Until recently I counted myself among those change-minded folks who believed that true change could be enacted (and must be at some level) enacted from within ‘the system.’ Amid the discussions of many homeschoolers and unschoolers, who believe that it is time to throw the whole system out, I have always argued that there has to be some people who stay within the system to push for change.

After making it halfway through Disrupting Class, I’m beginning to form a new point of view. What if it wasn’t about throwing out the baby with the bath water? What if it was about meeting the needs of those ‘non-consumers,’–the homeschoolers, the unschoolers, and any other learners for whom the current system as it stands does not work–and making this new way of learning so good and so effective that the ‘mainstream’ had no choice but to embrace it?

It’s already happening in the form of online schools and classes and in the huge number of people who have chosen to homeschool their children and have created networks of other homeschoolers. What about the fact that these families can now provide access to knowledge and information to their children that they previously could not due to the amazing learning opportunities (free MIT courses!) one can find on the Internet.

I have always been against throwing out the whole system, mostly because I’ve seen what happens when people completely disrupt students, teachers, families and communities through school closings and upheaval through throwing out what was done and imposing a new way of doing things.

However, if a new way of doing things becomes so irresistible and begins to play a part in the existing system, then there is a chance that this new way of doing things can become the way we do things without upheaval of families, students, teachers and communities.

Christensen and Horn use the metaphor of the Apple PC and the huge DEC Corporation to explain how this works. If DEC is the school system as it stands, then the online schools, unschooling, homeschooling trends are the Steve Jobs of education. Apple met the need of people who never consumed DEC products in the first place and then slowly took over the market.

What I do know is that I want the next step I take to be toward a disruptive model that will help fine-tune the new way we educate students in this country in the future.

What do you think? Change from within or change from without?


  1. Reply

    I hear what you’re saying, and I have not yet read that book, but I have concerns about the Apple/DEC metaphor and the implications for education. I happen to believe that a free public education is absolutely essential for the health and future of our country. (<a href="http://www.geraldaungst.com/blog/2010/12/why-we-still-need-public-education/&quot;)Here is a post I wrote a while back on the subject.) You may or may not agree with that, but if we accept that premise, then how do we ensure that the disruption caused by the non-consumers doesn’t result in a privatized system where only those with adequate means can participate? Apple products may be everywhere, but they are hardly in everyone’s hands. You only have one if you’re well-off enough to afford it. I do not want that to happen to the public schools.

    • Reply

      I’m with you, Gerald. However, I also empathize with those who choose the un-school route. The local politic still matters. My issue is that it has become so federalized and so deeply connected to larger corporations that the voice of the local community is often absent.

    • Reply

      Skyler, to be clear, I did not state that I believe we need the public schools as they exist today. I said I believe that we need free public education for all children. What that could/should look like in the 21st century is a matter for discussion and a great deal of work, and frankly I don’t claim to have all the answers on that.

      I’m curious about your comment that no schooling is better than public schooling. Do you have any evidence to support your assertion? Better for whom and in what way? Just because the existing structure does not work for all students (and I would argue that it does work for some) doesn’t necessarily mean that the only alternative is to abandon all structure and leave our families to fend for themselves.

      I applaud the parents who homeschool are dedicated to ensuring that their children have a rich, rewarding childhood filled with learning opportunities. If all parents were equally dedicated and capable of this, then we might not need public schools. Not all parents can or would invest so thoroughly, however, and I fear for the children who live in those families and the society that would result when those children became adults.

    • Reply

      I’m with Gerald in that “A free public education is absolutely essential.” The root of the issue I see is that of compulsion. If people were free to participate in the education they want for themselves – home based, self-taught, public school curriculum, library, cooperative, religious, private school, whatever – we’d have that essential need met more cohesively than we have today.

      But the compulsion to use public schools as the mainstream is a tremendous problem. I also haven’t read the book, but the DEC/Apple metaphor seems incorrect. This is no free market. A more apt technology/business metaphor may be the monopoly on telecommunications that AT&T had back in the day. You rented your phone from them, and paid your bill. You have no other choice. As a result, there was no call waiting, no phones for people with disabilities, no three way calling, no answering machines. No novelty phones, no cordless phones, etc. Why have we modeled education this way?

      • mbteach


        Two things for you gentlemen– 1) what would you tell the single parent who works two jobs that s/he must now find something for his or her child to do from 8am-4pm? Finding educational opportunities for children that aren’t in the shape of a single location as they currently exist are not easily navigated. This is why disruptive changes and growth that happens outside the existing paradigm that eventually forces it to change or become completely irrelevant works better than upending the whole system overnight. 2) I highly suggest you read the book. From your comment, Ralph, I can tell that I did a terrible job explaining the theory. It’s not about the open market, it’s about fitting a need that’s not being filled and then making it so good that the rest of us want it, too. Students who are getting highly-individualized and authentic learning experiences outside of the system are the minority, but who wouldn’t want that? Once the ability and method for providing these kinds of opportunities becomes easier, who wouldn’t want it?

        • Reply

          @MB, it reminds me of something Steve Jobs once said:

          Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

          Is there any reason that public schools can’t start–or at least attempt–to begin doing some of this? Anticipate the need and fill it.

  2. Reply

    Why do you think we need government schools to give people structure? Have you so little faith in the fact that people can take charge of their own learning? What if we gave the funding for learning back to the communities and trust them to make something wonderful of it? If we do we could have something like this http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2011/08/three-radical-ideas-to-reform-education.html

    I put my faith in the people before I put it in the government.

  3. Reply

    Lisa, what you are describing (local communities providing education) is public schooling, is it not? I do not believe in a national, federalized, standardized education system. But I do believe that every child in every community should have an equitable opportunity to learn. Don’t forget that in our country the government is the community. Does the community have any broader goals beyond just the self-interest of its individual citizens? Should it?

    • Mary Beth Hertz


      Lisa & Gerald you bring up valid points. I think communities should be trusted to know what’s best for their children. However, just because money would be given to the community instead of a ‘government school’ does not make the education these children receive less public. There is a difference, as you know, between public schooling and public education. I think public education *is* a great equalizer, just not in its current form.

    • Reply

      No Gerald,

      What I describe is NOT today’s public school. Today’s public school does not let communities decide what type of school they will have. Many schools are only saved for those who can afford it i.e. Democratic, Montessori, Regio Emila, etc. etc. etc. Government schools tether and control money. They rule with fear so much so that they demand the extraction of student data in many schools even if that means making a child sick. They demand their curriculum. They make school compulsory. These decisions are NOT left to the community. They are not in the best interest of the community. They are dictated by an overbearing government gone awry. A government who thinks accountability equates to irrelevant test scores which don’t mean crap in the real world. Real accountability would mean being accountable to prepare every child for a career or further education. Note: It would not force them down a college track into the whole student loan scheme. It would not force children to become compliant little sheep who are herded into rooms by force even though those students know this is not best for them. Unfortunately, those who speak up are often recommended for drug therapy to help them comply, sit still, do as their told.

      I’m at a loss as to why you and so many others equate giving children healthy environments chosen by the community with the absence of an equitable opportunity to learn. What we have now gives the rich wonderful choices and mandates those who can’t afford it into a sick and unhealthy curriculum that does little to prepare students for success in the world.

      • Reply

        Lisa, I think you misunderstood my point, and perhaps I should have used the phrase “public education” in place of “public schooling.” I would argue, though, that we aren’t as far from community schools/community-run education as you may think. Ultimately, our public schools are run by locally-elected boards of community members. Granted, state and federal governments have gotten involved, but aren’t some of those “interferences” positive? If not for federal laws, for example, it is entirely possible that special needs students would still be relegated to separate classes and schools.

        You say that our current system “gives the rich wonderful choices and mandates those who can’t afford it into a sick and unhealthy curriculum that does little to prepare students for success in the world.” This is, actually, precisely my argument for maintaining a public education system. Without it, I fear, the balance of power would shift even more radically in favor of the rich, who would do everything in their power to provide for their individual children. Those who can’t afford it now would be able to afford it even less without a larger societal commitment to educate all children.

  4. Reply

    I must agree, I don’t feel we can throw the baby out with the bath water. We as a society are too entrenched in doing things the way we’ve always done them and frankly the current system does work for some students/families/communities. Because the current system doesn’t work for ALL students/families/communities we do have other public options such as online schools and charter schools. (Not all charter schools are owned by for-profit companies in fact there are many non-profits who help charter schools get started; however, as non-profits they don’t have the funding like those large CMO’s to advertise so we just don’t hear about them)

    I think a paper written by the folks at Education Evolving has a great concept for what you are thinking about. E|E refers to the idea of two systems as the ‘split screen’ approach. This allows for the traditional system as well as a new system of various innovative models to both function as choices for students, families and communities.

    You can read a brief description and/or download the PDF at http://www.educationevolving.org/innovation-based-systemic-reform

  5. Christeil


    Your proposition has merit. There are incredible market forces at play and despite the horrors of privatization, education is a lucrative industry. It is wise to consider using market forces to bring about ‘good’ changes to education.

    However, you have to see that the so-called non-consumers and education reformers don’t have a common frame of reference. Schoolers have “system-centric” thinking and will always try to create an ideal system of education. Unschoolers/Homeschoolers have “child-centric” thinking and will always try to provide WHATEVER environment is best for their particular child(ren).

    As a “non-consumer,” I can confidently say that I would NEVER put the preservation or even improvement of a “system” over the specific and unique needs of my individual children. Can you meet my needs? If you can, you get my vote AND my money!

    • mbteach


      So, Chriseil, if more and more parents think like you, and districts lose enrollment, they will have to begin to question why. You as a ‘non-consumer’ would not have to sacrifice a thing. Your situation would continue to improve while districts will have to rethink the way they do things to stay relevant.

      • Christeil


        The public school system is not set up to question its own relevance – even in the face of attrition. It’s one of the reasons why corporations are so great at taking over public schools. I should note that I am NOT a fan of charters, and I am still unconvinced about vouchers. It’s the mechanism of the industry that intrigues me and gives your argument some legs in my book.

        I would love a good education system for the taxes I pay, but that is just not the case today. If the motivation for change (the kind that non-consumers have already taken upon themselves to bring about) comes from trying to make a profit, how can we turn that energy to the advantage of children? Dare we think of children as customers? Dare we consider making schools more like Disneyland so our kids wake up early, begging us to take them EVERY day?

        Who knows? If there is a place that my tax dollars can build that contains the same safe, opportunity-filled environment that I provide for my children, while respecting and nurturing their individuality, then I’ll be the first one there to sign up!

        • Reply

          Christeil, I have worked in the public schools for more than twenty years, and I can assure you most of the educators that I work with want nothing more than to provide the excellence you seek. I happen to know that Mary Beth is one of those teachers, too.

          As a school administrator, however, I have seen first hand that even within the local community, there are so many voices and conceptions (and preconceptions and misconceptions) about what is “best” for students that it is difficult to make quick progress. Most parents want what is best for their child–and for some, if that is at the expense of another child, so be it.

          Is the system flawed? Absolutely. Does it need significant overhaul? Definitely. Is there universal agreement about what that should look like? Not in the least. Keep in mind, too, that laws like No Child Left Behind were the result of the community expressing its opinion about how its tax dollars should be spent.

          • Christeil

            You lost me at, “I’ve worked in the public schools for more than twenty years…” 😉

            All those voices and conceptions? They are ALL right. If a parent wants what is best for their child that is a GOOD and wonderful thing! And YES…what may be great for one student may not work at all for another. That’s the point – and why home education works and schools don’t for non-consumers.

            You may *want* to deliver excellence for my children, but you ability to deliver that in practice is severely limited. However, you are asking all the right questions. Trying to accommodate “non-consumers” is one of the best questions reformers can ask themselves. Another would be why is progress so slow in public education when what is best for kids has already been figured out by the parents??

  6. Reply

    What’s being overlooked in all of this discussion is the nature of government-funded schooling, or the nature of government-funded services. Their incentives are not the same incentives as services that must satisfy consumer demands or go bankrupt. In fact, they are often the reverse, ie. the must satisfy administrative demands or lose funding. Government services that fail to meet “consumer” demands are prime candidates to receive MORE funding. Here’s a short article explaining the “7 deadly sins” of government-funded schooling: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=4178

    On a related noted, socialism fails, and government-funded schooling, all services, are forms of socialism. Here’s more on why it fails: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/featured/why-socialism-failed/

    • Reply

      In this sentence you are right “Their incentives are not the same incentives as services that must satisfy consumer demands” The rest is in my opinion are wrong.

      Government does the will of the people that can’t or shouldn’t be done by privately owned companies. It does so either because the task is such that it should be funded and overseen by the people instead of private individuals or because it cannot or should not be a money making venture and thus needs to be funded by the will of the people.

      Yes, I know you will discount this as simple Socialism, but it isn’t.

      Public schooling fills a need of the community that, at the moment, cannot be better fulfilled in alternative ways for the majority of the population. What Disrupting Class is saying is that for a minority of people there are now better alternatives. As those alternatives grow in sophistication (which they can because people are using them and providing feedback and money thus allowing them to evolve) they become a better alternative to public schools for more students. Eventually, These various alternatives will almost completely replace public schools.

      This does not mean they will be for profit or even private.

  7. alpa


    I see so many benefits of unschooling for individuals and families. However, it seems to me that education as a public good has positively affected American society. It is difficult for me to get my head around the idea of abandoning public services.

    So for example, if there were a neighborhood park that I perceived as dilapidated, would it be more beneficial to abandon it to start a park in my yard or should I gather other people who might use the
    pubic park and better it so that it benefits the whole community?

    Has anyone found a way to reconcile the idea of public education as the foundation of our democracy from the days of Thomas Jefferson to wanting the best for our own kids which may not be best served in today’s schools?

    And I suppose I can ask this question philosophically because I don’t have a school aged child right now ;-). Thanks for your thoughts or references!

    • Christeil


      Public education as we have it today did not originate in the days of Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson never went to public school and only had a few years of formal instruction. The model we have of public education today is only 150 years old and based on the education reforms of Horace Mann in the 1850s.

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