Monday, May 11, 2009

The Case for Charters, Part 4: Disruptive Innovation: Why Traditional Ed Is Ill-Suited For Change

This post is cross-posted at
<---Go To Part Three

In 2003, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen published a book called The Innovator's Dilema that eloquently explains how many good companies that produce good products fail. Christensen outlines two different types of innovation that have an effect on any industry: sustaining innovations and disruptive innovations.

Sustaining innovations are improvements in technology that enhance the quality of the product being offered. Disruptive innovations are innovations that result in alternative products that at first are inferior to the mainstream product but that, over time, and with the application of their own sustaining innovations, can develop into a better choice for the majority of customers.

Christensen gives the example of how discount retail stores such as Target, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart grew to overtake the department store. Before discount retail stores, most Americans shopped at such stores as Bloomingdales, Macy's, Marshal Fields, Yonkers, Dayton's. Today we see these companies dwindle, while we see the discount retailers thrive. The only company mentioned here that has survived in any appreciable way is Dayton's. Dayton's, at the early onset of discount retail, started Target as a subsidiary company. Target was allowed to run as its own separate company and in time grew to "eat the parent." In 2005 Dayton's was sold to Marshal Fields as a shell of a business leaving the Target Corporation effectively having "eaten the parent."

We see this scenario play out throughout nearly all industries. Today's newspapers are going through the same problem as they are losing subscribers to online news sources. The cell phone is making a significant dent in the telephone business as more and more customers find they don't really need their land lines. This saga goes on and on. In this vicious cycle, the only companies that survive are those who embrace change and allow the disruptive force to take over the company. Those who fight against it always fail or are marginalized. Christensen goes on to explain how large organizations are incapable of monumental change. That is why the only department store company to survive was Dayton's. Dayton's did not actually survive; its subsidiary did.



In 2007 Christensen applied this theory to education in his book, Disrupting Class. In that book, he identifies individualized learning plans and student-centered learning as the disruptive force on our horizon. He also speculates that online learning is one of the major vehicles that allow this to happen. However, there are other vehicles that carry this innovation. Homeschooling is by nature individualized and has always captured a small percentage of our population. Some private schools, such as the Sudbury schools, can be included in this category. Unschooling captures a fair share of this market. Finally, charter schools by nature are disruptive innovations (at least those that take a student-centered and customized approach to curriculum).

The question is, "Do we want our traditional school systems to be more like Macy's, Dayton's, or Wal-Mart?" If we don't embrace school choice options (including district-sponsored charter schools), we will see our traditional public schools dwindle the same way Macy's and company have seen systematic closures of their department stores. In their place will likely be "big box" charters like KIPP and Green Dot that have a similar effect in public education as Wal-Mart has in business. If our public school districts sponsor their own charter schools and allow them enough autonomy to be independent, we have a much better chance of weathering this storm and coming out relatively unscathed.

The changes that a charter school can make cannot be practically implemented in a traditional school system. These changes are systemic and massive. Large systems are designed to resist change. In many ways this is good, it prevents wild bad ideas from wreaking havoc on the system; but it also breeds complacency and reinforces the status quo. Yes, unions are part of this problem but so are school boards, taxpayers, and administrators. At a certain point we need to start building a new house. That doesn't mean we have to move into it right away.

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