Is this the moment in history when K–12 school systems get disrupted?

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Dec 10, 2020

With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, schools are once again closing their doors this year. Meanwhile, the toll on many educators, students, and families feels crushing. It may be the biggest understatement of 2020 to say that the pandemic has thrown K–12 environments into turmoil. 

By forcing conventional classrooms online, the pandemic exacerbates the challenges of keeping students engaged and on-track through single-paced, whole-group instruction. Frustrated by this reality, a sizable proportion of students, parents, and teachers have left their schools to seek alternatives such as homeschooling, virtual schools, micro-schools, and learning pods. These shifts beg the question: are we witnessing the beginning of K–12 disruption—the type Clayton Christensen described?

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Before I dive in on answering that question, let’s clarify what Disruptive Innovation means. Disruption, as defined by the Christensen Institute, is more than just upheaval. In our research on how organizations and sectors change, Disruptive Innovation describes a phenomenon whereby the incumbent technologies and business models in a sector get displaced by new technologies from new entrants in that sector. 

The phenomenon starts when new entrants come up with seemingly inferior solutions to serve people who are unserved (nonconsumers) or overserved by established incumbents (low-end customers). Then, over time, these new entrants improve their offerings into compelling alternatives to incumbent solutions. The disruption of the sector unfolds as the people previously served by incumbents migrate to good-enough solutions from new entrants that also offer greater affordability, customizability, and convenience. Consider, for example, how Amazon disrupted conventional retail by initially setting up a website to sell books; or how Netflix disrupted Blockbuster by initially mailing people DVDs. 

When Clayton Christensen first described this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, it captivated the attention of the business world because it explained how leading incumbents in an industry—the organizations that seemed to be doing everything right—were routinely upended by new entrants with seemingly inferior products. The implications for business strategy were huge, and the term quickly became a buzzword in both board meetings and startup communities.

Nonetheless, Disruptive Innovation is a phenomenon, not an agenda. Like gravity, it happens as a course of nature when certain conditions are true. It is neither inherently good nor bad, but it can have both positive and negative consequences. Disruptive Innovation is often painful for the people who lose jobs and investments in the decline of incumbent organizations. Furthermore, any technological progress, whether disruptive or otherwise, can have unanticipated consequences—consider social media’s impact on political polarization and mental health. Nonetheless, Disruptive Innovation routinely produces marked social benefits. The technologies that flow from disruption are more affordable, customizable, convenient, user-friendly, and accessible than their predecessors. This means that advances in communication, transportation, health care, and the like that come about through Disruptive Innovation end up helping more people in more places.

Are K–12 schools getting disrupted?

The big disruption-related question right now in K–12 education is whether learning pods, micro-schools, and other alternatives will disrupt conventional schools. At first glance, these models seem to fit the pattern: in their infancy, they’re unable to offer everything conventional schools provide; but they initially serve students and families who are locked out of childcare, structured learning environments, and other services they need from conventional schooling. However, checking the box on a few disruption look-fors doesn’t guarantee disruption any more than having wings can guarantee that ostriches and penguins will fly.

The nonconsumption problem

The pandemic has certainly created nonconsumption—a key starting point for disruptive innovations. Until last March, many families relied on schools to provide a range of services, including reliable childcare, social communities, and a structured setting for learning. Then COVID-19 created a void, and pods and micro-schools sprung up to fill in. 

But this response to nonconsumption differs from the normal pattern of disruption. Normally, serving nonconsumption gives disruptive innovations an opportunity to grow and improve without inciting a competitive response from incumbents. But the nonconsumers of schooling today are not families and students that established schools routinely ignore. Rather, established schools see students who leave for pods or micro-schools as lost enrollments; and as the pandemic draws on, conventional schools will respond to try to rake those enrollments back. Some are already setting up learning hubs and virtual schools of their own. 

The affordability problem

Second, pods and micro-schools are too expensive and complicated to be disruptive. Disruptive innovations don’t enter as premium offerings that command premium prices. Rather, they appeal to people by offering affordability and convenience. In contrast, parents take on a massive workload to create their own pods or micro-schools. Some may outsource that work by hiring a teacher to man the ship, but then affordability goes out the window. Splitting the cost of a teachers’ salary among a group of 2-3 families is nowhere near as cheap as free public education. So when it comes to affordability, the only potential disruptive path for pods and mirco-schools is at the low end of the private school market.

The improvement problem

Last of all, pods and micro-schools won’t have the runway they need to be disruptive. Disruptive innovators start off crummy and only start pulling people away from the mainstream options after they’ve had time to improve on their early iterations. Remember when YouTube was only about cat videos and Netflix was only mailing DVDs? Both had a long way to go before challenging video rental and cable networks. For pods and micro-schools, the runway offered by pandemic-induced nonconsumption will likely run out some time next year—long before they can evolve into attractive alternatives to conventional schooling. When the pandemic ends, most families are going to say “good riddance” to their COVID-19 stop-gaps and go back to the incumbent system they’ve long relied on. 

The outside chance

There is one outside possibility that could change this equation. If the strains of the pandemic push a sizable number of families into pods, micro-schools, homeschooling, and other non-conventional schooling options, there’s a chance the needs of those families could generate the political will to change states’ education policy. If advocates can convince states to give education dollars directly to students rather than funding the schools those students attend, micro-schools, pods and other alternatives will suddenly become able to match conventional public schools on affordability. They’d also then have the runway they need to improve over time while serving the small subset of families that will want to stick with them post-pandemic. 

Such a massive change in education funding policy isn’t likely to happen before a vaccine brings school buildings back to full operation. But if by chance we see some states adopt policies resembling universal education savings accounts (ESA’s), the conditions for system-wide disruption will be at play. 

Where are the opportunities for innovation during COVID-19?

At the Christensen Institute, we’ve long been on the lookout for disruptive innovations that could make education more customized to students’ learning needs and increase access to valuable learning experiences. In their 2008 book, Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson tagged online learning as the type of technology that could catalyze Disruptive Innovation in K–12 education. It’s important to note, however, that the authors never predicted that online learning would disrupt K–12 public schools. Instead, they predicted that disruption would unfold at the level of instruction, not governance. Hence why Christensen, Horn, and Johnson titled their book Disrupting Class, not Disrupting Schools. In response to the burgeoning question of whether COVID-19 has begun the disruption of K–12 schools, the answer is “no.” However, although the pandemic isn’t likely a catalyst for the disruption of K–12 schools, that doesn’t mean worthwhile innovation during the pandemic isn’t happening or won’t happen, or that Disruptive Innovation won’t be at play. In an upcoming post, I’ll detail where innovations are happening in K–12 education as the pandemic carries on into 2021. Here’s a hint: it’s less about different school systems and more about opportunities for existing schools and districts to develop new instructional models—just as Christensen, Horn, and Johnson predicted.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.