• Cynthia Roy

The Truth About Disruptive Innovation

Updated: Oct 7, 2018

While businessmen push for "personalized learning," teachers remain critical of the agenda.

Dissatisfied with the state of public education, some look to businessmen, like Michael Horn of Innosight and the Clay Christensen Institute, for saving. But, educators know better than to let pro-market reformers hijack public education.

When Michael Horn confidently walks across the front of the room with his red tie and dark blue suit, speaking about transforming education through digital learning, we almost buy it. Almost.

Even though the failing public school rhetoric is hyperbolic, it is true that too many Americans are dissatisfied with public education. There exists a conflict between the institution’s traditional purposes and modern objectives (Cuban, 2015).

Technology has been used to make schooling slightly more engaging and efficient, but brick and mortar schools with classrooms of students at desks and teachers positioned at the center of instruction remains to be the dominant model. Like so many others, Stephen Gould of Lesley University, feels schools are structured so that learning happens only during a fixed time (Patterson, 2017). Certainly, flipped classrooms, for instance, bring learning beyond school walls and into homes and blended learning models, promoted by Michael Horn, like Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual, help educators differentiate instruction according to need and interest.

Technology does have the potential to transform the educational institution. Why are we critical of the push toward “personalized learning” and Disruptive Innovation, in particular?

Michael Horn of the think-tank the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, is a graduate of the Harvard Business School. In Edmentum’s Disrupting Class (2013), Horn makes a compelling argument for tech integration in schools. He is right: students do not all learn the same way or at the same pace. As mentioned, tech can be used to differentiate instruction. But, the patriotic suit loses us when he begins to speak about education as an industry, students in terms of consumers, and teenagers as “the low end of humanity,” even if he was just joking.

Horn and Christensen are pro-market ed reformers. Plenty of Americans believe schools should be run like businesses and attempts have been made to shift education from a public good to a private one. Wealthy white businessmen, like Horn and Christensen, not only believe in neoliberal ideology, but know that market based ed reform, or the “education industry,” is lucrative and profitable (Barkan, 2018).

Public education has been under attack since the 1980s when neoliberalism gained popularity in America. Choice, competition, and efficiency became political jargon of both Democrats and Republicans. School vouchers were en vogue and politicians across the spectrum called for greater accountability of our public schools, i.e. better test results. As the marketized system gained prestige, the commitment to racial desegregation declined. During this time, “highly segregated schools attended by low-income minority students were notoriously under-resourced compared to public schools attended by white middle-class and wealthy students.” By the 1990s, publicly funded, but privately managed charter schools emerged. The systematic defunding and attempt at corporate hijacking of public schools had begun (Barkan, 2018).

There are all sorts of ed reformers, including hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires. I consider myself an ed reformer, although I have deep respect for public education. I attended public schools and have taught in public schools for over a decade. I want to move away from what I believe is a miseducative model and I do promote progressive pedagogy and praxis. I do not, however, endorse corporate takeover. Free and decent education for all students which aims to preserve civic and moral values is the bedrock of democracy. Face to face communication is essential to our well being. I fear the day campuses become extinct and learning primarily happens in virtual communities.

According to the Clayton Christensen Institute (2013), a disruptive innovation pattern enables one to “predict when the disruptive technology will replace the established system.” Disruptive innovation is not as obvious a takeover as charter schools or vouchers. It is more subversive, as it takes “root outside of the traditional system” until it draws people away from the traditional system and is universally adopted (Arnett, 2014). Technology is a tool to enhance learning, but shouldn’t we be weary of embracing online-learning and technology marketed to us by businessmen, especially the Clayton Christensen Institute of Disruptive Learning?

Privatization is not the way to improve our schools. For instance, privately run charter schools serve small numbers of English Language Learners and students with disabilities (Ravitch, 2016) and, yet, data shows that only one percent of charters perform better than district schools by “miniscule” amounts (Barkan, 2018). Online learning or “personalized learning,”  “remains a largely unproven approach to teaching. Research has not shown that expensive technology helps improve learning” (Personalized Learning, 2018). If we become enamored by Horn’s pitch and fail to be critical, pro-marketers will transform the institution in a way that exacerbates inequalities, like we first saw in the 1980s. Markets do not create equity; rather, they reinforce power structures and inequality. In a marketized educational industry, high-needs students are liabilities and teachers are compensated based on performance, for instance. (If teachers even exist at all.)

Markets do not create equity; rather, they reinforce power structures and inequality

Thankfully, as the public becomes more informed about the impact vouchers and charter schools have on public education, supports for privatization decreases. “More than half of Americans supported charter schools until they learned that the funding is taken from district public schools” (Barkan, 2018). Thanks to teacher unions and civil rights organizations like the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), grassroots movements keep the people informed and billionaires, like Melinda and Bill Gates, and special interest groups from hijacking our schools.

We do need an “intellectual revolution,” regarding schooling in the 21st century, as Lesley University Dean, Jack Gillette, puts it (Disruptive Innovation, 2017). But, the intellectual revolution should involve our rethinking of the application of neoliberal philosophy to schools.

Our public schools are far from perfect and tech can be used to enhance and transform learning, but what sort of transformation do we want? We can’t let the one percent run our schools and Disruptive Innovation Theory transform our schools into competitive businesses. Educational leaders are the experts in the field, not economists. We must continue to #moveshakeeducate and protect public education from privatization.

Where do you stand on the privatization of public schools? Please share your thoughts below. This just might be the civil rights issue of our time.


Arnett, T. (2014). Why disruptive innovation matters to education. Clayton Christensen Institute.

Barkan, J. (2018, May 30). Analysis | What and who are fueling the movement to privatize public education - and why you should care. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/05/30/what-and-who-is-fueling-the-movement-to-privatize-public-education-and-why-you-should-care/?utm_term=.7e33b28be511

Cuban, L. (2015, March 25). Some thoughts about change, innovation, and watching paint dry [Blog post].

Disrupting Class - Part 3: Disruptive Innovation in Education. (2013, March 13). Retrieved September 20, 2018, from http://www.edmentum.com/resources/videos/disrupting-class-part-3-disruptive-innovation-education

Disruptive Innovation [Podcast]. (2017). Retrieved September 19, 2018, from https://soundcloud.com/susan_patterson/disruptive-innovation

Personalized Learning. (2018). Retrieved October 7, 2018, from https://massteacher.org/current-initiatives/personalized-learning

Ravitch, D. (2016). When Public Goes Private, as Trump Wants: What Happens? Retrieved September 20, 2018, from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/when-public-goes-private-as-trump-wants-what-happens/