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Why Public Schools Struggle to Innovate

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By: Michael B. Horn

Why do public schools struggle to innovate?

It's not because they are public per se. Private schools struggle with certain kinds of innovation, too. Embracing new forms of blended learning or offering a lower-priced education have been difficult for independent schools, for example.

Public schools' struggles to innovate aren't unique to education either. Businesses struggle consistently with the innovator's dilemma--the ability to prioritize disruptive innovations that would cannibalize their existing business.

So why do all established organizations struggle with disruptive innovation or innovations that fundamentally challenge their status quo?

The reason is that as organizations come into being, they establish a business--or organizational--model comprised of four interdependent components. Organizations start with a value proposition--a product or service that helps customers or constituents do a job that have been trying to more effectively, conveniently and affordably than they otherwise could. To deliver on that value proposition, an organization assembles a set of resources--people, products, technologies, equipment, and facilities. As the organization repeatedly uses its resources to deliver its value proposition, processes, habitual ways of getting recurrent things done, coalesce. Much of culture lives in an organization's processes, or an organization's shared way of solving problems. This manifests itself in schools in everything from how they create their schedules to how students gain permission to go to the bathroom. And culture is by its nature really difficult to change. Soon a profit, or revenue, formula emerges as the organization follows these processes to use its resources to deliver the value proposition. Simply speaking, the revenue formula defines how much money the organization must bring in to break even and be sustainable. That in turn determines the kinds of value propositions that the business model can and cannot offer, which means that these four elements become interdependently locked very quickly.

These four components help define an organization's capabilities but also--and perhaps most importantly--what it is not capable of doing. Innovations that conform to the business model are readily adopted. Any innovation that doesn't is either rejected or the organization co-opts the innovation by forcing it to conform. When this happens, it means that the organization has lost the ability to respond to fundamental changes in its sector or market.

Traditional public school districts also have five added challenges to innovating.

1. Because district and political leadership can shift often, pursuing, refining, and staying the course with an innovation that will take some time to implement let alone perfect can be difficult. For political reasons, changes in leadership often mean the introduction of new initiatives. This means lack of continuity and often leads teachers to say, "This too shall pass" if we just keep our classroom door closed and go about business as usual. Non-profit charter schools with good and continuous leadership can have an advantage here.

2. In many cases, for political reasons school districts are unable to create a new and autonomous business model, but research shows that doing this is often critical to solving the innovator's dilemma.

3. Because there is little to no "nonconsumption" of schooling in America--meaning, nearly everyone has access to what appears to be a free schooling option--there is less room to innovate.

4. Historically communities have been unwilling to let schools fail because of how important their role is from a social perspective in the community, which has led to stratification in the schooling environment, as parents and communities have not been risk tolerant.

5. Public school districts serve an unusually high number of stakeholders with different jobs to be done in an intricately interdependent system. This makes it difficult for new innovations to be accepted without significant modification to meet the diverse needs of such a complicated ecosystem.

By the same token, public school districts do have a couple advantages in innovating that businesses do not. Political mandates or movements that are sticky and last can cause public schools to change or focus on certain kinds of innovation in ways that businesses struggle to. With new funding streams in particular, schools will chase willingly new ideas, as their customers--society and the government--are giving them clear incentives to do just that.

This is part of the reason that despite the constraints of existing organizations, over the longer haul, public schools have historically been surprisingly good at adapting to new societal needs. That ability to adapt is becoming increasingly challenged, however, as more and more needs are layered on to what is already a heavy load for schools to carry.

Don't miss our recent Google Hangout with Michael:

Michael B. Horn is the cofounder of and the executive director of the education practice at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. He is the coauthor of the award-winning Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

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