School Choice & Charters

Spinoffs From Traditional Schooling Seen as Vital to Reform

By Bess Keller — October 24, 2001 4 min read
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After more than two decades of only limited success, why is the national effort to radically improve public education largely confined to fixing the schools the country already has?

That’s the question that two longtime education-activists-turned-scholars turned over to a diverse group of policymakers, school reform advocates, and educators that they assembled here this month at Hamline University.

“Almost none of us is satisfied with the degree of progress,” organizer Joseph P. Graba, a senior fellow at the university’s Center for Policy Studies, told some 45 attendees. “We ought to try to broaden the discussion of school reform.”

Mr. Graba and Ted Kolderie, also a senior fellow at the policy center, believe there’s a better way. Rather than seek change within existing schools and districts, they argue, more reformers should focus on forging new publicly financed arrangements apart from those institutions.

What’s more, the two have hit on what they take to be a powerful bit of persuasion from an unlikely source: a business professor with a background heading a company making high-technology ceramic materials. The research of Harvard University business professor Clayton M. Christensen so impressed them that the Minnesota scholars made his presentation the centerpiece of the Oct. 9-10 meeting.

Rocking the Boat

Much of Mr. Christensen’s research has centered on the failures of established corporations when faced with raw new opportunities in the form of emerging technology. Mr. Graba and Mr. Kolderie believe that situation offers parallels to the one that state and local school systems now confront in “new schools"—the charter, alternative, home-based, and online public schools that have bloomed in the past decade or so.

Hope for substantial change lies with those kinds of education alternatives, the two believe.

“We’re trying to focus more on the infeasibility of just the do-it-from-within strategy,” explained Mr. Kolderie, who was instrumental in he passage of Minnesota’s 1991 charter school law, the first in the country. This month’s meeting was financed in part by the Ford Foundation’s Innovations in American Government Award, given for that pioneering work.

Addressing the Hamline group by means of videoconferencing, Mr. Christensen told them his research sprang from watching the Boston-based Digital Equipment Corp. collapse in the 1980s. The demise of the successful minicomputer company raised an obvious question: How could good management get bad so fast?

And, yet as Mr. Christensen looked around, he saw that many companies competing with DEC in the minicomputer business also “fell off the edge” as the microcomputer revolution hit its stride. That helped him incubate a theory that applied to other fields of endeavor, Mr. Christensen said.

The theory holds that bad management is not to blame for the failure of a successful corporation when a competing and initially inferior technology crops up. The problem is rather that managers have honed an organization so good at the old task—pleasing the company’s most demanding customers, who will pay the most—it cannot adapt to a new one.

Even applying superior resources such as highly competent people and deep pockets isn’t enough to harness the promising technology, maintains Mr. Christensen, the author of the 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

When corporations do meet the challenge of what Mr. Christensen terms a “disruptive technology,” it is because “they have formed some kind of separate organization to work with the new technology, even if it involved attacking the parent business,” the researcher said.

Start-Ups Can Thrive

For example, out of hundreds of department stores across the country, only Minneapolis-based Dayton-Hudson was able to profit from discount retailing, he said. It did so by establishing a wholly owned subsidiary, Target, and giving it a license to compete. Today, the one-time spinoff is the dominant partner.

“We came to feel we could say with confidence there is zero probability that an organization can succeed with a disruptive technology by trying to handle the response from within its established operation,” Mr. Christensen concluded.

Following the presentation, Mr. Graba and Mr. Kolderie asked participants to discuss using a “new schools” strategy to transform education.

Participants said they found the Christensen model interesting, though they were unsure what the right points of comparison between corporations and public school systems might be.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents, said at first blush he would not look to charter schools as the wedge for greater improvement because they replicate too much of what’s found in mainstream schools.

“I think the pressure on public schools is from home schooling,” he said, “because it’s personalizing education ... and changing the use of time, and those are fundamental differences from the assembly-line models of schools.”

Some participants came away convinced, as Mr. Graba and Mr. Kolderie had hoped, that they should plow more energy into the creation of new schools.

“It’s going to encourage me to think outside the box,” said state Rep. Alice Seagren, a Republican who chairs the K-12 education finance committee in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.

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