Monday, August 9, 2010


My new hard bound copy of Clayton Christensen, Curt Johnson and Michael Horn's Disrupting Class arrived the other day (It was signed by Curt Johnson. I won it by re-tweeting something from Education Evolving.)

The disruptive thing is intriguing and probably true in the instances they cite in the book, but they don't really offer much in the way of what their new school will look like except that it will be student-centric, and they'd like to see a new form of governance, which is to say that they'd like all schools to be private, or chartered, or TPPs, or 'new schools' of some kind.

Essentially, they're talking about wiping out public schools as we know them. In the future they're seeing, we'll be rid of those nasty teacher unions and the bloated bureaucracies that run public schools. All schools will be tailored to the aspirations and learning styles of all of the students.

As proof that this notion is to going happen the authors talk about various commercial innovations that have been disruptive technologies – the transistor, and … well, their examples are all in the book. I spent the first 18 years of my adult life in regional, national, and international ICT business markets doing sales, sales management and consulting; I learned about disruptive technologies. When I first starting selling telephone systems in competition with the mega monopoly of all monopolies in the 70s, there were businessmen (pretty much all men, then) who seriously thought I was doing something illegal. In fact, the Bell System spent a whole lot of money on lobbyists trying to make what I was doing at the time illegal. (My adventures in D.C. lobbying against the Bell 'advances' are a good story for another post.)

The divestiture of AT&T and the almost total dissolution of the CWA certainly qualify as disruptions of major purport ions. Some very intelligent people actually believed at the time that the telephone system was a true natural monopoly. Christensen et al are likening public education and the teacher unions to major corporations and their dependent unions. There are certainly similarities, but it's the differences that are important. Public education is not a single entity, never has been. The teacher unions, though politically powerful, are nothing like the CWA. The power of the teacher unions, and the thing that so irks their opponents, does not come from their collectivity; it comes from the fact that they're respected solid citizens in most every community in the country and they very closely mirror the primary political organization in those communities- the local school boards. And, yes, they're left leaning, but not nearly so much as many would have you believe.

The authors' vision won't leave intact the primary political organizations in the U.S. of A. Local school boards would not survive the kind of political and organizational disruption that is suggested in this book. AT&T's stockholders, for the most part, did very well, Thank You, after only a bit of anxiety. McKinsey and Co. and the Reagan administration greased the deal so that the only ones who took much of hit in the disruption were the members of the CWA. They got hit big time, and there really wasn't much they could do about it. The unions are the target in the author's vision; school boards will merely be collateral damage, which will leave our local communities scrambling even more than they are now to maintain a functional identity.

The unintended consequences of the kind of disruption that the authors promote has not been adequately thought through. If you think busing created a mess; they're talking about busing on steroids. Busing was an attempt to do part of what the authors think would be a good idea, except that busing kept the school boards mostly intact.

The authors are actually on the right track when they talk about software innovations and changes in assessment being the key to the future of education. The disrupting force that is already in process might even be bigger than the notion they promote. Teacher unions will surely need to change, but not in the ways that Horn, Johnson and Christensen think they should change.

The hardware and software already exists to make learning truly student centric, and make assessments individually relevant, and I think the authors already know that to be true, or certainly should. So why then are the authors are so insistent that no change will come to public education unless governance of schools and the governance of the teachers in the schools change? Might the authors be more interested in governance change than they are in actually improving teaching and learning. They want to shift the political power when that isn't even necessary, and I would argue, desirable.

What needs to change is attitudes and understanding. The education system needs to understand that the tools to make learning student centric are already available. Let's innovate the teaching and learning and not change the governance structure of our schools. Let's kick the big corporations out of our schools and let our local governance structures use the tools of education that are already freely available to them. What would happen if all of the money that is spent by the U.S. Department of Education was simply given to the local schools without strings attached? Do you trust the people you leave your kids with every day to know how to spend the money necessary to make that classroom all that it needs to be.

The unwieldy confusing testing system is not working because it's not being used for teaching and learning but as a tool to change the governance structure of public education. Let's assess individual student learning instead. Portfolios can replace testing, very quickly. Portfolio assessment will actually save the system a lot of time and money. Portfolio assessment will create the professional status for teachers that ED/Evolving is pushing as part of its current drive for political change . New and improved standardized testing, by definition, can't document student centric learning - portfolios will be the documentation of student centric learning. They already exist.

The administrations of our schools don't need to bother with wondering how to deploy literacy devices in classrooms (The authors talk a little about computers, but mostly they're focused on computers that are at least a decade old.) The administrations of our schools simply need to decide to let students use the literacy devices that are already deployed and owned by most students for teaching and learning instead of as distractions to teaching and learning. The disruption has already happened – the new void that was filled was the ability for everyone to be connected 24/7 to each other and to the increasingly vast archives of information. The job of administrations is to support teachers in learning how to teach with the literacy devices that are already in most of their students backpacks or on their shelves at home because they're outlawed at school.

Using open source learning management systems like Moodle puts the power to create individualized learning in the hands of teachers. It already exists, it's tested, it's available in almost a hundred languages, and it's free. Moodle will work with most of the literacy devices that students already own; teachers just need to be gently shown how to use it. Things will change, that's certain. Most of the change is going to happen, though, between the ears, as many a teacher has often said.


  1. Thanks for your post. The question of teacher unions, however, makes up very little of the book; as we make clear at the outset, we don't see them as the root cause for our schools struggles at all. Indeed, in general the book is very much written from the perspective that school districts themselves can make the needed disruptive changes, not that charter operators will or should be the disruptive force. The tools you cite in the last several paragraphs are indeed ones with the power to change the system toward a more student centric one; I don't believe there is disagreement there. The question is how this change is or is not likely to come about given the system in place from all sides of that word and from all political constituencies. The contribution we hoped to make was how public school leaders could make this innovation happen more predictably.

  2. Dan, thanks for the thoughtful post. You have my wheels turning about what true disruption of the system will look like and what might bring that about. Tom King wrote a great post today about the practice of Grading as a guest post on Shelly Terrell's blog Teacher reboot camp.