School & District Management Opinion

A ‘Disruptive’ Turnaround Vision

By Gisele Huff — August 20, 2009 5 min read

In spite of a woefully few success stories here and there, when you confront the daunting challenge of turning around 5,000 of America’s worst-performing schools, you have to think entirely outside the box. Here is a proposal to do just that, starting with 1,000 of these schools nationwide, and putting into practice some of the theories developed by Clayton Christensen in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

This plan is based on three premises: (1) that dramatic mission creep on one hand, and the dissolution of families and communities on the other, have made teaching impossibly difficult and beyond the skill set of average people; (2) that technology has made it possible to “commoditize” learning; and (3) that disruptive innovations that transform systems cannot be crammed into existing models.


The fundamental aspect of this plan is the creation of a proposed Twenty-First Century Schools Network. These schools would be entirely autonomous and not subject to state laws covering teacher certification, curriculum, seat time, class size, and so forth. They would be required only to meet safety and performance standards. The latter could be the new common standards now being proposed for use nationwide or those used by states such as California or Massachusetts, and would apply networkwide. The schools would be constituted like charters, but would not be subject to state regulatory restrictions.

The schools would be hybrid models that incorporated the use of technology as a central element of the learning experience. A range of such successful models from which to choose would be made available to the boards, principals, and faculty members of those schools. The schools would have to agree to collaborate with others in the network on curriculum and best practices.

Network schools would open in existing buildings, but with entirely new, specially trained teachers and leaders whose focus was on learning and who worked in tandem with software that delivers personalized instruction, appropriate intervention, and rigorous assessment.


Half the per-student cost would come from the federal government’s Title I traditional categorical spending augmented by the $3 billion School Improvement Program, and the other half would be contributed by the states. That leaves half the states’ average daily attendance funding to be allocated to districts to compensate them for releasing these schools to the network (minus any major facilities repairs required in any particular school). In addition, school districts would have the option of including the performance of these schools in their statistics, if they chose to do so, making this a win-win situation for all involved.

Based on the results obtained at the Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., and other virtual/hybrid models currently in operation, Twenty-First Century Schools would rapidly become self-sustaining, thereby freeing up funds for the next tranche of 1,000 worst schools.


At the present time, Teach For America gets many more applications than it has slots to fill. This is not only because it is costly to recruit and train its teachers, but also because the organization is running into budgetary challenges in cities like New York, where it has become more difficult to place TFAers. This applicant pool could be culled to staff Twenty-First Century Schools and those teachers trained for the hybrid model at an anticipated lower cost.

Teacher layoffs brought on by the same budgetary constraints are also resulting in a marked upsurge in applications to virtual schools, according to a recent article in eSchool News, providing another pool of experienced teachers.

Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, argues, in addition, that 70 percent of baby boom teachers “would stay engaged in education—as coaches and mentors in a collaborative learning culture.” That is precisely what the network envisioned would provide.

Principals could be recruited and trained from the ranks of current TFA teachers, principal-preparation organizations, and other fields. Running a Twenty-First Century School would be more attractive than running a traditional charter school for three reasons:

• There would be no facilities challenge, since the schools would take over existing buildings

• There would be no fundraising challenge, since the schools would be fully funded

• There would be the certainty of autonomy without interference from the state and district, since all regulations would be waived.

The Role of Foundations

A crucial element in this model is the establishment and support of an inspectorate to provide oversight for the Twenty-First Century Schools on a weekly or monthly basis. The oversight would not be prescriptive. Rather, the inspectorate would operate as an accrediting agency does, making sure that the school was fulfilling its mission on an ongoing basis.

In addition to being involved in this oversight function, foundations also would support the infrastructure for the network, to enable collaboration and the creation of a portal/filter to establish which successful models should be included. There would be no better place to test and refine innovative products than within this schools network, where the staffs would have both the training and the inclination to use technology routinely.

The reason for assigning such tasks to foundations is the network’s need for partners who are as objective as possible and operate outside the governmental structure. Since these schools would be located all over the country, it would even be possible to enlist the support of foundations that have regional constraints.

An added bonus of this plan would be the acceleration of the development and improvement of educational software, since providers would be assured of a market for their products on a competitive basis. Through the use of the network, participating schools would make their needs known, and solutions could be shared and evaluated as they became available.

Community Involvement

These exemplary schools would be touted in every community where they opened. Involvement by parents, students, and other members of the community would be sought and encouraged with a series of educational presentations about the hybrid model and a “Spruce Up Our School Day” where people pitched in to refurbish the building. This would happen simultaneously in all 1,000 schools, establishing their identity as a network. Priority would be given to the students already enrolled in the schools to be turned around, but if the seats could not be filled, admission would be made available to other children on a lottery basis.

Some may argue that this plan represents an experiment conducted at the detriment of the nation’s most disadvantaged children. But the opposite is true. This model promises to deliver a better, more consistent quality of education to children who have been shortchanged for decades—and to do that in spite of the human-capital challenges that make reform so problematic now.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as A ‘Disruptive’ Turnaround Vision


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