The latest comprehensive federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), ushers in an unprecedented opportunity for states to transform K–12 public education. The law gives states the power to revisit the fundamental goals of their education systems and to potentially break free from constraints that have locked school systems into legacy funding, assessment, and accountability models over the past decades.

Among other things, ESSA gives states new latitude to set goals, determine accountability metrics, and rethink how to intervene in their lowest-performing schools.

Although standardized tests will remain a centerpiece of state accountability systems, states must broaden how they define student success by incorporating new metrics for determining school quality—such as attendance, school climate, students’ social-emotional development, teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.The law also restructures grant programs intended to fund school improvement and innovation.

But driving innovation in K–12 schools—both sustaining innovations that improve on existing school models and disruptive innovations that upend traditional approaches—will require more than simply modifying school performance goals or tweaking the tools used to drive school improvement. To pursue both types of innovation, states will need to encourage local school systems to fundamentally understand the processes and priorities that guide their day-to-day decisions. States must take a deliberate approach to innovation under ESSA. They must buck the tendency to merely layer new metrics onto their existing policies and processes, hoping for the best. In other words, leaders will need to examine how current practices drive deeply ingrained processes across their school systems. Not doing so risks allowing the old system to simply cannibalize any new efforts in the ESSA era.

Luckily, innovation theory can help. In this brief, we do not prescribe specific innovations that schools should adopt under ESSA (although we mention a few). Instead, we offer a series of frameworks for thinking about how systems can successfully manage innovation under the new law.


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    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.