Clayton Christensen presents Disrupting Class Book to Education Commission of the States

Video • July 2009 • By , Clayton Christensen

Christensen says: “Improvement requires states to make room for disruptive innovation in public education”

In July 2009, governors, legislators, and other state and local leaders interested in issues of state policy making in education gathered at the ECS National Forum on Education Policy. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Professor and author of Disrupting Class, told them: States have not managed well the evolution of the business model for public education. As a result, public education is expensive and is not necessarily meeting the needs of the people.

But improvement is possible if states make room for innovations in education, and do not let ideas that better meet the needs of the market get killed or co-opted because they don’t meet the needs of the existing model.


  • Business models are built around value propositions. That is, providing a product or service that helps people do what they’re trying to do to get a job done. So it’s important to understand what people are trying to accomplish. Education is not a “job.” Instead, it’s something we hire to help us accomplish the job. The job, for students, is that they want to feel successful and have fun with friends. To do this, students can just as easily hire other pursuits (not education related), such as gang membership or athletics. So when people question why students are not motivated or engaged, it’s important to consider that the trajectory of school improvement isn’t related to the job students are looking to schools to help them accomplish.
  • In education (as in other industries), competitors fight with each other to stay competitive, and costs increase. What drives costs down is disruptive decentralization of the industry, which is fostered by enabling lower cost venues to become more capable. We can’t ask for them to “become cheap” or to take pay cuts. That just won’t happen. In higher ed, private universities have centralized. Meanwhile, state and community colleges, and now online universities, have decentralized. They’ve brought the learning to the student, rather than the student to the learning.
  • Business models/units are designed to do a particular task well, and they do. They are not designed to evolve. Corporations (or in the case of education, states) can evolve/inspire disruptions by creating new units and eventually shutting the old ones down as the new models get better. If they do not, then innovation will be killed or co-opted because it does not meet the needs of the existing model.
  • States have not managed well the evolution of the business model for public education. Lack of creativity or new approaches to education is not the problem. The problem is trying to fit innovations inside models that were appropriate for the past. When states do this, innovations are made to meet the needs of the model rather than the needs of the market.
  • There are some intractable interdependencies in the way we teach. Since interdependent architectures are so expensive to customize, they drive teaching toward standardization. This bumps up against the reality that we all learn differently, which has the market screaming for customization. One of teachers’ value added skills is delivery of content. If we can deliver content using software, we could mediate this seemingly impossible conflict. All new technologies come into the market by targeting non-consumers in this way. And to get non-consumers’ interest, the product only has to be better than nothing. Then it gradually improves, and gets more market share.
  • Critics might question, “Why have we not realized the nations’ $60 billion investment to put computers in schools?” These computers aren’t being used to enhance customization and reduce expense. Instead they’ve been co-opted into the existing model of instruction. We’re only beginning to use them for customization. Currently 2% of students are using them in this way. But economic modeling demonstrates that in 2014, 10% of students will be doing so. And by 2019, 50% of students.

Note: Christensen also gave a similar speech in 2005.