'Disruptive innovation' policies hurting state's children
Ohanian Comment: Wendy Lecker does excellent work (put her name into a 'search' on this site, and I own every book Jill Lepore has written.
As she notes, a quick buck -- not long-term consequences -- is the focus of disruptive innovation.
by Wendy Lecker
Education reformers love the notion of "disruptive innovation." Borrowed from the business world, the theory contends that rather than make incremental progress, industries must be shaken up. This idea has been embraced by the Obama and Malloy administrations, pushing "turnaounds" in which the administration and most or all of the staff of a school with low test scores is replaced -- often by a charter school management company.
Disruptive innovation was popularized by Clayton Christensen, who promoted its spread to other sectors, such as education. Christensen's theory was built on handpicked case studies he claimed proved that disruptors were successful and existing companies who could not adapt failed. In her recent New Yorker critique, historian Jill Lepore observes that the emphasis on innovation marks a fundamental shift in focus. "Replacing 'progress' with 'innovation' skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement."
Upon investigating Christensen's cases, Lepore found that his claim was untrue. The companies that focused on sustained improvements fared better and most of the time, disruptors disappeared. In the long run, incremental progress prevailed.
However, as Lepore also notes, a quick buck -- not long-term consequences -- is the focus of disruptive innovation. As one advocate advised, "if you start a business and it succeeds, sell it and take the cash. Don't look back."
Lepore writes that this discredited theory is misapplied to sectors such as public education because public education has different values and goals than those of business.
Indeed, this country's highest court deemed education the "most important state and local function;" and the loss of even a week of learning is a significant deprivation. Under our state constitution, Connecticut has a 13-year obligation to provide every child with an education that enables her to be a productive and responsible citizen and proceed to higher education.
However, educational reformers' goals diverge from their duties to our children. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from charter school promoters. The result is his embrace of "disruptive innovation" in education.
Disruption is bad for schools and for children -- especially for vulnerable children, who experience daily turbulence in their lives outside school. Teacher and administrator turnover hurts student achievement, as does student mobility. The turnaround strategy has proven unsuccessful.
Recent shocking developments involving Jumoke/FUSE charter school illustrate the harm caused by Malloy's "disruptive innovation."
Hartford's Milner elementary school was the first target of charter chain founder and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor's commissioner's network. The commissioner's network to "turnaround" struggling schools was a key feature of Malloy's 2012 education reform legislation.
Milner suffered from a chronic shortage in staff serving its large population of English Language Learners and students with disabilities. Its building required major repairs. The school also already underwent an unsuccessful redesign in 2008. Rather than provide Milner with necessary additional resources, Pryor announced a takeover of the school by Jumoke -- a charter school in Hartford with no ELL students and few students with disabilities.
Only after the takeover did Milner receive additional funding, including an annual $345,000 management fee to Jumoke. Curiously, after the takeover, roughly 20 percent of the students disappeared from the school.
Michael Sharpe promised that his "Jumoke model" would help Milner. However, after two years under Jumoke management, Milner's scores have dropped precipitously and are now "rock bottom." Hartford accuses Jumoke of nepotism, and of hiring an ex-convict. Sharpe admitted that there was no plan for Milner -- they were "winging it."
As part of the commissioner's network, Milner/Jumoke was supposed to be subject to heightened accountability by Pryor. Yet, despite this ongoing failure, since 2012, Pryor and the State Board of Education awarded Jumoke another commissioner's network school, Bridgeport's Dunbar elementary, and another charter school in New Haven.
This week, it was revealed that Sharpe falsified his academic credentials. Even worse, he spent several years in federal prison for embezzling public funds and conspiracy to commit fraud, and has two forgery convictions.
Sharpe has been paid about $53 million in taxpayer dollars in the past few years. It is unconscionable that neither Pryor nor Malloy bothered to discover Sharpe's lies or his felony convictions.
The damage done to Milner's children cannot be undone. They have lost years of learning. They are forced to build new relationships with staff that has been replaced twice in six years. Instead of necessary resources, the state has given these families only empty promises.
Unlike business disruptors, Malloy's failed education ventures will not disappear. His callous "disruptive" education policies cause lasting damage to Connecticut's children and their communities.
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center.