schools must then respond to.

Next, Kelly emphasized that the problem runs so much deeper than getting the mechanics of policy right. The new value networks that we need to support learner-centered education have a different set of priorities than those of conventional schools. That difference in priorities stems from fundamentally different mindsets about the purpose and nature of schooling. 

“It turns out there are many structures keeping [conventional education] in place. But mostly, there’s a mindset keeping it in place. And so a structural change is not sufficient to cause a mindset shift. You need the mindset shift first, and then to employ the structural change to support that mindset shift.”

The field actually has some great examples of learner-centered education. Why can’t those programs just grow and prosper and change people’s mindsets over time?

Kelly used to hold this view, but her thinking shifted as she saw the limited impact of Education Reimagined’s early work.

“Systems transformation is a critical component because these things are roses in concrete. It’s not as though they are growing in fertile ground to continue to multiply. If their seeds fly off but they land in infertile contexts. So the question is how do you get to systems transformation? And I guess our thought was people will rise up, they will shift the context that they’re operating in and begin to shift systems. But the reality is that is not what they are tasked with. Even if you are a single model, that is not your job to figure out ‘how do we do assessment, credentialing of learning in alternative ways, at scale?’ That takes a completely different skill set—a different set of people to be involved with it—and until you have those things that make this an easy shift—that make this a scalable shift—things are going to stay in small pockets. And it led us to have a radically different strategy going forward, from simply identifying pioneers and networking them together, to actually, we are now about how do we pilot and demonstrate alternative public education systems in a handful of places because we believe that until you can invent systems that actually would enable this, that’s what will spread. … The models can’t spread until you have the enabling systems. And, to date, we really have been uninterested as a country in ‘what would it take to invent those new systems that are scalable?’”

I added to Kelly’s thoughts by highlighting how I’ve seen the growth of new programs stall when they operate under the control of a conventional school system.

“[I’ve seen] a couple programs … within districts where they’ve created really compelling learner-centered versions of education, and they’re getting really great test scores. And they’ll often say, ‘Yeah the district loves to feature us when people come to visit. They take them on a tour and they show off … our sites. But we can’t grow anymore because our building only holds 200 or 400 kids.’ And the district has said, ‘No, we don’t want you to grow. You’re a cool program, but we don’t want you to affect the enrollments in our conventional schools. So we have to limit you and kind of keep you caged in that space.’ So that’s where I hope that some of the impact of the work we’re doing is to help superintendents, state policy makers, … help them have the vision of … not only ‘How can we create the context where new programs and new value networks can emerge?’ but, ‘How do we also protect them and give them the runway they need to improve and grow?’ And not just be relegated to these really neat, boutique niches of the system, but never allowed to become mainstream alternatives to conventional education.”

Next, Michael asked a series of questions that he and I have debated over the last year. 

Are permissionless education and ESAs the mechanisms for creating new education systems?

For context, permissionless innovation is the idea that individuals and organizations should be free to create and implement new solutions without needing prior approval from governing bodies or traditional gatekeepers. During the COVID pandemic, the proliferation of schooling options outside of established school systems—such as learning pods, homeschool co-ops, and microschools—came to embody the potential of permissionless innovation.

ESAs are a relatively new education funding policy that has been gaining traction in a number of states over the last few years. ESAs give public education funding directly to families, allowing them to decide which resources and services will best meet their childrens’ needs and interests. Because families, not states, decide how ESA funds get spent, ESAs are a potential catalyst for permissionless innovation in education.

Kelly offered an alternative view: that philanthropy will be the pivotal funding source for spurring new systems of education.

“I believe if you can get state funding and federal funding to support the R&D—that’s where we want to end up. Whether at this stage we could get it free from the constraints of the existing system seems very difficult, and it has not happened to date. And so I think it’s going to have to be philanthropically led in the early stages to actually develop the R&D for this. And it will be important to have the philanthropic support, because if it’s only done on parent tuitions and parent support, you’re going to be building a system that is only designed for some, and you will not actually be designing something that works for all children. And I think, you know, governments are risk averse—policy makers are risk averse—and so they are not typically the places where you get the cutting edge ideas from. It is usually from, at least in industry, from the marketplace. And because we don’t have a marketplace in education, we have to create the spaces—and I think that’s going to have to be philanthropically supported. And once you get some things that are working and people can see that kids and parents and educators are loving what they’re experiencing, then I think you could begin to get state and federal money to go deeper, expand, broaden the pilots and the prototypes.”

Michael then drew attention to an important distinction between Kelly’s call for education R&D and the R&D advocated by other voices in the field.

“I think what you’re saying [about] this R&D sector [is that] there’s similarities to what Joel Rose and Transcend and some of those folks have talked about: an R&D for model providers. But I think what I hear you saying is “yes, but that’s not sufficient.” They also need R&D to create the new system by which those model providers thrive, and live in, and so forth. … That strikes me as a really important nuance.”

Anomalies wanted

I’ve only covered a few of the key topics from our conversation. If this post piqued your interest, I encourage you to listen to the entire conversation on YouTube.

Clayton Christensen knew the theories he developed could only be refined when people helped him pressure test them. To invite that kind of pressure testing, he hung a sign in his office with the following motto: “Anomalies wanted.” This conversation with Michael and Kelly was the latest of many session I’ve had over the years with these two friends and colleagues for pressure testing the role of value networks in K–12 education. In that spirit, I welcome conversation with others interested in helping to further challenge and refine our thinking. If you have either examples or anomalies to share related to this topic, please reach out in the comments below, on Twitter (@ArnettTom), or by email ([email protected]).

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.