Late last year I wrote about the potential for Federal Youth CareerConnect grants to spur competency-based models in high schools and communities. This week, President Obama announced the first round of 24 grantees, which includes nonprofits, school districts, and community colleges. Now the real work begins: What will this federal policy mean in practice in these 24 locales?

The ambitious program could fund the development of truly disruptive models for educating students in a manner that is tightly connected to workforce opportunities. While these models are springing up in pockets of higher education—such as the competency-based Western Governors University and UniversityNow Programs—such approaches have yet to really take hold at the high school level.

The Department of Labor provided a few examples of grantees’ plans:

  • The Los Angeles Unified School District is receiving $7 million to build out new career academies in six high schools that will focus on health care, biotechnology, and other technology-related industries.
  • The New York City Department of Education is receiving nearly $7 million to fund two new early college high schools similar to IBM PTECH models that offer associate’s degrees while still in high school. The grant will also expand diesel mechanic registered apprenticeship opportunities to youth and create a dental hygienist apprenticeship and modify 10 career and technical education programs to offer college credit and counseling.
  • Clinton, S.C., is receiving a $6.8 million award to reshape three high schools to prepare students for skilled jobs in computer science and engineering. Each school will restructure its instructional calendar to expand individual learning time, work with corporate partners to design project-based learning experiences modeled on real-world challenges, and align curricula with Piedmont Technical College and Midlands Technical College so students can earn postsecondary credits and credentials before graduating.

In reading these examples, there is clearly exciting potential that CareerConnect grants could seed programs that operate differently—in a more personalized, competency-based, and career-relevant manner—than our existing education system. Still, there is the possibility that these programs will simply sustain the existing system; in other words, they might successfully expand student access to career training, but only do so within a factory-based model of educating students.

Whether these programs can start to carve out innovative personalized, competency-based experiences will depend largely on the contexts in which they are implemented and the degree to which the teams coordinating across secondary, postsecondary, and employers are able to formulate brand new resources, processes, and values. Typically, it’s hard for existing systems or business to seed such disruptive models. That’s because disruptive models offer brand new value propositions that the original business model or organizational structure was not built to maximize. Moreover, innovating managers often try to start new-growth businesses using processes that were designed to make the mainstream business run effectively. This is made more difficult by the fact that organizational structures are not set up to embrace disruptions; departments often reflect silos erected to make existing business as efficient as possible, but not to build new products or services.

A potential downfall of the CareerConnect grants is that they aim to create new programs by leveraging and coordinating expertise from across existing systems whose resources, processes, and values are benchmarked to the traditional school system. How can this effort avoid the often-inevitable fact that existing systems and business struggle to embrace disruptive innovation? Two strategies come to mind.

The first strategy is to create what we call heavyweight teams. Heavyweight teams take players from across a business or system and place them in a new context where new methods of working together can coalesce. When Toyota created the first hybrid Prius, the company brought together a team of designers and engineers from across departments to specifically work on the new technology. These employees were told to bring their expertise but leave behind the priorities of their teams or departments. This unlocked the possibility of building an entirely new (and more efficient) architecture. The team added costs in some places to save costs or improve performance in others, and it combined certain components of existing car models while eliminating others entirely. Imagine then, if CareerConnect grants were implemented in a manner such that all of the players—secondary, postsecondary, and employers—were brought together to use their expertise but not to further the particular interests embedded in their existing organizations or silos. This might lead to a more efficient, student-centered architecture for high school and workforce development design.

A second strategy that grantees might consider is to create totally separate business units that no longer answer to the priorities and rules of the existing system. For example, when the personal computer emerged, IBM wisely created an autonomous business unit in Florida that could adopt new systems and processes and successfully compete with new entrants. There are also compelling examples within education: early on, the Florida Legislature established Florida Virtual School as an autonomous entity, the equivalent to a school district, so that it could set up its own disruptive business model with a unique value proposition. Although a few of the CareerConnect grantees intend to build new high schools oriented around particular industry training or STEM initiatives, it’s not clear that those high schools will have the autonomy they need to break the mold of traditional factory-based education. So long as they remain embedded in traditional districts with firmly set resources, process, and values, these new school models risk being tugged in the direction of the status quo.

As the 24 grantees set out to implement or expand their programs, they should keep these organizational dynamics in mind. Only by structuring new workforce development and education initiatives with sufficient freedom from old paradigms can Youth CareerConnect grants achieve their disruptive potential.