Predicting innovation trajectories in K–12 education

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Nov 4, 2022

Key points

  • Analyzing a school’s value network reveals which types of improvements and innovations it will or won’t adopt.
  • The concept of value networks explains why districts often struggle to make major changes to their organizational models and why charter schools often find it easier to innovate.

There are lots of promising innovations in tiny pockets of the education system, but decades of advocacy and investment have failed to see those innovations scale. How can we better predict which innovations flourish and which founder?”

My last blog post argued that new value networks are the missing enablers for disrupting the conventional model of K–12 schooling. But the concept of value networks can do more than explain why disruptive models struggle to take root. All organizations live within value networks. And analyzing an organization’s value network makes clear whether and how it will approach potential improvements and innovations.

What are value networks?

Clayton 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.” For a company, a value network might include its customers, suppliers, distributors, investors, and the competitive and regulatory landscapes that shape its business model. Similarly, most US public schools sit in value networks defined by government agencies, families, staff, unions, voters, vendors, and the regulatory and competitive landscapes in which they operate. 

Value networks determine what an organization must prioritize to survive and thrive. Because value networks shape an organization’s priorities, they also dictate which improvements and innovations it will pursue and which it will fumble, ignore, or even resist.

A few important clarifications are worth noting. 

First, an organization’s value network isn’t just another way to refer to its stakeholders. There’s overlap between these terms, but there are also important distinctions—mainly in how the terms are commonly used. The term “stakeholders” often emphasizes all the groups that a school system should pay attention to, regardless of how much influence any given group has over the decisions of the school system. In contrast, I use the term “value networks” to draw attention to which external entities actually have more or less power to shape an organization’s priorities through resource dependence, regulation, democratic governance, etc. 

Second, value networks are not the same as social networks. Many schools participate in social networks—such as the CAPS network, the League of Innovative Schools, or the Digital Learning Collaborative—that facilitate sharing ideas and practices. Participating in a social network may connect an organization with funders, suppliers, partners, or other entities that become part of its value network. But whereas social networks facilitate the exchange of information, value networks provide the resources and authorization that an organization needs to survive and thrive.

Now consider a few insights that come from seeing different forms of K–12 schooling through the lens of value networks.

Competing priorities within K–12 districts

By design, a school district’s governance structure aims to give a degree of power to a wide array of stakeholders. People from different neighborhoods and groups from across the political spectrum all have a right to meet with administrators, speak up in school board meetings, and vote in elections. Local businesses, advocacy organizations, and community groups shape public opinion and influence voters. Local, state, and federal education agencies—also influenced by democratic governance—mandate processes a district must follow. Additionally, employee unions influence districts through collective bargaining. 

These competing interests from different elements in a school district’s value network are what often make the status quo so calcified. A school district’s value network becomes like a system of forces with vectors all pushing in different directions. District leaders get caught up just trying to maintain equilibrium and stability as they navigate the politics of their value network. In principle, a district’s democratic governance and its mandate to serve all students in a region helps ensure that all stakeholders have some power to influence its priorities. But when an organization’s value network produces a set of divergent priorities, the organization gets stuck trying to be all things to all people, yet struggles to do anything exceptionally well. 

Meanwhile, innovations that don’t align with the dominant priorities of the value network don’t last long. Strong leaders may be able to pursue them for a season. But if the innovations don’t deliver success in the way the dominant value network influences define success, those innovations will ultimately wither. 

The charter school advantage

Value networks also illustrate why charter schools can often innovate more easily than district schools. For one, the general principle in much of charter school legislation has been to give charter schools greater autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. Thus, charter schools generally have less prescriptive directives from the overseeing government agencies in their value networks. But beyond their relationships with governing agencies, charter schools also have an opportunity to create greater alignment across the rest of their value networks. 

Charter school founders launch their schools with a particular vision for education: In one school, that vision may be rigorous college preparation for low-income students. For others, it may be an emphasis on arts or science and engineering. With a specific vision in mind, charter school founders then recruit board members, donors, staff, and families who share their vision, and may even encourage stakeholders who don’t share their vision to go elsewhere. Thus, they assemble value networks that align with their visions. That kind of alignment just isn’t possible for a district school with more state policies to follow, a publicly elected board, a mandate to serve all students living within a given boundary, and unionized employees. 

This doesn’t mean charter schools are inherently more innovative than district schools. Some charter schools are pretty similar to their district school counterparts because their value networks resemble those of districts. Meanwhile, some district schools have instructional models that diverge markedly from conventional K–12 schooling. Consider, for example, Village High School in Colorado’s Academy School District, Springs Studio in the Colorado Springs School District, or Innovations Early College High School in the Salt Lake City School District. Why do some district schools develop innovative models while others maintain the status quo? Because innovative schools have value networks that prioritize their innovations. 

Toward a better theory for understanding innovation trajectories

The lens of value networks moves us toward better categories for understanding innovation trajectories in K–12 education and other fields. There’s a long history of promising innovations failing to scale across public education. To this day, approaches like competency-based learning, flexible pacing, project-based learning, and other learner-centered practices often remain confined to “bright spots” lauded for their potential, but confined to the exceptions, rather than the rule. 

Instead of bemoaning a monolithic bureaucracy holding education innovation back, a theory of value networks can better predict which innovations can emerge in a given context. From there, new value networks might emerge to support a range of value propositions across communities and states. Doing so will require not just spotting and heralding innovations, but understanding the value networks from which they emerged in the first place.

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

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

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.