Friday, June 7, 2013

In education, "Disruptive Innovation" means new, worse schools

A couple of years ago Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the high priest of "disruptive innovation," was eagerly anticipating the rise of disruption in K-12 education, even suggesting that by 2019 "half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online." A more modest new white paper from Christensen's institute scales back these ambitious predictions, suggesting instead that what's coming is "hybrid" or "blended" innovation, in which novel methods will combine with elements of the old regime.  

Perhaps it's a good thing that the Christensen institute is realizing that traditional schools have more staying power than previously suspected. Still, the new paper is an occasion to reconsider the whole idea of "disruptive innovation." After looking into it a bit, I think that if Christensen's first idea was a bit extreme, his basic idea is partly right: we are getting disruption in our schools--but in a bad way, not a good way.

What is "disruptive innovation"?
The basic idea behind "disruptive innovation" is that the status quo is upended by doing something (making cars or steel, providing music or movies, etc.) somewhat more shoddily but also dramatically more cheaply or conveniently.  Clayton Christensen has made a career out of describing and glorifying this process, and it may be a useful way to think about a lot of things: the rise of the Japanese car-makers, for example, or of Netflix's streaming video business.  Christensen, and many others, have predicted that the education status quo will soon be upended by disruptive innovation, usually imagined as some form of online learning.  This may eventually happen, but there are some significant barriers to it, especially at the K-12 level.

Why disruptive innovation won't come naturally to K-12 education
Every year my alma mater's alumni magazine, which fancies itself a major force in journalism, publishes a list of 50 "disruptive companies"; this year, for the first time, an education company made the list.  Predictably, the company was Coursera, which provides free online college courses, and not a company involved in K-12 education, which is particularly resistant to change.

Disruptive innovation typically requires one or both of the following: (1) low-end consumers; (2) new producers who are doing things differently.  First, there has to be a market for the crappier product.  Often the untapped market is in a niche where the crappier product is more convenient, like cell-phone cameras, or where the old product was exclusively expensive, as when personal computers displaced mainframes.  In education, it is very clear that colleges and universities are ripe for disruptive innovation, since colleges are getting so expensive (to be sure, some of this is happening because states are defunding their own public universities).  As for the second requirement, producers who are doing things differently, higher ed. has always had a fair amount of "churn," or Schumpeterian creative destruction, and there are naturally, then, lots of groups working on doing things differently: Coursera, EdX, etc. But K-12 education is fairly different from higher ed, and is less naturally open to disruptive innovation.  K-12 education has not seen the same skyrocketing prices, it has a stable and in some sense captive consumer base, and doesn't have a significant sector of alternative producers to serve the (non-existent) low-end market.

It's interesting that K-12 education costs have been fairly stable. Despite Baumol's cost disease, which is supposed to lead things (like teachers) that are not amenable to technology improvements to become more expensive over time, teacher salaries have been pretty much flat since the early seventies; moreover, the cost of K-12 education has not, unlike that of higher ed or health care, increased as a share of GDP.  So the low-end market that is required for disruptive education is nonexistent; to create it will require political action. Another thing that would be required is a significant sector of producers who are doing things differently.  And in K-12 education, the only producers who are doing things differently are private operations (open schools like Sudbury Valley, homeschool operations like Calvert, etc.). In the traditional system, these private schools do not have access to the low-end market, which has been limited to public schools.

It's possible, then, to see Ed reform as a movement that is attempting to create the conditions for disruptive innovation by (1) creating a low-end market and (2) encouraging a new education sector that is, in Christensen's words, "remote from the mainstream."  Ed Reform is creating a low-end market by starving districts of funding, partly by channeling funds to charters; and this heavy support of charter schools and vouchers, etc., it aims both to increase the number of education providers who are doing things differently and to allow them access to the low-end market.

In other words, in education disruptive innovation may mean a race to the bottom for our poorest kids, even as the rich go to ever-more artisanal schools
The reformers want to open up the education market to low-cost producers.  This is a strategy that has not worked in any other country, and if the history of the free market in other products is any guide, even at its best we will end up with the poorest and most vulnerable children in our society being almost completely cut out.

The rich and powerful, on the other hand, will probably not send their kids to disruptively innovative schools.  Because when it comes to services and human experiences (food, coaching, nature experiences, opera, education, etc.), the rich and powerful very rarely use the products of disruptive innovation.  Rich people don't get take-out via their smartphones; they hire a personal chef.  For rich people, the trend is not toward disruptive innovation, but toward artisanal non-innovation, and the same will probably be continue to be true of schools for the rich.  More on that in another post.

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