How Can Education Get Beyond Zero-Sum Schooling?

Frederick M. Hess
5 min readOct 21, 2022


Michael Horn is an interesting guy. I first met him maybe 15 years ago, after he co-authored the intriguing Disrupting Class. Since that time, he’s become a prominent voice on educational technology and school reform. He’s the co-founder and fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and (full disclosure) a fellow editor at Education Next. This summer, Michael published a timely new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, and I thought the new school year was a good time to chat with him about where we are and what’s ahead.

— Rick

Rick: So, what prompted you to write From Reopen to Reinvent?

Michael: I wrote it because of the COVID pandemic and the response I was seeing from schools on the ground. Many educators were crying out for a playbook that would help them transform schools, not just reopen them and fall back into the traditional routines and processes that weren’t working for the overwhelming majority of people in and connected to schools. The book came out of a podcast I started during the pandemic with Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit Public Schools, called Class Disrupted. The podcast was designed to help answer the big questions that parents and educators had on their minds about why our schooling system is the way it is. Our view was that the pandemic lifted the lid on education in America and opened many to the idea that school can work differently than it has for decades. We wanted to seize that opportunity for reinvention to benefit all students.

Rick: How can schools and communities make the pivot you talk about, from reopening to reinvention?

Michael: The book takes readers through a design agenda where we start by asking how educators can find the time and space to reinvent schools given all that is on their plates. Then, we question the purpose of schooling. I give my six-part answer in the book, but I also detail my perspective that each community should go through this exercise to come up with the right answer for them.

Rick: For readers familiar with your podcast or some of your earlier work, what might they find surprising?

Michael: First, this isn’t a book about disruptive innovation, nor is it really a book about technology, although that figures in. Second, I think people may be surprised that although I have some bold ideas in the book and am more prescriptive than I perhaps have been in past writing, my ultimate conclusion is that school leaders shouldn’t attempt to overthrow the system in one fell swoop. Incrementalism as they innovate will be a far better path forward than dramatic, radical strokes.

Rick: In your book, you mention “zero-sum schooling.” Can you say a bit about what you think might be a solution to this problem?

Michael: Our current zero-sum schooling system, in which for every winner there essentially has to be a loser, doesn’t work. To move beyond this, we’ll need to adopt things like mastery-based learning and co-teaching so students and teachers have a more robust web of support behind them — ceasing the practice of teachers grading their own students and implementing a more flexible and supportive system that helps parents make progress as well. This last item is important because parents send their children to schools for different reasons, and as we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, more parents are asserting their right to choose their child’s school. I left my research feeling like this all means we need to see schools make far more aggressive use of things like schools within schools, microschools, and learning pods to create a set of more robust choices for students and parents. Without that, schools will be left trying to be all things to all people. That thinking won’t carry the day. Any change we make is going to have to work for every single student, not just some. I left the writing of the book believing we can craft a positive-sum system in which the pie gets larger for everyone.

Rick: When it comes to reinvention, what are some of the big mistakes you’ve seen?

Michael: There are a few, but I’ll focus on just two. First, far too many people think that the answer to improving education lies in privileging one group that has been historically disadvantaged over others. No matter how well-intentioned a policy is, parents who see their students as being on the losing end of the change use their power to fight back and shuttle the reform. If you want change, you have to pitch and shape things in terms of the progress that each parent and student desires. That bleeds into a second big mistake: one-size-fits-all thinking. Too often, we assume that “best practices” mean they should apply to everyone or that every individual needs the same set of supports and experiences or sits in the same circumstances, when it’s just plainly not true. Having this mindset, however, creates a rigid response that isn’t responsive to the progress individuals need — and it provokes pushback.

Rick: What are some of the more promising developments during and after the pandemic?

Michael: The book has a lot of case studies of schools and districts getting it right. Whether it’s the Iron County school district in Utah creating the Launch High School, Kettle Moraine’s use of microschools (Wisconsin), or Lindsay Unified (California) using mastery-based learning, I think there are promising pockets of reinvention upon which schools can build. Those schools also had a clear curriculum which empowered students to keep learning and moving through the lessons, and it also allowed teachers to collaborate around that shared curriculum to ensure students were making progress.

Rick: What’s one piece of advice you have for educators as they try to pivot from reopening to reinvention?

Michael: Don’t force innovation on anyone. Don’t stop doing what you’ve always done on a dime — even when someone like Michael Horn tells you that it’s not working! Instead, hive off some educators from your core operations and give them the autonomy to create something innovative — something that improves student progress — that allows some subset of your families to opt in. And then if those educators succeed, build on that success by allowing more families to join the innovation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.



Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.