The Danger of Creative Disruption as a School Reform Theory

According to The Economist, “Higher education suffers from Baumol’s disease—the tendency of costs to soar in labour-intensive sectors with stagnant productivity.  Whereas the prices of cars, computers and much else have fallen dramatically, universities, protected by public-sector funding and the premium employers place on degrees, have been able to charge ever more for the same device.”

Clayton Christensen’s business-school theory of creative disruption, adapted from Joseph Schumpeter’s 1942 economic theory of disruptive innovation, developed as a way to explain the role of technical innovation in the rise and fall of companies.  Christensen’s theory of creative disruption emanated from the Harvard Business School as the story of the tech companies that developed mainframe computers, floppy disks, compact discs, I-Phones, and apps.  Today the theory of creative disruption is also being prescribed in education as the cure for the supposed stagnation of the status quo.  And, suggests The Economist, the answer is clear for higher education. MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—will “offer students the chance to listen to star lecturers and get a degree for a fraction of the cost of attending a university.”

Jill Lepore’s recent and provocative  New Yorker essay, The Disruption Machine, asks us to examine some of the assumptions of those who promote creative disruption in the business schools and those who advocate applying theories of disruption for the sake of innovation to other areas of our common life.

Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University.  She writes: “Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature.  Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. Theories of history used to be supernatural: the divine ruled time; the hand of God, a special providence, lay behind the fall of each sparrow…  Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic.  It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.  Most big ideas have loud critics.  Not disruption.  Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change, and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”

Why does the idea of creative disruption matter to this blog that focuses on America’s roughly 90,000 public schools?  Well…  the theory of disruptive innovation is underneath lots of the ideas behind today’s so-called school reform. “Reforming” schools these days is about stirring things up—challenging what Arne Duncan derides as the status quo. Expanding the role of the marketplace in education, for example, is thought to leave decisions about which schools should stay open and which should close to the invisible hand of the chooser-parents who will go after the most innovative kind of education.  “Portfolio school reform theory” is about managing school districts like business portfolios by keeping the innovation and letting go the calcified past.  Close the so-called “failing” schools and open something new.  “Blended learning” has become the term for replacing some of the teachers with computers is a way to disrupt.

Here are just some of the questions we might ask ourselves:

  • Closing schools disrupts the lives of children and families and teachers and neighborhoods and communities. Is disruption, or stability which is disruption’s opposite, what is needed in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities where the majority of school closures are happening?
  • Are labor costs in colleges and universities and throughout K-12 public education really due to “low productivity in a labor-intensive field” as The Economist theorizes? Are there reasons why hiring well trained professionals to work personally with students is a good idea?  Has hiring professionals in a field like teaching become outmoded in an era of on-line capacity?
  • Is education defined, as in a MOOC, by listening to lectures?  If not, how do we define education and how does our definition affect what we are willing to pay?
  • The Economist theorizes that we must innovate with on-line instruction because in education, the public is no longer willing to pay the price to employ a mass of teachers.  Has our society in fact become unwilling to support a profession of teachers and college professors?  If that is true, what should we do about it?

The “portfolio theory of school reform,” promoted by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, incorporates the idea of creative disruption.  Robin Lake, director of the Center, recently visited Detroit, and is quoted in Saturday’s article in the Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools in Michigan.  Lake seems to agree with critics that the quality of charter schools in Detroit these days is very questionable, but she balks at questioning the concepts of innovation and creative disruption embedded in the portfolio school reform theory being promoted by the think tank she leads: “You don’t want to close off the door to innovation by saying everyone has to have a cookie-cutter approach.” “You’ll end up with the same public schools we’re trying to get away from.”

Even Lake seems troubled, however, by what she observes in Detroit, and she acknowledges the need for, perhaps, something other than disruption in Detroit’s schools:  “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.”  “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.”  Detroit has, she admits, “one of the most unregulated charter sectors I have seen.” “Most of these schools are doing nothing to change the life trajectory of Detroit’s children.”  “You can’t just open up the floodgates and expect that great things will happen for families.”

In her New Yorker essay, Lepore examines the extent to which our society has, without questioning its assumptions, permitted the the idea of creative disruption to invade our institutions : “Disruptive innovation as an explanation for how change happens is everywhere.  Ideas that come from business schools are exceptionally well marketed.  Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God in explanation and justification.  Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business.  People aren’t disk drives.  Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries… Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors.”

“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail.  It’s not more than that,” writes Lepore. “It doesn’t explain change.  It’s not a law of nature.  It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty.  Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity.”  I urge you to read Jill Lepore’s essay.