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IDEA and Special Education: Disrupting the Disruption

Giving ‘Voice’ to Autism and Special Education Awareness

Now and then a word enters our vernacular only to become altered in its collective meaning. The word “bad” for instance, used to describe something unpleasant or disliked, yet, now it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Hey, that’s a bad jacket you’re wearing! Where do I get one?” The same holds true in academic and business circles; to call something “disruptive” more often than not indicates positive shakeup and change.

I had the pleasure to speak with Julia Freeland Fisher from the Christensen Institute to examine the effects of “disruptiveness” in education, and more specifically, special education, the field of autism and the recent unbundling of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I found her insight refreshingly clear and fascinating as she intelligently dissected the often convoluted world of unbundling.


Rod Berger: I think that your background working with the idea of “disruption” and focusing on its effects on innovation is very timely. There’s a lot talk about of the general concept of unbundling, IDEA, autism and the way in which we look at the world we’re in at this moment. We’re communicating the message out, and identifying what is truly disruptive and beneficial; then we share that narrative to garner more resources and attention. With that as the backdrop, I’d love to get your perspective on the progress of these campaigns. Are they disruptive? How do you look at it in terms of new media, the autism community, and unbundling IDEA and getting more resources and voices to the table?

Julia Freeland Fisher: Absolutely, thanks. Yes. I’ll start out with the basic definition of “Disruptive Innovation“ because the word gets bandied about so much. We really mean something very specific, which is a force, a market force that over time takes products that start off centralized, expensive, and difficult to use and makes them cheaper, much more widely accessible and foolproof. We’ve seen disruption happen over and over again in industries; whether it’s the computing industry, the car industry, or the education industry. The news industry is no different. Thinking of news broadly, how are people getting information? How people join public movements or campaigns has changed radically over the last half century. Information often used to exist in tight-knit social circles and communities or behind the pay walls of a newspaper. Now, we can reach people at the press of a button, much more easily and much more cheaply.

I think if you look at the growth of a campaign like Autism Speaks, like any number of basic human rights campaigns, we’re seeing that advocacy organizations can reach new audiences much more efficiently and effectively. Autism Speaks is one example of a group that successfully took advantage of a disruptive technology and a disruptive media strategy to reach more people. We can see the beginnings of how that conversation started to “unbundle.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that “unbundling” happens when a group of people or constituents are over-served. You can see it in the newspaper industry for example. Newspapers were very general technologies where you could get a whole number of things. You could get classified ads. You could get news; local news, and national news. You could get the TV listings or the sports schedule. And as we’ve seen media unbundle, it happens along those different parameters. It happens, depending on what people are trying to get done in their life. The powerful thing we’ve seen in the disability rights community is the formation of coalitions with particular causes around which they organize.

To your final question, that’s a bit of a cautionary tale, because as things unbundle, by definition, we see a fracturing of communities or interest groups. We can make them more powerful and focused, but it can also mean that we erect silos that the more general IDEA community may not have experienced before.

I think disruption is, again, a market force. It can be a force for good, but we also want to pay attention to unintended consequences when an industry or a group of constituents gets disrupted.


RB: Let’s talk a little bit about those unintended consequences with regard to collateral damage. Some disability rights organizations are better than others in capturing a wave or creating a wave and riding that wave to more funding, and more awareness. It makes others wonder, “What about other groups? Other associations?” You want everybody at the table. It almost creates a situation where the large organization in the room has the marketing, understands new media, and squeezes out the other folks, or draws attention from those small organizations that have relied on older forms of outreach and then cry foul and say, “Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. We shouldn’t be fragmenting services and resources. We should actually be looking at it collectively.”

Where do you stand on that? How can we improve that? Do you think that these other organizations should be modeling themselves after those that have done so well to get out into the mainstream media?

JFF: Yes, I think you’re getting at the attention that always arrives when we talk about innovation, particularly disruptive innovation. It is a theory of competition in which there are winners and losers. It is a market phenomenon. Organizations or causes that are better able to organize competitively around, frankly, what our lobbying process looks like, are able to come out on top.

When we look at any disruptive innovation, there’s a whole normative side of the conversation where public policy has a role to play. It’s where society has to decide, “what do we value and what kind of guardrails are we going to put in place that channel or mitigate the direction that disruption could take us in.” I’m not an expert in autism or even IDEA by any means; I’ll give an example from outside – if you look at the growth of online learning in public education, it could mean that we are simply going to digitize the old system. It would still be a disruption, but it wouldn’t be a disruption that helped kids learn more necessarily. It would be a disruption that drove down cost.

On the other hand, we could really see the growth of online learning unlocking individual learning pathways for every single student. But that’s a question of public policy. It’s not a question of where disruption is headed. We need to create policies that send the disruptive innovation in the direction we want.

In some ways, I’m avoiding the question, but I’m simply pointing out that society has to decide what the guardrails are for innovation. Innovations will grow in the way that demand shapes them. I think these campaigns have successfully tapped into latent demand among parents for solutions for their children. The question is, do we need public policies that try and level the playing field with more advocacy groups, and “lower incidents disability advocates” are able to compete on that playing field?

It seems like in education we often default to a zero-sum mentality. I wonder, to your point around coalition building, is this really a zero-sum game? Is a dollar spent on autism research, not a dollar spent on different research or different advocacy? This is our hope at the Christensen Institute. As personalized learning becomes the swan song of the 21st Century, we’re thinking about an education system that’s responsive to every student’s need. I think the pie may get bigger. I think we may be heading toward a system where dollars are not necessarily as scarce because we’re actually designing a system that’s trying to support each student regardless of the needs he brings to the table or the assets for that matter.


RB: Julia, let’s close with this; you’re included in a book that’s going to be coming out in early 2017 with Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin around unbundling of IDEA. I wonder about your perspective on being part of that conversation? Was it a nice surprise to be included in that discussion about disruption under the construct of IDEA and special needs education as opposed to exclusively technology where we’re seeing the word “disruption” all the time?

JFF: Yes. I’d say it was really refreshing, again, because disruptive innovation is the beginning of the story. It’s not the end. We need groups advocating for all sorts of students so that the disruptions we study around education technology, and new models of learning, are designed with those students in mind. It’s not an afterthought. I think looking at successful campaigns over time, like Autism Speaks gives us a clue from an advocacy perspective, as to how we can ensure all students are part of the story of disruptive innovation and education from the beginning.

I believe we have a real opportunity in front of us in education today and we do our best with the Christensen Institute. Again, we’re not experts in the field of IDEA or special education, but we think that if those folks aren’t part of the larger disruption conversation, we’re going to replicate the mistakes of the past century that left students with disabilities behind.

RB: You’ve got a very strong voice in this space and from my perspective it’s a welcome addition to the larger discussion about IDEA and its unbundling. It takes all these different people and groups to move things forward in a very positive manner so that these wonderful children get to experience all the innovations out there. Thank you once again, Julia.

JFF: Thank you so much.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research. Her team aims to transform monolithic, factory-model education systems into student-centered designs that educate every student successfully and enable each to realize his or her fullest potential.

Julia has published and spoken extensively on trends in the EdTech market, blended learning, competency-based education, and the future of schools. Julia’s writing has appeared in outlets including Education Next, Forbes,, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the New Hampshire Union Leader. Her recent white papers focus on how disruptive innovations are changing the education landscape. These include The educator’s dilemma: When and how schools should embrace poverty relief with Michael B. Horn, Schools and software: What’s now and what’s next with Alex Hernandez, and Blending toward competency: A closer look at blended learning in New Hampshire.

Julia’s current research focuses on emerging tools and practices that leverage technology to radically expand who students know – their stock of “social capital” – by enhancing their access to and ability to navigate new peer, mentor and professional networks.

Prior to joining the Institute, Julia worked at NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy organization that supports education entrepreneurs who are transforming public education. She also served as an instructor in the Yale College Seminar Program. Julia holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a JD from Yale Law School.

Follow Julia Freeland Fisher on Twitter

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About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit and in EdTechReview India.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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