Sunday, June 9, 2013

If disruptive innovation is so great, how come the elite eat artisanal bread and cheese, drink artisanal wine and send their kids to artisanal schools?

Disruptive Innovation has been a big buzzword in business and tech circles for nearly two decades now, but it's only recently that people have started trying to apply it to education.  The basic idea is that in any industry, the established players are focused on incremental improvements, and that big changes only happen when new producers enter the arena, usually with a shoddier but cheaper product that they sell to a new, untapped market.  As I've written, this paradigm doesn't fit K-12 education very well, since there wouldn't seem to be a large untapped market available, and the market is fairly closed to new producers--but one way of seeing the Ed Reform movement is as an effort to open up the market, especially at the low end.

In a previous post, I argued that, seen in the light of disruptive innovation, ed reform was mainly about  serving poor kids with shoddier products that cost less money. In this post, I discuss the flip side of disruptive innovation: the way in which our era, which has been famously amenable to disruptive innovation, is also quite amenable to its opposite: conservative, traditional artisanal products.  These traditional artisanal products are not, however, aimed at the mass market, but at the high end.

The other problem with disruptive innovation: it's often not as good!
"Disruptive innovation" is discussed so much in the media that people tend to forget about the flip side of the shoddier/cheaper dynamic.  In recent decades, a lot of people have also done very well by making things somewhat less cheaply but also of dramatically higher quality. You might call this "artisanal non-innovation."  Especially among the elites in our society, and especially over the past few decades, as the rich have gotten richer and the wages of the bottom half have stagnated or fallen, there has been a movement back toward ultra-high-quality traditional products.  This has been true in education as well, and there is no reason to think this trend won't continue.

Artisanal non-innovation
Artisanal non-innovation means going against the grain of our mass market economy and, inspired by a tradition and learning from its masters, trying to do things the old-fashioned way and do them really, really well.  Artisanal non-innovation has been a fine business model both for those who don't need to grow (often family businesses, like Limmer boots)--and for those who do want to grow (Starbucks, for example).

Artisanal schools
Even as the powers that be promote "disruptive innovation" in education, nattering on about Baumol's disease and productivity, they are, of course, choosing artisanal schools for their own children. In New York City, private schools that used to be considered third-tier, schools that anyone with tuition could get into, are now seen as elite, and some of the elite schools are doing away with testing altogether. If they have to do test prep, they'll do it the old fashioned, artisanal way and get a tutor.

So it seems likely that what is coming in education, as in other areas, is a bifurcated America, in which the masses get sold lots of crappy test-prep products, and the elites, who cheerlead the crappiness of the crappy test-prep regime by calling it "disruptive innovation," will be choosing for their own children education that is ever more artisanal.

Other kinds of disruption
In other words, we public school teachers, parents and children will have this...

...and the elites will have this...

...until, perhaps, we get the more political kind of disruptive innovation that we haven't seen in this country for 80 years or so...

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