Key points

  • Disruptive innovations need three enablers: a technology, an organizational model, and a value network.
  • In K–12 education, it’s hard to find value networks that can support new organizational models.

When Disrupting Class was published in 2008, it predicted that by the fall of 2019, 50% of all high school courses would be delivered online in some form or fashion. The prediction was based on the data available at that time tracking the adoption of online courses. It was also rooted in the theory of Disruptive Innovation—a pattern that had borne out across many sectors. The book’s authors hoped that as digital learning tools and opportunities proliferated in schools, they would disrupt the single-paced, whole-class approach to instruction, allowing educators to better meet students’ different needs and interests. 

With fourteen years of hindsight, it’s clear that the conventional model of schooling hasn’t been disrupted. Even after the pandemic drove schools to make major investments in internet connectivity and devices, traditional approaches—age-based cohorts, single-paced instruction, seat-time-based credit, division of content into discrete classes, leveling, and tracking—remain the norm. 

This isn’t to say that digital learning technologies have disappeared. Schools and classrooms are using edtech more than ever. Chromebooks are now standard issue in most schools and Google Classroom is a staple. Teachers commonly use digital learning resources like Kahoot!, Khan Academy, and PearDeck to support their instruction. 

But these resources have largely been used in service of—rather than to transform—conventional schooling. 

My friend and colleague Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Institute and co-author of Disrupting Class, has been frank in acknowledging this reality. In a 2019 article for EdSurge, he shared: “My gut is that far too many schools have crammed edtech into their existing classrooms and merely layered it over existing whole-group instruction, rather than use it to support teachers in crafting new models of tailoring learning.” More recently, in a 2021 article for Education Next he wrote, “our larger hope in Disrupting Class has failed to come to pass—that is, the hope that the U.S. education system would undergo transformation into a student-centered system in which young people would have more opportunities to build on their passions and fulfill their potential.”

Why hasn’t the conventional model of classroom-based, teacher-led, single-paced schooling been disrupted by technology-enabled, student-centered models of education? The answer may lie in understanding the influence of value networks.

What are the necessary elements for disruption?

Clayton Christensen found that the phenomenon of disruption usually requires three enablers: a new technology, a new organizational model, and a congruent value network.

The enabling technology is usually the easiest to spot, and the enabler that gets the most attention. Sony disrupted RCA using transistor-based electronics. Netflix disrupted Blockbuster using first web-based ordering and then digital video streaming. 

Technology alone, however, doesn’t disrupt an industry. Its disruptive potential hinges on whether it gets used to enable a disruptive organizational model. By leveraging the enabling technology, disruptive organizational models can offer their value propositions in a more affordable, customizable, convenient, or otherwise accessible way compared to incumbent solutions. Whereas Blockbuster’s organizational model ran on renting individual movies through a large collection of video rental sites staffed by retail employees, Netflix built a subscription-based organizational model first with warehouses and distribution centers, then on computer servers.

As a final enabler, disruptive organizational models have the biggest impact on transforming a sector when they emerge within a new value network. A value network includes the customers, suppliers, distributors, investors, and other stakeholders that become interdependent with an organizational model. New organizational models need value networks that align with their priorities. For example, Sony didn’t bring transistor-based electronics mainstream in the 1960s by trying to compete in the value network dominated by RCA and Zenith. Rather, it sold its pocket radios to teenagers who couldn’t afford the high-end living room devices marketed to their parents. Additionally, it sold its devices not through full-service department stores but through emerging discount retailers like Kmart and Walmart that were set up to make money selling low-cost products with faster inventory turns. 

The value network that an organization sits within will shape what it must value and prioritize in order to survive and thrive.

What are the enablers of disruption in education?

Now consider where these enablers of disruption show up in K–12 education.

Disrupting Class identified a first enabler: online learning. Online learning had the potential to enable new learning opportunities that were more accessible and customizable than classroom-based instruction.

Then, in the decade following the publication of Disrupting Class, the Institutes’ blended learning research started to reveal what disruptive organizational models in K–12 education could look like. 

To be clear, blended learning models are not organizational models. An organizational model includes resources, processes, the value propositions they produce, and the financial formula by which revenue sources cover the costs of operation. Although blended learning models describe some of the resources and processes in an educational program, they don’t say anything about the program’s value propositions or its financial formula. 

But through documenting a wide range of blended learning examples, it became clear that some blended learning models were used to enhance the organizational models of conventional schools, whereas others enabled wholly new organizational models for learning. In particular, the Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, and Flipped Classroom models showed up most often in conventional classrooms as strategies for differentiating instruction and improving engagement. Meanwhile, the Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual models were adopted most often in new programs outside of conventional school settings—such as for alternative education, career and technical education, credit recovery, and supplemental course offerings—to give students more flexibility and customizability in their learning. Notice the different value propositions: engagement and differentiation of whole-class instruction vs. flexibility and customizability.

Now consider the role of value networks in education. Most US public schools sit in value networks defined by government policies that dictate their operations, the government agencies they depend on for funding and resources, the families they serve, their staff, employee unions, their vendors, etc. ​These entities shape the value propositions schools are expected to offer, the resources they have access to, the processes they must follow, and the financial formulas they use to support their operations. 

Developing new organizational models for K-12 education is challenging because most K–12 funding and most opportunities to create new programs and schools are tied to conventional value networks. Even many new K–12 programs heralded as “innovative”—such as new district magnet schools or charter schools—often end up with organizational models that are mere variations on the conventional model of schooling because they still sit within the incumbent K–12 value network. They operate with the same local, state, and federal policies shaping their priorities; they hire from the same staffing pools as conventional schools; and they serve students and families who want the best version of conventional schooling they can get, not a different model of schooling altogether. 

In contrast, the rare K–12 programs that operate with different organizational models consistently sit within value networks distinct from those of conventional schools. They operate under policy designations such as independent study, virtual schooling, alternative education, or career and technical education that give them a greater ability to break from conventional processes and pursue different priorities. They serve students and families that come to them for their distinctive value propositions—typically more flexible or personalized education—rather than expecting them to be a better version of conventional schooling. When organized within school districts, they report to district leaders who understand their distinctive roles and therefore don’t measure their progress by conventional metrics or expect them to follow conventional practices. Some programs—such as the micro-schools and homeschooling co-ops that gained traction during COVID—deliberately take root outside of public education so they can more easily focus their models on the value propositions their students and families want without the pressure to address the priorities of other value network influences.

This insight has important implications for those eager to transform conventional public education. It’s not enough to adopt new technology. It’s also not enough to identify and adopt new practices. Any new organizational model for education trying to offer distinct value propositions using different technologies and processes will regress to the conventional model of schooling if it has to operate within a conventional K–12 value network. 

For more insights on this topic, keep an eye out for our forthcoming paper with Education Reimagined: “K–12 value networks: The hidden forces that help or hinder learner-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.