Why the education status quo cannibalizes new ideas—and what to do about it

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Oct 27, 2017

With the last round of ESSA plans rolling in this fall, states have put a stake in the ground. Education leaders across the nation have all articulated what they hope their school systems will look like in the coming years, and spelled out the strategies that they hope will get them there.

But Disruptive Innovation Theory suggests a risk on states’ road ahead: processes that dominated the past can wreak havoc on best-laid plans.

All organizations—for-profit, nonprofit, public, and private—have a model that consists of three things: resources, processes, and priorities (RPP). Our research shows that in the formative stages of an organization, the available resources determine much of what gets done. But as an organization matures, like most decades-old state agencies and school districts, the people working in the organization gradually come to assume that the processes and priorities they’ve repeatedly used in the past are the right way to do their work. Those processes and priorities become ingrained in an organization’s culture. How an organization brings in revenue further entrenches its RPP. In the case of state agencies and districts, if existing ways of doing business keep the budget afloat, they quickly become habit.

An organization’s RPP in turn spells the fate of which innovations the organization is willing to pursue. Mature organizations naturally pursue sustaining innovations—that is, innovations that align with their time-honored processes and priorities. Meanwhile, disruptive innovations—innovations that upend or compete with existing priorities—almost always get neglected or ignored in mature organizations. That’s because they don’t make sense to the organization’s established RPP.

This phenomenon helps explain what reformers often bemoan as a “status quo bias” that frustrates new ideas in education. Although that bias is often cast as a political problem, it is also, in fact, an organizational management problem.

Appreciating the resilience of the education system’s traditional RPP will be crucial for state leaders hoping to pursue meaningful change under ESSA. In a brief out this month, The State Innovator’s Toolkit: A guide to successfully managing innovation under ESSA, my colleague Tom Arnett and I lay out what this organizational dynamic will mean for states enacting their ESSA plans in the coming years. We outline how state leaders can act as effective innovation managers by understanding which dimensions of the law will encourage sustaining innovations and which offer an opening for disruptive innovations that break free from tradition.

The most effective organizations maintain a portfolio of both sustaining and disruptive innovations, and state education agencies should do the same. When it comes to improving student outcomes, sustaining innovations can be a very good thing. Many states’ plans are replete with good ideas on how to improve upon the existing system, be that through more deliberate data-driven interventions or differentiated professional learning.

But while the system is apt to absorb successful sustaining innovations that improve on traditional metrics of success, it will routinely reject disruptive ones.

True disruptive innovations cannot come from within schools’ or systems’ existing RPPs. Even in scenarios in which states encourage visionary school leaders to institute massive process and priority overhauls of how their schools operate, they are still on the hook to provide a full-service school and quickly improve student outcomes as measured by the state assessment system. These expectations prevent state and school leaders from meaningfully exploring disruptive options. Predictably, in industry after industry, efforts to reinvent products and services from within fall flat because organizations’ existing RPPs reject new efforts that excel on different performance parameters.

Throughout history, disruptive innovations ranging from steamships to pocket radios to discount retailers all started independent of the respective industry leaders at the time. As it turns out, organizational independence and team structures make or break the viability of disruptive strategies. Only autonomous teams—free from schools’ and state agencies’ traditional priorities and processes—will be able to successfully pursue a disruptive tack. To make disruptive innovation possible, state education leaders need to create opportunities for new organizations or entities to emerge to address unmet educational needs outside of traditional schools.

These new entities can address a wide array of underserved needs that have for decades plagued education systems. For example, out-of-school learning, credit recovery, and advanced and elective coursework all represent areas where students face limited options because traditional schools often have a tough time offering solutions. ESSA offers a few highly promising starting points for states to pursue potentially disruptive innovations, such as grants for education innovation and research, direct student services, and teacher and school leader academies. In the paper, we suggest how states might leverage provisions like these to innovate beyond the reach of the traditional system.

Submitting their plans is only the first step in states’ journey under the new education law. The grave risk under ESSA is states and schools remaining largely stuck in their old ways. In alarming survey results, 62% of principals said they anticipated that ESSA’s impact would be neutral. In reality, sentiments like these are hardly surprising considering how organizations’ RPP’s tend to remain fixed over time. Many states have ambitions for innovation and change under ESSA—the challenge now will be finding ways to manage that change.

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.

  • Duane Bemister

    We are an independent developer that can provide tools directly to Instructors for a bottom up innovative solution to presentations. We have an eleven minute video available at http://wisdomquest.com and are currently looking for sample presentations to include with our next release.

  • Before disrupting might be good idea to find out why things are set up the way they are. Too often initiatives break open some fault line held together by the “old ways” . Not unforseen and not unanticipated. Just lazy planning.

  • EC EDT

    Your argument makes a lot of sense. We are based in South Africa and have exactly the same challenges as you outline. As an independent NPO, with a close working relationship with the State department of education, we are actively engaged in being the “autonomous team … who will be able to successfully pursue a disruptive tack”, while maintaining a good understanding of reality on the ground