How to keep the history of learner-centered education from repeating itself

Key point: This week, the Christensen Institute and Education Reimagined released a new paper on how value networks either help or hinder learner-centered models.

In the 1920s, an educator named Helen Parkhurst set out to create a new instructional model to correct shortcomings in the relatively new system of age-graded public schools. She drew inspiration from Maria Montessori and other “progressives” of her time, and many of the features of her model will look familiar to today’s advocates for personalized and learner-centered education. Here’s how education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban described Parkhurst’s model:

“Central to Parkhurst’s reforms were monthly contracts that teachers negotiated with students. These laid out both the minimum tasks the students had to complete and additional choices if students wanted to go beyond the basic content and skills. … Students were expected to revise unsatisfactory work until they mastered the content and completed the terms of the contract. … 

“Students moved at their own pace through academic courses in the mornings and then spent afternoons on other subjects such as art, music, or physical education. For each field of study they went to a room, renamed a laboratory, where the teacher and materials were located. When pupils completed the activities they had agreed to undertake for a given period of time, they moved to another laboratory. The plan encouraged students to work individually but also promoted group projects. No fifty-minute periods. No bells. No teachers lecturing or listening to students reciting lessons in large classes.”

Parkhurst’s model, named the Dalton Plan, had a noteworthy influence on K–12 education in the early part of the 20th Century. It was featured in popular magazines of the time such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post and gained traction in a cohort of schools across the country. Tyack and Cuban found survey data indicating that by 1930, 162 secondary schools had completely reorganized their schools to conform with the Dalton Plan and another 486 had introduced a modified version of the plan in their buildings. An undocumented number of elementary schools also worked to bring features of the Dalton Plan to their upper grades.

But despite popular interest in Parkhurst’s model and genuine efforts from a cohort of schools to put the model into practice, its staying power proved illusory. By 1949, the only school still operating after the Dalton Plan model was a private school founded by Parkhurst herself. 

Why do innovative models like Parkhurst’s find it so hard to gain real traction in the landscape of public K–12 education? My latest white paper offers insights on this question. “K–12 value networks: The hidden forces that help or hinder learner-centered education,” written in partnership with Education Reimagined, provides a new lens for both making sense of these failed efforts and identifying the necessary conditions to keep history from repeating itself. 

Why are some innovations hard to adopt?

Our new paper draws on Clayton Christensen’s work documenting the innovator’s dilemma: a pattern wherein established and well-resourced organizations fail routinely and systematically at adopting certain types of innovations. Prior to Christensen’s research, the innovator’s dilemma puzzled the business world because established organizations seemed to have more than enough capital, talent, and expertise to position themselves at the forefront of innovations in their industries. 

Christensen made sense of the innovator’s dilemma by developing the theory of disruptive innovation, grounded in a concept he called value networks. He defined value networks as “the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures input, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit.” As an organization figures out whom it will serve, with whom it will partner, what regulatory context it will operate in, and where it will get funding, those choices ultimately come to shape its priorities. Value networks determine what an organization must do to survive and thrive, and therefore which innovations the organization will pursue and which it will ignore or even resist.

The innovators’ dilemma in K–12 education

Schools aren’t that different from companies when it comes to the innovator’s dilemma. The entities in their value networks may be different—consisting of parents, employee unions, voters, and government regulatory agencies instead of customers, suppliers, and investors—but the influence of their value networks nonetheless make it hard for them to adopt certain types of innovations. (Learn more about this in my previous blog post here.)

This’s not to say that K–12 schools never innovate or change. Rather, the changes that scale and last, as David Cohen and Jal Mehta have documented, must be consistent with the values of the core educators, parents, and students they affect. In other words, established schools adopt innovations conducive to the demands of their value networks. Meanwhile, radical new approaches to education that don’t align with or appeal to a schools’ value network get passed over or relegated to niches. Thus, the pressures that come from an established value-network consistently scuttle efforts to shift conventional schools to learner-centered models.The pressures that come from a school or district’s established value-network consistently scuttle efforts to shift conventional schools to learner-centered models.CLICK TO TWEET

Our new paper details how value networks shape the priorities and innovation trajectories of K–12 schools. Its conclusions cast doubt on whether existing schools can adopt and sustain new educational models that make radical departures from conventions—such as curriculum focused on content coverage, classroom-based instruction, teacher-directed lessons, bell schedules, letter grades, seat time, and daily attendance. 

Yet, rather than deem new models impossible, the paper profiles five schools and programs—one district school, one district partner, two state-authorized schools, and one private school—that were able to launch and grow their models by assembling value networks congruent with their vision for learner-centered education. For example, these schools and programs sprang up within policy niches friendly to their priorities—such as policies supporting virtual schooling, competency-based education, or career and technical education. 

Additionally, these examples set up their programs to serve students and families that were themselves looking for solutions outside of mainstream schooling—such as chronically disengaged students, students pursuing interests outside of school, drop outs, and homeschool families. The latter part of the paper then offers concrete, strategic guidance for assembling value networks that align with learner-centered education and points out the actions that entrepreneurial leaders, district administrators, state regulators, teachers, philanthropy, and families can take to support new value networks.

What does it take to break the chains that bind K–12 education to the conventional grammar of schooling? The answers, as our new paper reveals, lie in understanding how the priorities of an organization are shaped by its value network.


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