Governmental policy and regulation can play a critical role in fostering or inhibiting innovation. This is especially true in the K–12 education sector, where the majority of providers are public institutions, and the vast majority of operating revenue comes either directly or indirectly from public dollars.

In Seeing What’s Next, Clayton Christensen, Scott Anthony, and Erik Roth provide a framework that helps us understand how government, policy, and other non-market forces influence innovation. According to that framework, there are two important factors that exist in any environment where innovation thrives: motivation, defined as opportunities to be rewarded for developing successful innovations, and ability, defined as the capability to obtain resources, craft them into a business model, and offer products and services to customers (Seeing What’s Next, p. 74). Using this framework, we can see how government and policy affect the speed and direction of innovation by affecting would-be innovators’ motivation and ability.

Roles of Government in K–12 Education

In K–12 education, federal, state, and local governments have three roles through which they affect the motivation and ability of innovators. As regulators of education, governments affect the abilities of innovators by specifying some of the resources and processes they must use in their operations. For example, most states require that students have a single teacher of record for each course, that those teachers have licensure, that courses provide a specified number of hours of instruction, and that students attend school for a specified number of days each year.

As the principal funders of education, governments determine the jobs that innovators will be motivated to serve. In effect, the metrics we use to authorize providers and award funding define the jobs that we hire them to do. While the public may think that the government pays schools to educate their students, most states actually hire schools to produce course credits, hours of seat time, and standardized test scores, albeit to a lesser extent than many think. These things are not wholly antithetical to good education, but sometimes they are misaligned with what we want for children.

As the primary providers of education, local school districts administer schools that currently serve the vast majority of U.S. students. This fact has two implications for innovation. First, these long-standing institutions have their own pre-existing resources, processes, and priorities that determine the types of innovations that they have the ability and motivation to pursue. Second, the universal provisioning of education through these institutions eliminates many of the circumstances of nonconsumption that would normally provide footholds for disruptive innovations.

Aligning policy to support disruptive innovation

Today there is widespread agreement that our current education system is inadequate for serving the needs of all our students. Yet despite decades of debate and bold efforts at education reform, improvements to the education system have been inconsistent and incremental. As we look to the future, online learning is poised as a disruptive innovation with the potential to bring about the kind of systemic change we have been seeking. But as the transformational impact of online learning unfolds, its ultimate effect will be greatly influenced by policy. Thus, an understanding of how government policy affects disruptive innovation is critical for helping us shepherd online learning in the right direction. Below are a few recommendations.

First, governments can increase the ability of online learning innovators by releasing them from regulatory requirements that unnecessarily restrict innovation. In general, regulations applied to online and blended learning should move away from input requirements, such as class size limits, staffing requirements, and instructional hours, and instead focus on outcomes such as student mastery of competencies.

Second, governments can improve the abilities of online learning innovators by providing infrastructure to support innovation. For example, the FCC’s e-rate program helps schools get the internet connectivity they need in order to make online learning possible.

Third, governments can increase the motivation of online learning innovators by providing funding for opportunities to serve nonconsumption. Examples might include pre-K instruction, after-school tutoring, or supplemental courses that are unavailable at most schools. With these new programs, governments have an incredible opportunity to shift performance requirements from inputs to outcomes without the political difficulty of trying to change the rules of the game for the established school system.

Last and most importantly, governments need to be careful to create funding and operational requirements that motivate online learning innovation in the right direction. Innovations will improve over time to do the jobs for which they are hired, and policy is what defines those jobs. If policymakers are not careful in how the specify performance expectations and verify performance outcomes for organizations they fund, they may soon be shocked to find that those organizations are not producing the results they had in mind.

Although disruptive innovation theory predicts that blended-learning models will eventually replace traditional models of classroom-based instruction, the theory provides no assurance that online learning will lead to a student-centered education system. If government policies hire online learning merely to lower costs or provide credit hours, the technology will evolve to yield those outcomes. Right now we are at a critical moment for ensuring that new policies related to online and blended learning will steer those innovations toward student-centered education.


  • 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.