KIPP, perhaps the most famous of the “No Excuses” brand of public charter schools that has grown across the nation in recent years, was famously reticent to adopt online learning.

That stance has changed dramatically since 2010. A recent U.S. News & World Report article titled “Technology in the Classroom: KIPP Bets on Blended Learning,” detailed the extensive efforts that KIPP schools around the nation are now undertaking to harness the power of blended learning to boost student achievement—and our just re-launched Blended Learning Universe (BLU) contains profiles of many of KIPP’s blended-learning schools.

In the article, I was quoted to explain KIPP’s initial reticence around instructional technology, saying, “When you are doing well, why introduce something risky without proven results that might upset the balance and cause you to backtrack?”

That sentiment sums up the first part of the classic innovator’s dilemma. Why adopt a disruptive innovation that looks not as good and may compromise returns when life is good where you are?

Unsurprisingly then, the article observed, as KIPP has adopted blended learning across its network of schools in recent years, it has done so largely as a sustaining innovation to its traditional classrooms, not as a disruptive innovation across the network. This is in marked contrast to some charter networks that are implementing blended learning as a disruptive innovation.

Indeed, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, Richard Barth, followed the article with an email blast touting the profile of KIPP’s teacher-centric form of blended learning—a marked contrast to some networks moving toward a more student-centered—and disruptive—form of blended learning in which teachers are still absolutely critical, but they often play very different roles.

The piece quoted me again as saying that KIPP’s decision not to blow up the classroom and “use blended learning to do what they do better… is smart. They’re doing it exactly right.”

But isn’t KIPP falling prey to the classic innovator’s dilemma by not bucking its natural tendencies and deploying disruptive innovations? Even though the disruptions are not good enough today, history shows that in a few years, the story will likely look quite different. So is KIPP really doing this innovation exactly right?

Let me elaborate beyond my comment. Although I think KIPP has been smart and is indeed doing blended learning right in its core classes, I do think KIPP can—and should—be doing more.

As Heather Staker and I wrote in our recently released book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, schools should be taking a split-screen approach to innovation by addressing their core problems with sustaining models of blended learning and their areas of nonconsumption with disruptive models.

Schools like KIPP would be insane to replace all their traditional classrooms that work relatively well and serve some of society’s hardest-to-serve students with risky disruptive models of blended learning that are still immature and unreliable.

In general, sustaining models of blended learning are better matches for solving core problems today. This advice applies in particular to networks of schools serving students who have the most barriers to achievement at scale. KIPP’s thousands of students are under-served, not over-served or un-served, and therefore need sustaining innovations that improve upon today’s offerings.

But KIPP doesn’t just have problems to solve in its core academic areas with its core students. Its schools, like all schools in the country, also have lots of areas of nonconsumption—where students have no option or ability to take a certain class or benefit from a certain opportunity. In these areas—particularly in high school where these areas are most expressed—KIPP ought to be pioneering disruptive models of blended learning.

Disruptive models of blended learning present a striking opportunity. At last schools can personalize learning, extend access, and rein in costs in ways that seemed impossible before the arrival of this innovation. To ignore the prospect of using disruptive innovation to resolve nonconsumption problems is to overlook a historic and long-awaited bright spot in an otherwise resource-constrained system.

To be fair, several of KIPP’s high schools are doing just this to some extent, and some of its newer schools are attempting to rethink the basic classroom structure some. But KIPP’s big opportunity is to be more intentional about this innovation and adopt a split-screen strategy. The lion’s share of its resources should continue to go to its sustaining innovations, but intentional experimentation in disruption could provide breakthroughs in the long-term not just for KIPP, but for schooling in general. To have an operator that is so committed to doing right by students improving the disruptive models of blended learning is a remarkable opportunity to accelerate our nation’s ability to boost the success of all students. Seizing that opportunity would be doing blended learning exactly right.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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