Reading & Reacting: Disruption – Silicon Valley’s Worst Buzzword

By Judith Shulevitz @ New Republic

Finally, there is a mainstream feature article that rubbishes the “disruptive” mantra as applied to alternative contexts, especially education. For a few years Clayton Christensen has been hawking his disruption and innovation business gobbledygook and how it applies in all walks of life. Perhaps it is being in the Boston area, with its proximity to Harvard, that makes the message seem more amplified but I doubt it. He and his cadre of acolyte co-writers are the current fashion but Judith Shulevitz excels at blowing up the idea when applied to schools and other potential fields.

Shulevitz highlights the inherent biases in Christensen’s ideas, upon which I will add some commentary. They represent techno-solutionism in the extreme, the worst kind of unrestrained free-market advocacy, and anti-democratic elitism.

Some of the best material of the article is dedicated to disruption in education as administered by the Broad Center, which churns out would be “innovator” superintendents from outside education.

But when Broad’s “change agents” move into the institutions they’ve been taught to shake up, as dozens have now done, we can see how disruption, well, disrupts—not just “the status quo,” but peoples’ lives. Teachers quit en masse or are fired. Nearby schools close, forcing students to travel to distant ones. School boards divide and bicker. Parents picket. Broad-affiliated superintendents all over the country—Atlanta; Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; Sumter, South Carolina—have resigned or been forced out after no-confidence votes, corruption or cheating scandals, or, in one case, the discovery of alleged irregularities with a doctorate degree.

This represents one area where a lot of the market-based, corporate edreforms have already taken root and continue to grow in education, administration. High level administrators no longer lead schools and districts for sustained lengths of time. They average five to six years, as of a 2006 study which seems on the high side. Principals come up even shorter, only lasting three to four years, from a 2010 study. Of course, it is difficult to argue against the fact that these jobs have changed significantly in the NCLB era. However, that kind of turnover is far more akin to the corporate world. It is definitely disruptive but without all the benefits promised by Christensen and his ilk.

I read and wrote a response to The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning from the Innosight Institute, a Harvard Business School think tank informed by Christensen and his repurposed theory in education Disrupting Class. Even then it was clear that his ideas might make sense in a business context, but they were nothing but self-promoting propaganda in an education one. here is a sample from my reaction to the aforementioned white paper.

While I will admit that I have not read Disrupting Class, although I have read a lot about it. Yet, after reading this white paper, I am a whole lot less likely to bother. Their brand of disruptive innovation seems exceptionally long on disruption and desperately short of innovation. In framing blended learning as the potential inoculation for revolutionizing education, they slog a lot of business-speak, the kind that seems to continually seep into every conversation about education reform. So they hard sell potential in the form of pace, productivity, and efficiency increases, which all sound remarkablly “factory-like” to me.

I guess on some level, I wonder why anyone expected anything different. These ideas are the product of the Harvard Business School, which may be exceptional at developing future corporate giants and entrepreneurs that can leverage every cent of productivity, efficiency, and value. Yet that paradigm and even the vocabulary doesn’t play in the intrinsically human-centered field of education.

I am just glad someone else took these ideas on and pointed out how poorly the apply in schools for children.

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