On November 2nd, 37 of the 100 Senate seats and all the House seats are up for election.  Despite the pro-education rhetoric across both parties, choosing the best candidates to fix America’s schools can feel perplexing. Here’s some Harvard-born theory to add teeth to your decision and impress your friends.

Professor Clayton Christensen’s tools of governance model, which Disrupting Class lays out, suggests the types of governance tools that best elicit cooperation among a group of people (this works for groups as small as families, to as big as Congress or the UN). The following are the model’s four quadrants:

  • When people agree on both what they want and how to get it, then culture tools facilitate cooperation. These include democracy, religion, folklore and tradition.
  • When a group agrees on what it wants, but not how to get it, a charismatic, visionary leader best inspires cooperation.
  • In situations where a group is willing to agree to a process but not outcomes, then management tools work best, such as measurements systems, standard operating procedures, and training.
  • Finally, when no one agrees about what to do or how to do it, then power tools are required. These include hiring and promotion, control systems and flat-out coercion.

If none of these tools works, then the final trump card is separation—dividing the conflicting parties into separate groups so they can each do it their own way.

Now to the midterm elections. Voters should consider what types of education projects are most important to them.  Are they projects that enjoy broad consensus among all stakeholders (e.g., administrators, parents, students, taxpayers, teachers unions, etc.) about what needs to be done and how to do it? If so, then electing a collaborative, consensus-type leader who will implement the popular vote will work. For example, my local school wants a Promethean board for its library. The community agrees both to this wish and to a fundraising process to realize it. The project is underway after only a simple, democratic PTA vote.

In many cases, the top concern may be for sustaining innovations to bring improvements to the current system. Better computers in classrooms, improved teacher training, organic school lunches—these types of sustaining improvements probably do not require power tools to get them done. Elect a skilled manager or charismatic leader, depending on the project, and approach the problem collaboratively.

On the other hand, for voters whose top concern is changing the fundamental way schools do business, the collaborative, compromising politician is not for them. They should vote for leaders who are comfortable amassing and wielding power tools to facilitate disruption. Such leaders must not view themselves as being responsible for specific schools in their jurisdiction, but rather for the successful education of all children in their congressional districts.

I personally am most excited about the few politicians who will stand up boldly to any entrenched interests that get in the way of allowing educators and entrepreneurs the flexibility and autonomy to try radical, new, student-centric approaches, subject  of course to specific outcome requirements (it is public money after all). I recognize that prying off the mandates and opening up the system sometimes require a strong arm.


  • 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.