In his blog last week, my friend Michael Horn astutely noted that the American system of checks and balances means that elected officials are vulnerable to ouster if they too brazenly wield power tools to bring about education reform. He suggested that the most sustainable path for education reform is for politicians to pull off the juggling act of running the current system the way it has always been run while at the same time using the tool of separation to create space for disruptive innovations until they gain traction and grow organically.

I agree that the tool of separation is the most viable way to facilitate the disruption of the public-education system. Precisely because of this, I believe that the conciliatory, consensus-based politician is not the ideal protagonist to lead the charge in school reform. It will take a calculating, obstinate, power-wielding politician to stave off policy barriers long enough to allow disruptive innovation to force change in a seemingly unchangeable industry.

Consider the nature of the task. The leader will have to persuade the legislature to allocate resource to the innovative approach, even before the path to success for the innovation is well understood.  New-market disruptions almost never get the strategy right the first time (see The Innovator’s Solution, Chapter 8). Furthermore, the leader will need to convince regulatory bodies to grant nascent, disruptive models considerable autonomy, potentially outside the grasp of district governance and even charter law. Policymakers will need to offer this autonomy in a substantial enough way that the innovation can truly change the way schools do business, rather than end up being co-opted by and crammed into the traditional system.  Even if the new-market disruption does not make the incumbents feel threatened, regulatory and policy hurdles already in place in education pose a sizable, potentially fatal barrier. Disruption stands a much better chance if dogged elected officials are carving out space—one regulatory amendment at a time—so the new approach can get a start.

Perhaps most challenging, the leader will need to create an opportunity for the innovative approach to pass muster based on its results, not its processes, for the whole point is to reform the sickly and ineffective processes in the traditional system that are both expensive and  undermining to students.

Disruptive innovation theory holds that organizations cannot naturally disrupt themselves. Shrewd politicians at the top levels of government will need to pre-empt or break down existing ways of thinking about school governance to give ideas that can be genuinely transformative a chance to take hold.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.