Which new developments in K–12 education will prove disruptive?


Mar 23, 2023

This is an interesting time to be involved in K–12 education. It’s a challenging time, for sure, given the learning loss, mental health crisis, and educator burnout that have come in the aftermath of COVID-19. But this is also a time full of new possibilities. The expansion of micro-schools, community schools, hybrid homeschooling, learning ecosystems, and tutoring models—all of which gained unexpected momentum through the pandemic—point to striking new possibilities for the future of education. We also seem to be living through tectonic shifts in what the public wants from education, as Populace’s recent Purpose of Education Index makes clear.

Will these new developments prove to be just short-term hypes that lead to new fringe solutions? Or will we be looking back in a decade or two astounded by how much K–12 education has been completely transformed?

Prediction is tricky business. But in the face of innovation discontinuities, theory is one of the best tools for prediction. Rather than tell us what will happen, good theory gives us powerful tools for analyzing the circumstances that will shape the future. 

But that analysis takes effort. When Clayton Christensen first met with Andy Grove, the prior CEO of Intel, to teach him about disruptive innovation, Christensen insisted that their conversation would be most valuable to Grove if instead of telling him what to think, Christensen took the time to teach him how to think using the theory. That approach, now in the toolbelts of leaders across the world, has shaped the trajectories of organizations like Apple, Netflix, Intuit, Southern New Hampshire University, and the US Department of Defense.

In that same spirit, rather than placing bets here on the future of education, I want to offer an important framework for analyzing the new developments in education that have gained prominence over the last few years.

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. Enabling technologies are what make disruptive innovations more accessible, affordable, customizable, convenient or user-friendly compared to established solutions. 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. Disruptive organizational models rely on different resources, different processes, and different cost structures compared to their predecessors. 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 examples of these enablers in K–12 education?

As an example of how these disruptive innovation patterns show up in K–12 education, consider one example of disruptive innovation that the Institute has been tracking for more than a decade.

Disrupting Class identified an example of an enabling technology: online learning. Online learning had the potential to enable new learning opportunities that were more accessible and customizable than classroom-based instruction.

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 complete 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. 

Nonetheless, 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 see the transformation of 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. 

What will the future hold?

When considering the disruptive potential of new innovations like micro-schools, community schools, hybrid homeschooling, learning ecosystems, and tutoring models, here are the key questions to ask: 

  1. Does the innovation take advantage of a new technology that makes its benefits more accessible, affordable, customizable, convenient or user-friendly than those of current mainstream solutions?
  2. Does the technology enable a new organizational model that runs on different resources, different processes, and a different cost structure?
  3. Is the organizational model emerging within a new value network that values the distinctive benefits of the enabling technology and the new business model?

Only time will tell if these new innovations prove disruptive. But this framework can give innovators, funders, and policymakers a major leg up in determining the potential of new models and figuring out the right strategies for supporting those models.

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.