Education Reform is Not Disruptive Innovation

reformers, Jobs, Gekko,
Are education reformers like Steve Jobs (L) or more like movie character Gordon Gekko?

Education reformers love to strike a heroic pose as they refer to themselves as engaging in “disruptive innovation”. Thing is, that’s not what they are doing. It’s more like what corporate raiders did in the 1980s. 

Not heroic or brilliant

To hear much of the talk about education reform, one would think that reformers are the brightest and the best who are making heroic struggles to bring new kinds of innovative forms of education to the masses as dull, bureaucratic public schools work overtime to stop the innovators from embarrassing them.

But, the reality is this: Reformers are neither the heroic figures that they paint themselves to be, nor are they as brilliant as they imagine in education theory or practice, because most of them aren’t even educators in the first place. They don’t have any kind of previous education experience as a base for their innovation.

So what is this term “disruptive innovation”? Actually, in business and marketing circles, it is a legitimate term that refers to a necessary process of challenging old markets and creating new products.  Let’s look.

What is disruptive innovation?

Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and widely-read author, developed this term to refer to the process in markets where technological innovation disrupts existing markets that are on one course based on older technologies and existing customers.

The Wikipedia entry on this is helpful:

A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in a new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.

A quite large and involved article in disruptive innovation can be located HERE. An excerpt from that piece is helpful in providing examples of disruptive innovation:

…disruption is an ongoing force that is always at work-meaning that disruptors in one generation become disruptees later. The Ford Model T, for example, created the first massive wave of disruptive growth in automobiles. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda then created the next wave, and Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have now begun the third. AT&T’s wireline long distance business, which disrupted Western Union, is being disrupted by wireless long distance. Plastics makers such as Dow, DuPont, and General Electric continue to disrupt steel, even as their low end is being eaten away by suppliers of blended polyolefin plastics such as Himont.

All it takes is just a little reading to understand that the term as used in its legitimate way refers to the market processes that happen in the development of technology and technological products.

What jumps out when reading this material is that the term refers to those who already have deep knowledge and expertise in the existing technology and then develop new technologies further. They aren’t people who didn’t know anything about the technology to start with.

Examples of disruptive innovation

The two best-known examples of disruptive innovation are the development of the personal computer and the software to drive it by the founders of Apple and Microsoft.

In the discussion about education reform we should ask whether Jobs, Wozniak, and Gates were newcomers to technology and really knew nothing about it when they founded Apple and Microsoft.

They were not newcomers to the technology that was the base of their innovation.

Here is a good run-down on the backgrounds of the founders of Apple from Time Magazine:

Steve Jobs was a 21-year-old college dropout living with his parents in Los Altos, Calif, where he and two friends, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne, would hang out in the garage. For other trios, this would be the beginning of a rock band; but Jobs, “Woz” and Wayne had other things on their minds. Jobs and Wayne had both worked together at the gaming company, Atari, while Wozniak, 26, had worked for Hewlett-Packard. The three men incorporated Apple Computer on April 1, 1976. [boldface is mine]

So what about Bill Gates? Did he inject disruptive innovation as someone who just didn’t know anything about the technology that he was disrupting? No way.

Gates’ parents enrolled him in a prep school, Lakeside School, in Seattle when he was 13.  Very soon after his arrival, this happened:

While at Lakeside School, a Seattle computer company offered to provide computer time for the students. The Mother’s Club used proceeds from the school’s rummage sale to purchase a teletype terminal for students to use. Bill Gates became entranced with what a computer could do and spent much of his free time working on the terminal. He wrote a tic-tac-toe program in BASIC computer language that allowed users to play against the computer.

It was while at Lakeside School that Gates met Paul Allen who joined him in developing their first of many commercial software products, the “Traf-O-Data”, a computer program that measured traffic patterns in Seattle. At age 15, Gates had already earned his first money from software where that invention earned his partner and him $20,000.

Reformers as Education versions of Jobs and Gates?

With both of these examples it is clear that true disruptive innovation comes from those who know the current technology, and then creatively find new uses and even innovate new progressions from it.

So are education reformers the education versions of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates? Hardly.

The founders of the KIPP chain of charter schools spent only a few years in the middle school classroom before they left to form their own charter idea which is highly selective of which students they take and keep.

Many of the leaders of the all-corporate-charter New Orleans school district have never spent even one day teaching in a classroom.

Detroit corporate charters brought in to take over Detroit Public Schools are TFA graduates that have spent little if any time in the classroom.

Cami Andersen, the Superintendent of Newark Public Schools, taken over by order of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, is a graduate of Teach for America, and then a few years of experience.

See my articles on New Orleans, Detroit, and Newark for more extensive comments about what is going very wrong there.

In each of these cases, what is billed as “disruptive innovation” is not innovative at all except in the sense that corporate raiders of the 1980s and 1990s were innovative in how they destroyed the most productive and profitable parts of American industry.

What we see then is that education reformers are more like the character Gordon Geddo in the movie Wall Street than they are like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

“Disruption” without innovation

The real version of the fictional Gordon Gekko was none other than the Republican presidential candidate in the last election, Mitt Romney. Yes, Romney shows all signs of having been personally moral in terms of his loyalty to his wife and children, which is very different than the Gekko character in Wall Street.

But when it came to liquidating profitable, productive industry that had been built up over generations for the short-term gains of his firm, Bain Capital, he was every bit as ruthless.

I used this Obama campaign video in an earlier piece that warned about the dangers of investors who want to liquidate public schools, and it is helpful to this discussion as well.

Corporate raiders are not engaged in disruptive innovation at all. They are engaged in disruption for the sake of destruction and wealth-building at the expense of others.

Just as in the world of manufacturing, education reformers are pretending to bring value and innovation to education. But they don’t know how. They can’t know how.

Their real aim is to use any falsehood they can make stick, and make money at the expense of other people’s children.