Is K–12 transformation post-COVID realistic?


Jul 13, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic caused major upheavals in K–12 schools over the last year. Concurrently, protests for racial justice sparked critical conversations in K–12 schools. Eager to make the most of these events, many see this moment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform K–12 schools and districts. But if history is any guide, many of the desired transformations won’t be easy, even when riding the momentum of a year like this. So as we look to the future, how much change can we reasonably expect to happen in established schools and districts? Fortunately, Clayton Christensen’s theories help provide an answer.

Value networks and the innovator’s dilemma

Clayton Christensen’s insights on organizational change come from his research into a phenomenon he called the innovator’s dilemma. The innovator’s dilemma occurs when established and well-resourced organizations (such as IBM, General Motors, RCA, and Blockbuster) routinely and systematically fail to adopt certain types of innovations, ultimately paving the way for their displacement by new entrants (such as Apple, Toyota, Sony, and Netflix). Prior to Christensens’ research, the innovator’s dilemma puzzled the business world because incumbents—the more established organizations—seemed to have more than enough capital, talent, and expertise to position themselves at the forefront of evolutions in their industries. So why were they unable to adopt certain types of innovations?

Christensen made sense of the innovator’s dilemma by developing a theory built on the concept of value networks. Christensen defined value networks as “the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures input, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit.” In other words, a value network is the symbiotic ecosystem created by an organization’s external stakeholders—such as investors, suppliers, and customers. Value networks matter because they shape an organization’s priorities, thereby determining which changes and innovations it will pursue and which it will systematically ignore or even resist. 

Consider the advent of personal computers (PCs). In the late 1970s, established computer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) noticed the rise of PCs and even went so far as to develop some of the earliest PC prototypes. Given its resources and expertise, it seemed DEC should have easily dominated the burgeoning PC market. But DEC ultimately missed the PC wave—not because it lacked the right capabilities, but because the forces in its value network killed its PC projects in their infancy. For one, DEC’s best customers were large corporations that demanded state-of-the-art minicomputers. Because the customers that gave DEC most of its profits saw little use for the limited capabilities of early PCs, DEC didn’t see much value in them either. Furthermore, even as the PC market grew, the PC’s low price, low profit margins, and unknown market size made it look unattractive to DEC’s investors in comparison to the projected growth trajectory of minicomputers. Thus, DEC’s decision to ignore the PC market was a perfectly rational response to the priorities created by its value network.

The innovators’ dilemma in K–12 education

The history of US K–12 education reveals that schools aren’t that different from companies when it comes to the innovator’s dilemma. Their value networks may be different—consisting of voters, parents, employee unions and government regulatory agencies instead of customers and investors—but the influence of their value networks nonetheless leads them to systematically ignore certain types of innovations. 

As evidence of this phenomenon, Larry Cuban, Stanford emeritus professor of education history, has spent much of his career documenting how the core features of K–12 schooling such as age-graded classrooms and teacher-led direct instruction—what Cuban calls the “grammar of schooling”—persist in the vast majority of schools despite decades of effort on the part of reformers and philanthropists. This is not to say that K–12 schools never innovate or change. It’s just that the changes that scale and last, as David Cohen and Jal Mehta have documented, tend to be those conducive to the demands of established schools’ value networks. Meanwhile, radical new approaches to education that can’t appeal to the body of stakeholders in schools’ value networks get passed over or relegated to niches.

2021 opportunities for transformational change

So what does it take to break through the innovator’s dilemma and make transformational changes happen in K–12 education? 

Widespread failure — One opportunity for fundamental change comes on the rare occasion when a school system reaches a point of widespread failure. If most of the stakeholders in a value network agree that current approaches to education are fundamentally flawed and broken, school and district leaders have an opportunity to rally the value network around a new vision. My sense is that these are the circumstances that enabled Lindsay Unified to achieve its legendary transformation

Realistically, however, the effects of COVID-19 and the circumstances that led up to a national racial reckoning have not proved traditional schooling as a big enough failure within these upheavals to urge the value networks of most of the United State’s 13,000 school districts to fundamentally rethink K–12 education. Most stakeholders seem to be waiting for COVID-19 to end so they can get back to normal. And most seem to attribute glaring racial disparities only to racist practices and inequitable resource distribution, not to fundamental flaws in the grammar of schooling. As long as the most influential stakeholders in the value network believe that the status quo needs improvement, not reinvention, those stakeholders will steer an organization toward innovations that enhance the status quo and away from radical transformations.

Independent programs — So what can education leaders and innovators do if their value networks don’t support systemic transformation? Develop a new program in a new value network. This is one of the strategies that charter schools often use to their advantage. Their founders don’t aim to create schools that can be all things to all people. Rather, they find authorizers, families, funders, staff, and board members who align around their particular vision for schooling—such as project-based learning, dual language education, flexible public options for homeschoolers, etc.

Fortunately, developing a new program in a new value network doesn’t have to be a strategy reserved only for charter schools. Visionary district leaders can also create programs with radically new approaches to education. They just need to be deliberate in developing new value networks for these programs, rather than situating them within existing value networks with an aim to outperform existing schools. My writing and research on how districts can “disrupt” themselves is about creating these types of circumstances: new programs in new value networks.

I don’t think 2021 will be the year that radically transforms K–12 education. However, I am optimistic that it could be the year that sows seeds of transformation that society will reap in decades ahead. The creation of new microschools, learning hubs, and homeschooling co-ops marks an unprecedented genesis of new approaches to K–12 education within focused new value networks. My hope is that these programs will be able to improve over time and attract more and more families, educators, and funders into their new value networks in the future.

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.