A few weeks ago, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed a series of misguided regulations that restrict the Massachusetts Legislature’s recent law allowing districts to open innovation schools. I submitted an op-ed to the Boston Globe and Boston Herald about this, but neither chose to publish it. Below is the text of that op-ed:

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently passed a series of misguided regulations that restrict the Massachusetts Legislature’s recent law allowing districts to open innovation schools.

From my position as executive director of education at Innosight Institute and my work in writing Disrupting Class with renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, in which we brought his well-known theories about innovation to the field of education, I have analyzed what works with regards to introducing disruptive innovation in education to transform and improve our public education system. These regulations strike at the most notable disruptive innovation with this potential that we have observed to date—online learning—and thereby threaten to put Massachusetts only further behind this innovative wave sweeping across the country.

First, setting enrollment caps on Massachusetts district’s virtual innovation schools is short sighted. Capping enrollments at 500 students per school relegates virtual schooling in Massachusetts to a small asterisk in the state’s menu of learning options. Virtual schooling has already moved beyond the point of rogue experiment—one of the Board’s fears. Several studies have shown that students learn as much, if not more, in online learning environments than in traditional classroom ones. With more than 450,000 students currently enrolled in full-time virtual schools nationwide, this is hardly untried or mysterious. If anything, Massachusetts is already in the position of needing to play catch up, not of serving as a timid follower.

A problem with setting the enrollment limit is that by imposing a tight lid on the opportunity, innovators have little incentive to invest time and money in building out the virtual schooling medium in Massachusetts. Without blue sky above them, why will innovators launch into this space?

Second, the proposed geographic restrictions that mandate that 25 percent of enrollment in a virtual innovation school must come from the sponsoring district and only two percent of students can enroll in a virtual school from any given district puts onerous restrictions on a medium designed to obliterate the limits of geography. This will unfairly penalize some students who need this option, as they will not be able to access it. Farsighted districts, such as Greenfield, have already expressed their disappointment to these unnecessary—at best—and stifling—at worst—regulations. Fears about the potential financial impact of virtual innovation schools on districts—that, in part, led to these restrictions—are unfounded given the way Massachusetts schools are funded and given that many of these students will have not been in the public education system beforehand. These fears also focus on the wrong goal; rather than worry about who controls the education for a given student, we must support the best educational option for each individual student.

The Board did vote to allow the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to grant waivers to districts to bypass the restrictions. Although having this escape valve is prudent, it does not solve the bigger problem, as the process of granting waivers will sow uncertainty and make innovation slow, burdensome and uneven.

There is a productive role, however, that the State could play. It should act as a partner to districts launching virtual innovation schools by supporting them in escaping the tired, input-focused regulations that dominate the existing public education system and moving toward outcome-focused ones that pay schools and providers based on students mastering high standards.

In creating virtual schools, the Massachusetts Legislature has indicated a desire to embrace the possibilities for individualized student pacing, borderless learning, and customized instruction made possible by online learning. But with the new regulatory limits, the Board has engineered a subtle but powerful block that squelches the very innovation that the Legislature seeks to ignite and is so sorely needed.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.