Arne Duncan's Disruptive Innovation

Americans love innovation. Such reverence we have for our start-up geniuses, rewarding them with vast fortunes and influence in matters beyond their ken.


Not for our babies. Developmental scientist Alison Gopnik refers to them as the “R&D department of the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers.” The role of adults: production and marketing. “Babies make the discoveries,” she has written, “and we implement them.” Yet we’re squashing this impulse so early.

This week, the Stanford Social Innovation Review posted to its digital edition an excerpt from “The Yin and Yang of Education Reform,” one of the “policy tales” in my book, Squandering America’s Future.  Arne Duncan, who recently resigned as U.S. Secretary of Education, is a major protagonist.

In 2013, amid growing protest against high-stakes testing, he’d launched a frontal assault on white suburban moms. “All of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” Duncan said, referring to the decline in test scores occasioned by the adoption of the Common Core Standards by a growing number of states.

Duncan’s glib assessment, rattling maternal sensibilities, helped secure his place as one of the villains in the annals of education reform.

But his relationship with the early childhood community was infinitely more complicated. For the outliers of the K-12 system, he was the tragic hero, conferring legitimacy and value. This is the man, after all, who had propelled the years from birth through five to the highest reaches of the federal policy agenda, promising a cool $10 billion for early learning, through his signature Race to the Top initiative.

Here’s his fatal flaw: Duncan zealously applied the process of disruptive innovation, a popular business strategy, to human development, learning, and teaching. He embraced the corporate model of competition, and the allure and money of technology.  He ruled by the benchmark, and worshipped big data. But as one Harvard Business School alumnus noted,  “children are not in any way similar to rebar steel or disk drives”—some of the notable examples studied by his professor, Clayton Christensen, a foremost proponent of disruptive innovation. “And we shouldn’t treat or imagine them to be so.”

Our former education chief ignored this advice. He also denied the innate drive toward mastery, natural powers of investigation, and creativity  present in all  kids—across socioeconomic, racial, and cultural groups. He put in place a regimen of high-stakes testing that has bred acute anxiety and despair in young children and parents, as well as early childhood teachers, partners in nurturing the next generation.

As I was doing research for my book, I came upon an article in Forbes, “Could Falling Test Scores Be a Good Thing?” The test scores in question—the bane of the education secretary’s existence—are those of America’s high schools students, whose competence in math, reading, and science is measured each year by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Each December, upon the scores’ release, the United States has a full-scale panic attack, watching the inexorable shift downward, a prosperous future slipping away.

The author cited Yong Zhao, author of World Class Learners, who had compared the PISA math scores with those of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which assesses the activities, aspirations, and attitudes of individuals in more than 50 countries, 23 of them PISA participants. Wouldn’t you know that Zhao found an inverse correlation between test scores and perceived entrepreneurial moxie? The top performers on the PISA tests—Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan—were hardly stellar on the innovation front.

Still, across the world, the leaders of developed nations are tearing their hair out in a quest to ensure preeminence. The United States starts early. Even the subconscious isn’t off limits. We now have Sleep’n Sync, a noninvasive, patent-pending product designed to “revolutionize a child’s outlook while they sleep.” For just 20 dollars a download or 36 for a CD/book, this series of audiotapes, based on principles of neuroscience, promises a multifaceted brain lift, alleviating the stress of bullying and test-taking, fostering flexibility, dispelling anger, and enhancing reading and communication skills.

Our madness may seem aberrant, but it’s merely a blip in the long history of education reform. “Tinkering toward Utopia,” as Stanford emeritus professors David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe the process in their book so named, is torturous. Citizen always “have sought to perfect the future by debating how to improve the young through education, they wrote, but “actual reforms in schools have rarely matched such aspirations.”

The legacy that Arne Duncan has left to America’s children is not one of equity and equality, but rather an erosion of their zest for learning, the source of their innovation.


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2 comments to Arne Duncan’s Disruptive Innovation

  • Clarence

    Interesting article. Points to the need to expand our theories of what is best for children and families as we move further into the 21st century. We need a system that embraces and incorporates all valid models of instruction and creativity. It is time for a paradigm shift.

  • Sleep’n Sync?! Good grief. I hadn’t heard of that one and don’t even want to imagine what’s next.

    I was in an airport last week when I read the news of the White House’s change in attitude toward testing and exclaimed out loud. How to explain to all the people who turned to look at me that a miracle had just occurred? It may be too little too late but it’s a long-awaited step in the right direction.

    Thanks for this article, Susan, and for all the wonderful work you do for the children.

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