Creative Destruction in Education

By 06/03/2011

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I don’t have time to write a post as long as the topic deserves, so let me just start a discussion by making a claim…

For the most part, organizations are incapable of innovating.  Most organizations are founded with a particular mission and method for pursuing that mission.  If circumstances require that the mission or method be changed, organizations generally can’t do it.  They’ll just keep doing what they were initially established to do until they can no longer continue operating.

Progress occurs not by turning around failing institutions, but by replacing those organizations with new ones that have a better mission and/or method. Of the original 500 companies included in the S&P 500 in 1957 only 74 (15%) exist today as independent companies.  In the private sector, innovation primarily occurs by replacing or fundamentally re-organizing organizations and not by “reforming” them.

And while U.S. real GDP has nearly quintupled since 1970, education achievement of 17 year-olds and high school graduation rates have remained basically unchanged over the same time period.  Perhaps the reason for progress in the economy but not in education stems from our willingness to allow new organizations to replace old ones in the private sector, but not in education.

Public school systems almost never close and the creation of new ones is highly constrained.  Plenty of our public schools are failing, but we almost never admit that they have failed and allow that organization to be replaced with new ones.

Let’s stop trying to fix Detroit, LA, or Chicago public schools.  Let’s let the reality of their failure become official.  They, like most organizations, cannot innovate.  They need to be replaced with new organizations with new missions and new methods of education.  That’s how we can reform schools — by replacing them.

– Jay P. Greene

Comment on this article
  • David D'Arrisso says:

    Then we should also replace governments, banks, libraries, hospitals, universities, all organizations that have proven that they can innovate and change, albeit slowly, through time…

    This has been a long debate in organizational theory, and both perspectives ( i.e. organizations always change to adapt vs. organizations can’t change and die), have long been replaced by new perspectives trying to explain why and how organizations can adapt and thrive or can’t and just disapear with time.

  • Peter Meyer says:


    Though I know the pace is not to your liking, don’t you think that the charter and voucher and online movements — and, of course, the private sector education world itself — are innovating creatively (and destructively)?

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Jay P. Greene leaves out that poor and African American students are getting a better education now than they did in the 1960s, according to the NAEP test.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    By emphasizing gains for sub-groups, Phillip Marlowe is acting as if race or poverty are immutable traits over time. The argument he is implicitly making is based on what is called Simpson’s Paradox, which I have addressed in an earlier post.

    Here is a taste (

    “If we want to know whether we are receiving returns on our enormous additional investment in education, we want to see progress in the overall picture. It would provide us with little comfort to see that our investments benefited some students but did not produce an aggregate gain — unless holding steady was actually a victory in the face of significantly more difficult to educate students.

    And that is the unstated argument behind the use of Simpson’s Paradox to explain the lack of educational progress: minority students are more difficult to educate and we have more of them, so holding steady is really a gain.

    The problem with this is that it only considers one dimension by which students may be more or less difficult to educate — race. And it assumes that race has the same educational implications over time. Unless one believes that minority students are more challenging because they are genetically different, which I do not imagine Bracey or Parry believe, we have to think about race/ethnicity differently over time as the host of social and economic factors that race represents changes. Being African-American in 1975 is very different from being African-American in 2008. (Was a black president even imaginable back then?) So, the challenges associated with educating minority students three decades ago were almost certainly different from the challenges today.

    If we want to see whether students are more difficult to educate over time, we’d have to consider more than just how many minority students we have. We’d have to consider a large set of social and economic variables, many of which are associated with race. Greg Forster and I did this in a report for the Manhattan Institute in which we tracked changes in 16 variables that are generally held to be related to the challenges that students bring to school. We found that 10 of those 16 factors have improved, so that we would expect students generally to be less difficult to educate. For example, we observed that students are significantly more likely to attend pre-school and come to the K-12 system with greater academic preparation. Expansions in higher educational opportunities have significantly improved the average level of parental education, which should contribute to student readiness for K-12. Median family incomes (adjusted for inflation) have improved and a smaller percentage of children live in poverty. Children are more likely to come to school with better health and there are fewer teen moms.

    Yes, some factors have made things more difficult. There are more students from homes in which English is not the first language and more children in single-parent households.

    And yes, there are more minority students, but those minority students have better incomes, better educated parents, more pre-school, and lower rates of crime in their communities. Unless one wants to make a genetic argument, it is obviously misleading to say that students in general are more difficult to educate because there are more minority students.

    But that is exactly what the purveyors of Simpson’s Paradox are doing. They focus only on race and act as if it were an immutable influence on academic performance. Many things have changed over the last few decades and most of them tend to make students better prepared for K-12 school. “

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