Districts Disrupted
A senior fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute on transforming K-12 education through innovative technologies and the drive to overcome resistance
BY THOMAS L. ARNETT/School Administrator, October 2019

Tom Arnett (left), senior research fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute, with a student while observing blended-learning practices at Oakwood School in Morgan Hill, Calif.
If you could design the school system of the future, what would it look like? Wellness resources integrated with academic instruction? Individual learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths, needs and interests? Teacher teams that support students as both educators and advisers? Or something entirely different from this?

Unfortunately, transformative approaches to student-centered education are much easier to imagine than implement in elementary and secondary schooling. The work of transforming established schools and districts has a storied history — from Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools to New American Schools — with few examples showing sustained success at scale.

Why is it hard to transform a school system? It could be because school systems are victims of their histories. If you step back and look at any well-established organization, its structures reflect its story of survival and success. Every policy, practice and hierarchy emerged to solve a problem. Solutions that worked were repeated, improved and interwoven. Ideas that failed were pruned away. And thus, organizations, such as school districts, develop natural tendencies to pursue innovations that build on established practices and resist changes that drastically alter their well-worn formulas for success.

Compelling Alternatives
And yet, there’s a natural phenomenon to address this resistance to change: disruptive innovation. New organizations with new technologies and practices emerge at the margins. Initially, people see them as crummy compared to well-established models, but they offer other benefits such as access, customizability and affordability. Then over time, these new entrants go through their own process of problem solving and continuous improvement until they become compelling alternatives for the mainstream. Disruption then unfolds as people abandon the old in favor of the new.

In K-12 education, school systems are immune to whole-system disruption because youth in the U.S. already have free access to public schooling. Yet absent disruptive innovation, there seems to be no organic process for transforming robust yet rigid K-12 school systems into a new student-centered paradigm.

Instead, we continue to invest time, energy and dollars in piecemeal change management efforts that rarely deliver. Should school system leaders, therefore, throw up their hands and confine themselves with making only marginal improvements on the conventional system?

No, and there is another way.

The history of disruptive innovation includes a few rare stories in which established entities effectively disrupted themselves. With strategies torn from the “disrupt from within” playbook, school system leaders have an avenue to successfully launch, and eventually scale, transformative new approaches to student-centered learning from within their districts.

An Autonomous Unit
As mentioned, established systems are hard to change. Hence the first principle of internal disruption: Disruptive models need to emerge as new entities that operate independently of the processes, priorities and cost structures of their parent organizations.

Autonomy means more than just giving an existing school freedom from certain district policies and central-office decisions. Rather, it means launching a new program that can develop its own ways of working, unencumbered by the norms and assumptions of its parent organization.

When the Appleton Area School District in Appleton, Wis., wanted to offer a new online learning program to its 14,000 students, it didn’t create online courses through its existing schools. Instead, it authorized an instrumentality charter school, the Appleton eSchool, that would be funded and overseen by the school district but would have its own board, administration, staff and contracts with online resource vendors.

The eSchool, which opened for the 2002-03 school year, allows the district to expand its course catalog and give students access to courses that otherwise may not have fit into their schedules. Today, students enrolled full-time at the school district’s conventional campuses take a wide array of online courses through the eSchool — ranging from algebra and biology to forensic science and mythology.

As an instrumentality charter school, Appleton eSchool has flexibility with the conventional approaches to staffing and curriculum. For example, it can offer niche courses that only a few students are interested in and may arrange flexible part-time teaching positions that are more accommodating to some teachers’ life circumstances. Without that flexibility, eSchool’s offerings would be limited. (See related story.)

Targeting Nonconsumption
Along with autonomy, new programs need to start off with a focus on unmet needs.

Online learning opportunities at the Appleton eSchool in Appleton, Wis., allow students the flexibility to complete their work wherever they can take a device.

If a new program aims to provide learning opportunities that are already available elsewhere in the district, then students, families and staff will expect it to be at least as good as existing alternatives. Under this pressure, the new program will tend to replicate the characteristics of the established programs that work as a way to enhance and extend well-known practices, but not disrupt them.

On the other hand, when a program starts off providing students valuable learning experiences that are otherwise unavailable, it’s free from the pressure to conform to established models and practices. In disruptive innovation theory, these opportunities are called “areas of nonconsumption.” Nearly anything the new program offers to address non-consumption will be better than the alternative of nothing at all.

Prime nonconsumption opportunities often include homeschool students, medically homebound students, dropouts, students who are credit deficient, electives that conventional schools do not offer, career and technical education programs, work-study programs, alternative schools, after-school programs, preschool or summer school.

Addressing nonconsumption proved to be the key for successfully launching an innovative instructional program in Utah’s Salt Lake City School District. Kenneth Grover, the district’s director of secondary education, saw a huge need for new ways to support students whose academic progress was stalled by medical challenges, unaddressed learning disabilities, bullying, lethargy or other personal difficulties. Yet as Grover encouraged new practices, he faced a lot of pushback. Teachers at the district’s comprehensive high schools dug in their heels because the suggested teaching innovations added complexity to full work days. When Grover proposed creating a new school to implement these practices, other district stakeholders saw his idea as competitive to the existing comprehensive high schools.

The right opportunity finally arrived when the district built a new career and technical education center on a site adjoining a community college campus in Salt Lake City. From the district’s perspective, this program addressed the nonconsumption of CTE options at the conventional schools. For Grover, it was an opportunity to address lack of participation among students whose circumstances were leading them to drop out of conventional schools.

As the school district moved forward with its plans, Grover petitioned to become the principal at the new site. He then spent the following year visiting schools across the country and studying innovative ideas that might work better for the students he aimed to serve.

When Innovations Early College High School opened in 2012, its personalized approach diverged markedly from the common practices in the comprehensive high schools. Innovations had no bell schedules and no lectures. Instead, it leveraged blended learning, mastery-based progression, career and technical coursework, dual-enrollment options and high doses of student mentorship to meet the needs of disenfranchised students.

Students were not assigned to attend Innovations Early College High School. Instead, students from across the district opted to enroll because it addressed their particular learning needs. For many, this new approach to learning, while still unproven and under development, was far better than being outside the school system.

A student at Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, works on an animation project.
Vision and Drive
Many districts already have autonomous units for nonconsumers, such as alternative schools and credit recovery centers. Yet too often, their disruptive potential lies dormant. School and district leaders routinely frame these programs as just niche alternatives for particular student subpopulations, not as innovation incubators for transforming education.

But they don’t have to remain this way. School districts need to select leaders for these programs with the vision and drive to improve continuously. They need to be hungry to not just serve nonconsumers, but to improve the experiences and the educational outcomes of all students. Their ultimate goal should be to evolve their programs until they become attractive alternatives to conventional schooling.

Taylor Harper was this kind of visionary and driven leader for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev. When Harper first stepped into school administration in 2009 as the elementary principal at the district’s disciplinary school, she was heartbroken by the deplorable learning conditions she found. Discontent with the status quo, she made it her personal mission to turn the school around, which soon led to her taking responsibility for both the elementary and the high school disciplinary schools. As part of that work, she traveled the country looking for the best approaches for serving marginalized students. Through her visits elsewhere, she soon noticed a pattern: The schools that most impressed her were all Big Picture Learning schools.

In 2013, Harper saw an opportunity to bring the rich, real-world learning experiences of Big Picture Learning, a 25-year-old educational design company with a network of 65 schools across the country, to her district. That year, the district superintendent asked Harper to be a turnaround principal at Washoe High School, a small campus that was largely a dumping ground for the comprehensive high schools’ credit-deficient students. At the time, Washoe High School had a reputation as one of the worst schools in the state, with a graduation rate of just 8 percent. With steely determination, Harper worked to persuade the district’s leaders to let her set aside the usual approaches to school turnaround and instead make Washoe High School the first Big Picture Learning school in Nevada. With the adoption of Big Picture Learning, the school also rebranded itself as Innovations High School.

Over the last seven years, Harper has worked hard to retrain the school staff on how to implement Big Picture Learning’s instructional approaches. During that time, Innovation High School’s graduation rate has improved to 61 percent, and the school now outperforms the district averages on measures of students’ social and emotional well-being.

Increasingly, students from across the district come to enroll at Innovations High School because they want the flexibility, engaging learning experiences and caring environment it offers. Harper hopes interest in the school will continue to grow as she and her staff get better at facilitating engaging and rigorous learning experiences.

Managing Transformation
School districts need to take care in how they encourage break-the-mold programs to scale. Assigning students to programs or over-promoting participation can be detrimental to their overall success. If you push students into a program before it’s good enough to satisfy their needs, backlash can undermine years of progress. Instead, districts should allow students to opt into programs if and when it makes sense for them.

As break-the-mold programs improve over time, districts face a new challenge: how to scale what works without cannibalizing established schools. If these programs come in as competitors, carving away enrollments and funding from established schools, they are sure to face political pushback. Instead, district leadership needs to work proactively and creatively to set up new programs as partners with established schools.

As Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City continuously improved its program, word spread about the flexibility and support it offered its students. Within a few years, the school began attracting students who were otherwise successful in conventional schools and enrollment applications soon exceeded the school’s 400-student capacity. The school then began working with the district’s comprehensive high schools to create similar programs within some of their academic departments. With Innovations Early College High School serving as a model, the comprehensive high schools could see more clearly the value and feasibility of the school’s transformative practices.

When innovative programs start to attract mainstream students, consider having them scale through satellite sites co-located on the campuses of conventional schools. Satellites still need autonomous administration. Yet new programs and established schools alike can benefit from sharing facilities, staff and students as good-faith members of a common community.

THOMAS ARNETT is a senior research fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute in Lexington, Mass. Twitter: @ArnettTom

Additional Resources
Author Thomas Arnett suggests these books for learning more about using disruptive innovation to catalyze change:

» Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker

» Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson

» The Split Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education Into a Self-Improving System by Ted Kolderie