Tag Archives: Innovation

Disruption, Standardization, Diversification


Leslie Jacobs recently had an op-ed in the Times Pic: New Orleans Charter Schools are All the Same? Not True.

The title of the post makes her thesis clear: there are a lot of different types of charter schools in New Orleans. The whole piece is worth reading.

And Leslie is right. While quality remains uneven, New Orleans families have a diversity of school choices that has not exited in the city’s recent history.

This got me thinking about how the New Orleans charter sector developed.


Disruption often begins with start-ups catering to users that existing incumbents ignore. And while it’s probably a stretch to call New Orleans students who attended public schools before Katrina “non users” – our 50% dropout rate points to the fact that many students were barely being served.

This extreme dysfunction, coupled with a constitutional amendment and then a hurricane, ushered in a period of rapid new school development.

In roughly a ten year period, charter school market share grew from 5% to 95%.


Many of these start-ups quickly gravitated toward a set of successful practices that are common amongst high-perfoming public schools that serve students in poverty.

Roland Fryer wrote a paper – “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools” – that identifies five of these practices: high expectations, data-driven instruction, extended school day, small group tutoring, and frequent teacher feedback.

Many schools in New Orleans, with mixed success in execution, attempted to implement these practices.

Interestingly enough, decentralization led to standardization.


But then a couple of things happened.

First, schools began tinkering with the aforementioned five practices. To get the gains of small group tutoring, some schools implemented blended (computer based) learning; to ensure that high expectations were grounded in the reality, some schools developed community college partnerships for students that were not yet ready to thrive in a four year college environment.

Second, often because of family and student demand, schools began expanding their programmatic offerings to include aspects of schooling beyond the five practices. Bands, football teams, and language immersion programs spread all over the city.

Third, some entrepreneurs launched new school models to meet the unmet desires of families in the city. Within a couple year period, three schools opened with missions that explicitly incorporated student body socioeconomic diversity.

In short, innovation, competition, and entrepreneurship fueled the diversification of the charter sector.

Some Thoughts 

I don’t know if charter sectors in other cities will develop in a similar manner.

Unfortunately, I think too many charter school founders ignore the benefits of standardizing the five practices that Fryer identified. Or understand the benefits but are unable to execute the practices.

Additionally, for family demand to truly drive program development, choice needs to me a reality for all, not just a few.

So I guess time will tell if the New Orleans trajectory will be replicated in other cities.

But I think the disruption -> standardization -> diversification process has benefited New Orleans students greatly, even if the schools are not yet as good as we’d want them.

Status Makes Us All Stupid

A friend once told me what he felt to be an iron rule: “status makes you stupid.”

His point: once people get famous, the quality of their work goes down. I’ve often found this to be true.

Well, I’ll put forth a corollary to this rule: “status makes us all stupid.”

My point: the desire to seek status over actual learning hampers innovation in the field of education. This makes us all a little stupider by denying us access to potential innovative practices. 

Why does this occur?

Innovation comes from both the bottom (disruptive innovation beginning with low cost non-users) and the top (early adopters paying a lot of money for first wave technology and programs). 

I might be biased, but it seems that much of recent public education innovations has come from the disruptive side, with education reformers attempting to meet the needs of students stuck in failing urban school systems.

Less innovation has come from the wealthy end of the consumer spectrum. Elite private schools just don’t seem to be changing that much (at least from what I can tell from afar, if you know otherwise, let me know). 

Why is this?

Well, perhaps these schools are already delivering the near optimal education program.

I’m skeptical that this is true.

More likely: the wealthy are paying for status (and perhaps peer effects) more so than they are paying for educational programming. 

Schools respond when people pay for status: we get beautiful buildings, wonderful extracurriculars, and a lot of social events. 

Of course, these things don’t spread to all schools because they involve costly goods rather than innovations in instruction.

So instead of the wealthy subsidizing the early adoption of innovation, the reverse seems more likely true: it’s the practices of urban charter schools (Teach Like A Champion, Leveraged Leadership, blended learning, etc.) that will end up spreading to the suburbs. 

We would all be better off if innovation was occurring at both ends of the educational spectrum.

So hear’s my plea to the wealthy of the world: quit (mostly) seeking status and subsidize some education innovation.

We’ll all end up smarter if you do.