The Dangers of Disruption in Education

Disruption has become a buzzword of sorts in education. It gets thrown around whenever there is dramatic change in a school or district. But rarely do we stop and ask “What does it truly mean?” “Where does the term comes from?” or  “What are the positive or negative effects in classrooms or communities?” Disruption is a term largely borrowed from economics and market theory. I personally don’t like applying market theory to education. It lends itself to the commodification of children, perceiving communities as markets, and turning families into consumers. In short, it dehumanizes the very personal and communal experience of teaching and learning. As a result, when disruption is applied to education it often has a very different and negative effect on students and communities than that seen in free market business.  I think disruption is an inappropriate model for innovation in education and argue for a different approach to innovation whereby we focus our efforts on sustainable and long-term focused policies.

Where Does the Idea of “Disruption” Come From?

In its modern usage, disruption stems from the concept of disruptive innovations formulated by Clayton Christenson, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Christenson argues that innovation creates new markets that, over time, disrupt the existing market. Email disrupted postal mail, making business more efficient; LEDs disrupted light bulbs, making energy more efficient. These cases illustrate that disruptive innovation has positive effects when it comes to markets for technology. However, there are major issues with disruptive innovation in education. Like any startup trying to etch out a place in the market, many educational enterprises touting innovation prioritize short-term gains over sustainability. That is, educational companies focus on achievement in assessments rather than a student’s long-term achievement and improved quality of life.

Disruption in Education

I first heard of disruptive innovation in education from Michael B. Horn, who co-authored Disrupting Class with Christenson. In his TED talk, Horn outlines his arguments for applying the concept of disruption to education.  He argues that traditional public schools are too antiquated to meet the modern needs of education, that they are monolithic and that they standardize teaching and testing at the expense of individual learning. Horn’s proposed “disruption” argues that the solution lies with blended learning. In its simplest form blended learning integrates online instruction with the classroom experience and provides students control over their learning experience.

I would not disagree with his points. However, there has been little in the way of reform that has addressed his concerns about the current state of public education, particularly with concern to the standardization of education. This includes the solutions put forth by Horn himself. The basic theory of blended learning sounds effective and progressive. Technology can certainly provide useful feedback to teachers, but without care it can turn into a dehumanizing experience where learning becomes a series of modules to be completed and misunderstandings are met with pre-programed variations in instruction. Technology is not a panacea for education.

Disruption in Tennessee

At the local level we’ve seen several cases of disruption run amok here in Tennessee, the most prominent example being the disastrous results of virtual charters run by K12 Inc.,a for-profit out-of-state company. And this isn’t limited to virtual schools; it’s starting to happen in brick-and-mortar schools, most notably with the California-based Rocketship Education. Rocketship advertises the blended learning modelof instruction proposed by Horn. Rocketship rotates students between computer-based lessons monitored by non-certified instructors and direct instruction led by certified teachers at a 30+ student-to-teacher ratio. While arguing their approach is cost effective, the charter company has come under fire in Nashville for its questionable business practices and its test scores, which since its decision to expand have dropped . It is also experiencing a steady decline in achievement that is directly correlated with its expansion, from 80.5% proficiency in ELA to 51.0% and 91.3% proficiency in Math to 76.7%.

This is a concern because reactions to disruption differ widely between business and education.  When a product fails to be innovative, the people don’t buy it and the product is simply taken off the market. When a business fails to evolve, the people shop elsewhere and the business closes down. In education, the situation is not so simple.  Schools are cornerstones of the community.  They are part of a neighborhood’s identity and the people’s heritage. While disruption may breath new life into a school, it may mark its death. The effect of this will ripple through the community.

I believe we will soon see continuous disruption in Tennessee given two recent legislative developments. First, we have the bill allowing for state authorization of charter schools. This state-appointed body will circumvent local control and authorize charters that have been denied by district school boards. The second allows for the revocation of charters for priority schools, or those in the bottom 5% of the state, that do not perform for two consecutive years. This affects many of the larger districts, but should have great consequence in the Achievement School District (ASD) and, soon, Shelby County’s I-Zone schools. While currently all schools in I-Zone are traditional public schools, it recently made the decision to mimic ASD’s use of charter schools. I-Zone has posted some of the highest gains in the state while the ASD has stumbled in its first year (calling into question who should be mimicking who).  With these two pieces of legislation, the worst-case scenario is a cycle of disruption in communities that truly require consistency and stability as decisions continue to be taken out of their hands.

An Alternative to Disruption

I argue for an alternative business model to disruption, known as sustaining innovation. It’s used predominantly to discuss the strategies of established enterprises seeking to remain current by evolving their services and products. Emphasizing sustainability, local school districts can provide innovative approaches to instruction that are intentional, results-oriented, and research-based. Local school districts should expand upon initiatives proven to increase not only students’ long-term achievement but also their quality of life. Some examples are Pre-K, instruction in the arts, early and persistent instruction on foreign languages, and participation in after-school programs and extra-curricular activities. Lastly, there can be a place for tech-based innovation such as blended learning, but it should enrich the classroom experience rather than disrupt it.  Unlike Horn and Christenson, I do not believe disruption is the appropriate approach to education; rather, we should strive to adopt reforms that address our problems with a focus on sustaining the changes into the long term.

By Ezra Howard

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