Disrupting Class: Chapter 2: Making the Shift: Schools Meet Society’s Needs



The case at the beginning of this chapter centers on the Chemistry teacher, Mr. Alvera, and his reflections about how school has changed since he first started teaching. As he increasingly hears comments about achievement, he wonders, “When did society start expecting schools to ensure achievement and not merely access to education?”

This chapter introduces the theory of disruptive innovation and begins to apply it to schools. In the business world, “disruptive innovations” contrast with “sustaining innovations.” Big companies generally (and rightly) try to improve the products they make for their best customers in order to make better profits by meeting these high-paying customer’s needs. This kind of innovation is a sustaining innovation. A disruptive innovation, on the other hand, does not serve current customers, but caters to “nonconsumers”–people who don’t have access to or use for the high-end products. Companies engaged in sustaining innovation generally don’t try to compete with disruptive innovations because their current clients don’t need what is being offered by these smaller companies. However, as disruptive innovations improve as they continue to do business with previous nonconsumers, they eventually become capable of doing many of the things the sustaining companies’ products could do.

The classic example of a disruptive innovation is the personal computer. Big companies in the early days of computing made big, expensive computers. When Apple began selling personal computers, they were originally marketed toward children. The Apple model IIe was not as good as the big mainframe computers, but children didn’t care because they were nonconsumers–they weren’t trying to use big computers to do the things big computers had always done. As Apple computers improved, however, they were eventually able to do the work of the big mainframes, and they were cheaper and had a more intuitive front-end interface. The personal computer killed the companies that were making mainframe computers, even though those companies had more resources and market penetration. Why? In part, because “they way product performance is defined in the disruptive market is antithetical to the sorts of improvements that are required to succeed in the original market. Making a better personal computer, for example, entailed making it smaller, cheaper, and easier to use. Making a better [mainframe] generally entailed making it bigger and more powerful” (p. 50-51).

So how does this apply to schools? The authors insist that public institutions do many of the same things as the businesses described above, with some important differences. First, the metric of success for schools (and other public institutions) isn’t profits, and second, government regulations often turn public institutions into virtual monopolies. In clarifying the imperfect analogy, the authors introduce the term “disruptive performance measures.” Schools, instead of competing against a separate company, have to compete with societal expectations about the role of schools–disruptive performance measures. Schools were originally intended to simply prepare students to participate in democratic civic life, but were then tasked with preparing everyone for vocations, and later asked to keep America globally competitive, and ultimately expected to eliminate poverty. Each of these disruptive performance measures did not substitute the earlier exception, but was added to it. “Society has asked schools to pursue the new metric of improvement from within the existing organization, which was designed to improve along the old performance metric” (p. 51). We hear repeatedly that, as opposed to popular belief, schools have generally improved over time–on the metrics by which they are judged. This tends to go unnoticed because society has repeatedly changed those metrics. The authors affirm that, unlike any private company, schools have managed to adjust to these “disruptive innovations” from within a structure designed for “sustaining innovations.” This gives them hope that schools will also be able to make the shift to student-centric learning.


Some really interesting stuff here. I enjoyed the brief glimpse into the history of public education in America. And there are some important questions embedded within that overview: What is the ultimate purpose of schools? What can we reasonably expect them to accomplish? What is the proper balance between depth and breadth?

The aspiring entrepreneur in me wondered who nonconsumers might be in the world of education. Could summer school be a disruptive innovation because it caters to nonconsumers?

Despite the cool stuff in this chapter, I found the shift from disruptive innovation to disruptive performance measure a bit awkward. And the discussion about the differences between public and private institutions made me wonder if we can really consider them analogous.

We’ll see how this pans out.


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