school system change

Why ‘system transformation’ is likely a pipe dream


May 11, 2023

I can’t count the number of times people at an education conference have approached me and said something to the effect of, “But how do we transform the education system?” or “We need to focus on system transformation” or “How do we scale system transformation?”

I get why they share these sentiments with me. Ever since I wrote Disrupting Class in 2008, I’ve been publicly in favor of transforming education, not merely reforming it (although I do work in both spheres). But when I hear calls about transforming existing systems, I recoil a bit and grow suspicious. There are many reasons for my reaction.

Foremost among them is this: Despite all the fancy models and white papers around what are all the levers to pull in order to transform a system, system transformation almost never happens by changing the fundamental tenets of the system itself. Instead, it comes from replacing the system with a brand-new system.

To start to understand why, consider the complicated system in which public schools find themselves. As Thomas Arnett explained, they are one part of a vast value network of federal, state, and local regulators, voters and taxpayers, parents and students, teachers, administrators, unions, curriculum providers, school vendors, public infrastructure, higher education institutions, and more.

A value network is the context within which an organization establishes its processes, priorities, and cost structure to respond sustainably to its stakeholders’ desires for progress.

The reason transforming an existing system is so hard is that at each of the nodes of connection, the different actors’ organizational and business models, economic incentives, interests, rhythms of innovation, technological paradigms, and more are both consistent and mutually reinforcing. New ideas, programs, or entities that don’t fit into these processes, priorities, and cost structures are simply not plug-compatible into that value network. They consequently get rejected, tossed to the fringe, or altered to meet the needs of the existing actors in the value network.

Here’s a simple example to illustrate why. When the transistor was first invented in 1947, it was disruptive relative to the vacuum tube that powered existing consumer electronic products because it couldn’t handle much power. Hence, transistors couldn’t be used to make large products—the sorts of floor-standing televisions and tabletop radios that the leading consumer electronics companies of the day, such as RCA and Zenith, made. These companies built their products with vacuum-tube technology and sold them through appliance retailers. Appliance stores made most of their money not from selling televisions and radios, but from repairing the burned-out vacuum tubes in the products they had sold.

When Sony developed the world’s first miniature transistor radio in 1955 and the portable television four years later, it tried to distribute them through appliance stores, too. But the appliance stores wouldn’t give the time of day to Sony.

Why? Because Sony’s solid-state products contained no vacuum tubes that would burn out. Luckily for Sony, however, discount retailers such as Kmart, Wal-Mart, and Target were emerging at that time, and they had not been able to sell vacuum-tube-based products because they couldn’t service them in the aftermarket.

It was a marriage made in heaven—products that needed no service sold through a channel that could offer no service.

By the mid-1960s, solid-state electronics had progressed to the point that they could handle the power large televisions needed. In the ensuing transition, it wasn’t just Sony and Panasonic that disrupted RCA and Zenith; the miniaturized solid-state component suppliers disrupted the high-power component makers; and the discount sales channel disrupted the appliance stores. An entire value network disruptively displaced an entire value network.

In other words, a system disrupted a system.

What this means is that if we’re serious about wholesale system transformation, we likely need to be focused on disruptively replacing the existing system of schooling.

That happens to be really difficult in the United States where there is little-to-no nonconsumption of schooling because it is universal and mandatory. What’s more, public schools appear to be free to families, which means low-end disruption of schooling likely isn’t possible. That’s one reason why, in my mind, it’s folly to only pursue this strategy. Disruption from within and modifying the existing system remain important.

But perhaps there are windows to replace the system, as the emerging microschooling space suggests (I discuss more in From Reopen to Reinvent why these could be considered disruptive).

As a result, truly learner-centered educational models—be those microschools, DIY schooling, and more—need to take root outside the traditional K–12 system. And they need to arise in an entirely new ecosystem built around their processes, priorities, and cost structure to respond sustainably to their stakeholders’ desires for progress.

That means that solutions like mastery-based transcripts and assessments, backend systems, curriculum, financing, and the like will need to be built together as a new value network in an emergent way. As in, it’s very unlikely we come up with a “master plan” to design the system, but instead, the system emerges as these different parts interact with each other to solve people’s Jobs to Be Done—or pursuits of progress.

Of course, we can hypothesize what those different parts of the new value network might be and build accordingly, but responding to actual Jobs to Be Done will be imperative.

That, in turn, suggests that the capital that funds, and the entrepreneurs behind, these new ecosystems should be patient for growth—it could be slow-going—but impatient for sustainably solving for progress. They also ought to be suspect of one-size-fits-all blockbuster solutions.

If they heed this advice, then, over time, perhaps we’ll see system transformation—but not through transforming the existing system.

Could public schools respond to this? Theoretically, yes. In From Reopen to Reinvent, I give many ideas of how they could launch autonomous solutions—microschools, schools within schools, and the like—to allow themselves to reinvent. And policymakers would need to create wholly separate paradigms for these solutions to operate in—freed from the existing regulations and with wholly different incentives. If that sounds difficult, you’re not wrong.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to keep working at both. Telecos were able to introduce mobile phones—through enforced autonomy and regulations that required plugging into their networks, for example. That type of change might be change enough for what learners and our society need. But it also could be that we need something more dramatic and not a hybrid solution. Pursuing a dual-transformation strategy seems wise.

But let’s drop the talk that imagines a top-down, system-wide transformation. The system and its interlocking parts are much too complicated for that.

This piece was originally published here on Forbes.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently serves as Chairman of the Clayton Christensen Institute and works as a senior strategist at Guild Education.