Q&A: Unveiling the power of value networks in K–12 education


Aug 8, 2023

Have you ever helped introduce a groundbreaking educational idea, only to see it fizzle out or get watered down? You’re not alone. Ideas like competency-based education, project-based learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning, and flexible blended learning all hold promise for improving student’s outcomes and experiences. Yet time and again, their actual implementation proves tricky in most settings. It’s not just about the brilliance of the concepts or the dedication of the educators behind them. There’s a hidden force at play—an intricate web of connections and influences—that shape the destiny of educational innovations. Welcome to the realm of value networks, where the context in which new models emerge holds the key to their transformational impact.

Over the past year, I’ve taken regular readers of this blog on a journey to uncover the power of value networks in shaping the future of education. For those who have only been along for snippets of this journey, or who are still wrestling with how all the pieces fit together, this post aims to distill the key insights on value networks and debunk the myths that often surround them.

What is a value network?

A value network is the environment that an organization lives in. Value networks determine the resources an organization has access to, the rules it must follow, and the permissions it needs in order to operate. Just as fish have adapted to live in water, lizards to the desert, and squirrels to trees, organizations adapt to survive and succeed within their specific value networks. To make these ideas concrete, consider that most conventional schools’ value networks comprise local, state, and federal education agencies; policymakers; students and their families; employee unions; voters and taxpayers; postsecondary education systems; community organizations; vendors; teacher preparation pipelines; and philanthropic donors. These external entities define the context in which most schools operate.

Value networks matter to innovation because certain innovations just can’t happen in the context of most conventional schools’ value networks. Value networks shape a school’s processes (how it does its work) and its priorities (how it decides to allocate its scarce resources). This means innovation in education can’t just be about rethinking students’ experiences or educator’s practices. An innovative program or model can only flourish when pursued within a value network whose priorities align with that innovation. And realistically, modles that really break the mold of conventional schooling can’t work within the value networks of conventional schools.

Value networks in action

Private microschools that proliferated since the pandemic offer a prime example of why it’s essential to create new models of schooling in new value networks. These schools deliberately operate outside the regulations and funding stipulations of public education so that their value networks can be hyper-focused on the desires of the families they serve. By aligning their value networks to families that are willing to forgo conventional schooling to get real-world learning experiences or flexible learning options, microschools have unparalleled freedom to craft educational models that stand in stark contrast with traditional approaches to schooling.

Yet the private microschool sector isn’t the only space that can give rise to new models of schooling. We’ve seen districts assemble new value networks for alternative schools, career and technical education centers, and virtual schools. Realistically, however, it is a lot harder for district-based programs to break free from the gravitational pull of the broader value networks that the parent district operates within. But savvy leaders who are able to do so have access to public funding and district resources unavailable to most microschools. 

What is a value network not?

To avoid confusion, it’s important to clarify what a value network is not and distinguish it from related terms.

First, a value network should not be confused with stakeholders. While there may be overlap between the two, the distinction lies in the level of influence each term implies. Stakeholders encompass all groups that a school system should pay attention to, irrespective of their influence over resource access, permission, or decision-making processes. On the other hand, value networks emphasize the external entities that possess varying degrees of power to shape an organization’s priorities through resource dependence, regulation, and democratic governance.

Second, a value network should not be mistaken for a social network. The leaders and staff within an organization may participate in social networks that facilitate the exchange of valuable information and ideas. But the organization’s value network is about accessing resources and permissions necessary for its survival and success.

Third, a value network is not an education ecosystem. An ecosystem represents the various programs and providers available within a community that students might turn to for learning experiences. In contrast, an organization’s value network entails the specific external entities that organization depends on as it does its work. An organization and its value network may all be part of a broader ecosystem, but a value network is particular to an organization and is distinguished by interdependence, not just coexistence within the same community.

Lastly, although the term “value” in “value network” may evoke connotations of personal or organizational values, value networks are about how an organization creates value, not the shared mission or ethics of a group of people. Communities of shared values can be vital for finding key value network partners, but the term value network itself does not directly refer to a community based on shared values.

How do you know if you have a value network that can support new models of schooling?

If you’re an innovator trying to develop a new model of education and you want to know if the value network you’re operating within can support your new model, here are a few key questions to ask:

  • Does your program have operational autonomy from conventional school systems?
  • Does your program have freedom from education policies created for conventional schools?
  • Can your program focus initially on serving students and families who have either left conventional schooling (e.g., homeschoolers, dropouts, etc.) or who are willing to give up the benefits of conventional schooling in favor of a very different educational experience?
  • Is the early version of your program not as good as conventional schooling on conventional metrics of performance (e.g., college prep curriculum, test scores, access to conventional electives and extracurricular activities) while offering other benefits that appeal to your target students and families (e.g., flexibility, personalization, or access to learning experiences unavailable at conventional schools)?

Where can you learn more about value networks?

To delve deeper into the theory of value networks and their significance in shaping innovation, I recommend exploring Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” For insights on how this concept applies to fostering learner-centered education, see our recent paper “K–12 value networks: The hidden forces that help or hinder learner-centered education.” You can also find further information on value networks in our recent blog posts and a podcast interview on this topic. Lastly, I’m eager to chat with anyone who want to learn more about value networks or who has insights to share on how their value networks have shaped their efforts to innovate. Readers can reach me at [email protected] or on the platform formerly known as Twitter through the handle @ArnettTom.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency 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.