Disruptive Innovation Meets the American Education Crisis

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Disruptive Innovation Meets the American Education Crisis

The educational system in the United States has been in a state of perpetual reform throughout its history. Yet, most attempts to improve it have failed. Wholesale reform of public schools has been tried without general success. The establishment of charter schools has been touted with equally disappointing results. The computer was hailed as the salvation of the nation's schools, and yet its adoption has had no noticeable impact, either.

So, why aren't our schools producing world-class graduates? As George Will reminds us in a recent essay, even as far back as 1961, 43 percent of the classes being taken by high school students were nonacademic ones. Starting in 1962, teachers began organizing into unions, going out on strike, and receiving increased salaries, even as students' scores on standardized tests declined steadily. SAT scores peaked in 1964. By the late 1970s, most high school juniors did not know in which century the Civil War had taken place.

In 1994, Congress passed a resolution that by the year 2000, 90 percent of high school students would graduate and that the United States would become the world leader in math and science in its schools. But simply decreeing it did not make it happen.

Next, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind bill in 2002.1 Despite the best intentions, that only made the problem worse. The fact is that the school system is simply not capable of doing what that law demanded.

Given this dilemma, how can we fix it?

Clayton M. Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and best-selling author of The Innovator's Dilemma,2 has just published a new book called Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.3 In it, he makes five well-supported assertions that promise to change the way our educational system will work in the coming years.

First, none of the attempts at reform have ever been aimed at the root cause of the inability of students to learn, and the reformers have failed to comprehend the underlying reasons why the system functions as it does. Moreover, they have failed to understand how to introduce innovation into that system. However, based on new insights, Christensen argues, there is now an opportunity for change.

Second, studies of how innovation takes place in business reveal how education could also be innovatively transformed...

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