By Thomas Arnett
If you’ve followed the K–12 education dialogue over the last decade, then you’re probably familiar with the term “disruptive innovation.” Edtech entrepreneurs and school choice advocates sometimes invoke it as an indomitable force that will redeem and transform broken school systems. Meanwhile, people on the other sides of these debates worry that “disruption” is a flawed yet rhetorically powerful narrative used to rationalize K–12 privatization. Somewhere in the middle are skeptics who give consideration to the idea, but wonder if disruption is an oversold term that is likely to underdeliver on its proponents’ promises.
So how do we make sense of the tumult of opinions? What is disruptive innovation and is it relevant in the current debates about K–12 education?
In the mid-1990s, Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe how large and well-resourced industry incumbents like U.S. Steel and RCA were toppled by upstarts like Nucor and Sony. Christensen’s 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, articulated a theory to explain this phenomenon and catapulted the term “disruptive innovation” into the popular business lexicon.