Lessons for education from “Corporate America Hasn’t Been Disrupted”

I recently finished a trip to California that included time in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, meeting with a few of the organizations that are leading the way in “disrupting” education. Sometimes when spending time in the epicenter of disruption I wonder if the technophiles who live and work there realize that lots of people still catch cabs on the streets (instead of using Uber), listen to music on CDs (instead of Pandora), and choose restaurants based on familiarity or convenience (instead of using Yelp). Some of those antiquated people even go to chain restaurants!

I’m sure those Bay Area-based companies know exactly how many people are still using the non-digital or non-Internet versions of these types of services, because their success depends on it. But if you just look at the billboards going by on Highway 101 and overhear the random conversations at the local Peet’s Coffee, you might start to believe that elements of the pre-Internet world no longer exist.

But they do exist, and a recent fivethirtyeight article argues that although sometimes the disrupters win, more often the existing organizations survive and prosper. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they ignore technology, but that they often absorb the new technology or new start-up. Whether the new disruptive approach ever reaches scale with many consumers then depends on what the incumbent decides to do with it.

Corporate America Hasn’t Been Disrupted” makes the following points:

“By a wide range of measures, the advantages of incumbency in corporate America have never been greater…. established businesses have less and less to fear from would-be disruptors…the advantage enjoyed by incumbents, always substantial, has been growing in recent years.”

Certainly some of the points in the article don’t apply to education, because several arguments are specific to a for-profit, competitive environment. In part, for example, the discussion is about the drop-off in the number of start-up companies—an issue that does not appear to be a problem in education given the number of schools, charter management organizations, and education technology companies that appear to be developing.

But it’s a useful reminder that simply describing something as “disruptive” doesn’t mean the new thing—product, service, company, school, or instructional method—is going to be successful. For companies, incumbency entails broad and deep advantages that are a major curb on start-ups and change. In education, incumbency is tied to deep inertia in the form of existing organizational structures, laws, and regulatory frameworks, which slow and sometimes prevent change even when many reformers are working for it.

The use of digital content, technology platforms, and computers in schools is certainly growing. But the goal isn’t just that they are used—it’s that their use improves student opportunities and outcomes. A broad and quantifiable improvement in student outcomes would be a sign that disruption is taking place. That improvement in outcomes is visible in a few pockets—mostly in charter schools—but the disruption, as defined by a broad improvement in student outcomes, isn’t clear yet.