Innovation is a broadly positive goal in education, as in other fields. Innovation often is – and should be – disruptive of old, dysfunctional ways. Advocates of Clayton Christensen’s (1997) influential theory of “disruptive innovation” have applied this idea, originally a business concept, across a broad range of fields, including education.
But in education, as in other fields, innovation should be beneficial – not just disruptive. Jill Lepore (2014), Christensen’s colleague at Harvard, cautions in a widely discussed article in the New Yorker:
Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box. . . . Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.
The semi-independent charter school model has brought many welcome new ideas to public education over the last two decades. But as with any other innovation, we must not uncritically accept that every charter school is excellent simply because it is new. Research shows that charters, on average, perform neither better nor worse than traditional public schools: autonomy, per se, has not increased quality overall. The quality of a school, whether charter or traditional, is based on inputs like good leadership, good curriculum, investment in good teaching, and adequate resources. The public has a right to make sure that public institutions make good use of public resources and comply with civil rights and other laws. Ensuring that public money is not misused, that public trust is not eroded, and that children’s futures are not sacrificed year after year in unexamined failed experiments is a far cry from defending the status quo.
AISR believes that just as we expect high standards for students, teachers, schools, and systems, we need standards for charter operators. State laws, charter authorizing standards, and resources for monitoring have not kept up with the explosive growth over the last two decades of the charter movement, which grew from a small set of schools meant to serve as innovation laboratories into a national industry with 2.5 million students, more than 6,000 schools, and a burgeoning market of management services, vendors, policy shops, and advocacy organizations. Our research (Dingerson & Daniel 2014) found that while many charter operators work hard to serve their students well, the lack of effective oversight has led to troubling concerns in others: uneven academic performance; practices that pushed or kept students out of charter schools; overly harsh discipline policies; funding patterns that destabilized traditional schools; and a lack of representative governance, transparency, and adequate oversight, leading to potential conflicts of interest, instances of fraud, and other problems.
We have proposed such a set of accountability standards in our recent report Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight (Dingerson & Daniel 2014). Many charter operators are already operating consistently with the standards and welcome a robust set of expectations and accountability mechanisms that help them showcase their areas of strong performance, identify where they can grow, and rebuild public trust and support for charter schools – and, more broadly, for public education.
An analogy can be made to the widely recognized role in the 2008 worldwide financial collapse played by innovations in financial services that were unregulated, out of the public eye, and driven solely by market incentives. A set of recommendations released in 2012 by the World Economic Forum (WEF), organizer of the annual Davos conferences and one of the most influential policy groups in the world, reveals some parallels with the charter standards we propose. Rethinking Financial Innovation: Reducing Negative Outcomes While Retaining the Benefits warns of the dangers of innovation without oversight:
While many academic studies have confirmed the benefits of financial innovation and its importance to the development of financial systems, there is no doubt that some innovations in financial services mutated from their original purpose and contributed to the crisis. Therein lies a conundrum: on the one hand, financial innovation is broadly beneficial and is needed to address many of society’s challenges; on the other, negative outcomes associated with financial innovation are too serious to ignore....
The project examined the innovation experiences of other, non-financial industries. Unsurprisingly, it found recurring patterns of success and occasional failure, and not only commercial failure but patterns of “negative outcomes” [including fatalities]. . . . Essentially every industry has some type of governance mechanism that attempts to channel innovation so that society as a whole can enjoy the benefits while exposure to negative outcomes is reduced.
The WEF project explored how to enhance financial innovation while reducing adverse consequences and better serving society’s needs and economic development. The report recommends measures whose intent is similar in many ways to the charter accountability standards we propose: strengthen oversight and monitoring of the industry, overhaul new product approval processes, re-evaluate the way risk is measured, redesign incentives, and increase transparency to consumers to regain customer trust and better align the bank’s or insurer’s interests with those of its customers.
The public has granted charter schools a space with a level of autonomy that allows them to test theories of practice and try different strategies, and that space has led to many successes. But autonomy does not exempt charters from the public’s right to expect the same accountability, transparency, democratic participation, and compliance with civil rights laws that we require of all public institutions. Robust accountability standards and policies would help ensure that charters are fully transparent and accountable to the communities they serve.
Christensen, Clayton. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Dingerson, Leigh, and Julia Daniel. 2014. Public Accountability for Charter Schools: Standards and Policy Recommendations for Effective Oversight. Providence, RI: Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Lepore, Jill. 2014. “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” New Yorker (June 23).
World Economic Forum and Oliver Wyman. 2012. Rethinking Financial Innovation: Reducing Negative Outcomes While Retaining the Benefits. Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum.
AISR director of community organizing and engagement Richard Gray reflects on the effect of the expansion of charters on the accountability and availability of high-quality schools for all children.
Q&A with Richard Gray, How can charter schools be improved?, Brown University 10/15/14