When analyzing schooling, Christensen observes that the public education system in the United States has been disrupted three times. “But because the United States has been unwilling or unable to facilitate the entrance of new organizations with new business models to disrupt the old, public school districts have had to negotiate this disruptive redefinitions of performance entirely within their existing schools. In our studies of disruptive innovation in the private sector, we are not aware of a single instance in which a for-profit company was able to implement successfully the disruptive innovation within its core business. The few that survived disruption did so by creating, under the corporate umbrella, a new business unit, with a new business model attuned to the disruptive value proposition. Asking the public schools to negotiate these disruptions from within their mainstream organizations is tantamount to giving them a demonstrably impossible task.” In the first two cases, public schools were able to manage the disruption from within their existing organizations. They are grappling with the third case now.
Disruption occurs when performance is redefined. A sustaining innovation improves a product. A disruptive innovation changes what improvement means. Originally, public schools in the United States were established to “preserve democracy and inculcate democratic values” by teaching the basics, instilling sound morals, and preparing “an elite group—selected on merit from this entire pool of students, not just those from the upper class—to lead the country wisely in elected office.” One-room schoolhouses appeared to fulfill this job.
“In the 1890s and early 1900s, competition with a fast-rising industrial Germany constituted a minicrisis; Americans responded in the early twentieth century by handing schools a new job: prepare everyone for vocations. The goal was to produce a sound workforce for jobs ranging from administrative functions to technically demanding manufacturing positions so that America could compete with Germany. The old job of preparing the next generation to lead and participate in democracy did not go away; society simply asked schools to perform both jobs.” One-room schoolhouses had been improving through sustaining innovations, but suddenly, those improvements didn’t matter any more. The direction in which schools needed to improve had changed, and the comprehensive high school appeared to fulfill this new job.
Comprehensive high schools steadily improved, fulfilling their job more and more effectively, until the public education system was disrupted again. “The nation asked its schools to take on the new job of keeping the United States competitive. Although seemingly similar to the previous job, it was actually quite different. No longer could students choose most of their classes or focus on the vocational or general or academic track depending on their interests or talents. Virtually everyone had to focus on the core academic classes and take the same tests. Japan’s disruption of America’s manufacturing industries increased the pressure for all students to attend college, which further ratcheted up the need to focus on the core subjects and tests because postsecondary schools increasingly required them. This was a radically different demand of schools.” Suddenly, schools had to measure themselves against standardized tests, some administered globally. Instead of continuing to expand course offerings, courses were pared back to focus on core academic subjects.
Once again, the public education system responded. It didn’t become an industry leader, but it did re-organize itself and begin improving along these new dimensions. Then disruption struck for the third time. “The No Child Left Behind Act not only federally cemented average test scores as the primary metric for performance improvement, but also arguably once again shifted the goalposts. No longer can public schools simply raise the average test scores in their schools; instead, public schools must see to it that every child in every demographic improves his or her test scores. Now the performance measure for schools is the percentage of students who are proficient in core subjects. The essential motivation for asking schools to make sure that all students are proficient in reading, math, and science is to eliminate poverty.”
Incumbents find it next to impossible to manage disruption from within their existing organizations because they are structured to satisfy existing customers. Imagine that someone develops a car that can hover. For most existing customers, these hover cars are vastly inferior to the cars they can already buy on the dimensions that matter to them. There are a few new customers that prefer the hover car for various niche uses, but their numbers are small. The car companies can’t invest in hover cars because their existing customers don’t want them and the market for new customers is too small to contribute to their growth. By the time the hover car has improved enough to either satisfy existing customers or attract enough new customers to make the market valuable, it is too late.
This is how disruption normally proceeds, but it isn’t how the current disruption is proceeding in the U.S. public education system. The customer of public schooling is society and the political system. Society hires public schools to do a job, such as keeping the United States competitive or eliminating poverty. In order to do that job, public schools need students to hire them also, but the primary customer is society. In the three disruptions described by Christensen, it’s been the existing customer that has redefined the job to be done. Public schools aren’t facing the dilemma of having to choose between satisfying existing customers or pursuing new customers. Sure, some stakeholders are unhappy with the new jobs that have been given to schools; some stakeholders wish that we could return to the days where the goal was to increase participation by increasing course offerings. But the most lucrative customer, the one that controls the purse strings, has spoken. This may explain why public schools have been able to manage these disruptions so successfully in the past where for-profit companies have failed.
The other significant difference I see is the source of the disruption. Typically, there is an innovative technology. If this innovative technology causes performance to be redefined and new business models and value networks to appear, then the innovation is disruptive. If none of that happens, then the innovation is sustaining (or not innovative at all). But note that the technology precedes the disruption. There is no disruption without a disruptive technology.
This was the case when public schooling in the United States was disrupted the first two times. Comprehensive high schools appeared because one-room schoolhouses could not compete with the schooling in Germany. Christensen doesn’t say what it was, but some innovative schooling technology had been developed in the German market, and it was now disrupting the U.S. market. The public education system had to respond or give way to new organizations with new models. The same thing happened when comprehensive high schools were replaced by a focus on core academics and standardized testing. The public education system was disrupted by innovative schooling technologies from other countries, such as Japan. But, as far as I can tell, the third disruption, the one we are currently in, was not triggered by any technology. Is there a schooling model anywhere in the world that has eliminated poverty by enabling every child to reach proficiency in all core subjects? This is as though existing car customers suddenly decided en masse that they wanted hover cars before anyone even knows if it is possible to build a hover car. Schools are now scrambling to invent technologies to respond to this disruption, but there is no guarantee that they will be successful.
I want to make one final observation on the history of disruption in public schooling in the United States. None of the innovative technologies in the first two disruptions were instructional in nature. Instruction has not changed since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Sure, we almost certainly lecture more often today given the batch processing model of schooling we have now, but the lecture existed in one-room schoolhouses. If you were to observe a teacher from the 1780s working with a small group of students and a teacher from the 2010s working with a small group of students, the instruction would be very similar. The innovative technologies that caused the first two disruptions affected systems surrounding the classroom, but they did not change the instruction that occurs inside of the classroom. In other words, the instructional component of schooling was used to achieve a new purpose, but the component itself did not improve. Schooling was disrupted, but instruction was not.
Christensen believes, and I agree with him, that public schools in the United States will need new instructional technologies in order to fulfill both the new job of eliminating poverty and the old job of keeping the United States competitive. Christensen assumes that these new technologies will appear simply because schools have been disrupted and we need them. I am less optimistic.