You are here


A Conversation on "Cage-Busting Leadership"

Managing Editor Angela Pascopella speaks with author Frederick M. Hess.

Recalling the myth of Sisyphus repeatedly pushing the same boulder up a mountain in his new book, author and educator Frederick M. Hess explains how the K12 education leadership is faltering, and how it can rise above. “Cage-Busting Leadership” (Harvard Education Press, February 2013) is a new book and consequently, a small, growing movement for educators trying to take a machete to administrative red tape and contracts that tend to paralyze district leaders from doing what’s best and right for the students. 

Hess, who is also director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, explains in the introduction how Sisyphus’ ‘mountain’ in schools can be seen in, for example, having to plead for funding or trying to slash routines that smother creative problem solving. Hess provides real examples of cagebusters making change now, and he believes that any administrator can and should bust out of their cages using such examples as evidence that moving beyond barriers is possible. 

District Administration’s Angela Pascopella recently spoke with Hess, who also serves as executive editor of Education Next, and as lead faculty member for the Rice EducationEntrepreneurship Program, to learn how leadership can take a different path in the years ahead. 

DA: You write about Steve Jobs and how he encouraged his employees to do things they never dreamed possible. Unlike the private sector, schools are beholden to laws and rules. Shouldn’t the system change before great change can occur? 

Hess: It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg type of reality. Folks in any organization, public and private, are beholden to rules and regulations. And how leaders approach their work is a functionof a mindset. Regarding mandatory class size laws, even if you think there’s a better way to configure students, laws are laws. But some of the ‘softer stuff,’ like what federal grants coordinators tell you what you are allowed to do, are much more malleable than leaders originally thought. Ask and figure out, ‘what is a smarter way to solve the problem?’ Tell the coordinator, ‘here is the problem I want to solve. Can you help me figure out how to do this in a way that’s permissable’ under the law and regulations? Then you open the door to he or she being a partner in solving the problem instead of the gatekeeper. And you are much more likely to get a constructive response.

You offer interesting tidbits about the challenges. Can you sum them up?

Hess: The first challenge is that we have a habit of not talking about what we want to solve for kids and how to solve it. We tend to talk in broad strokes. We want to fix schools, have better curriculum and raise math scores. But there is a lack of precision about the problem, and then we get a lack of precision around the solution. We say we need more time on task, and we need more instruction, and that turns into longer years, more days, more dollars, more staff. And then people say, ‘we don’t have more dollars, and we can’t give you an extra two weeks.’ Get more granular and ask, ‘how do we get more time on task for assessed math?’ Then the next barriers tend to be contractual and regulatory. ‘What’s permissible by state or federal statute, or district policy?’

And how would school leaders maneuver around typical contracts or laws?

Hess: When Adrian Manuel, a principal in Kingston, N.Y., was a principal in New York City a few years ago, he wanted teachers to work as teams to improve their practice. But teachers were prohibited from teaching more than three periods in a row and they couldn’t plan collaboratively. So he sat down with the union steward and said, ‘Teachers don’t get to work together, and if we could allow that, it would be a game changer. It would give them this time to discuss their practice. But their contract makesit physically impossible.’ They realized there was no way to give their colleagues the time to plan without asking people to teach four periods in a row. The teachers accepted the new schedule.

Part of the fun of cagebusting is that people can have those debates, but if a contract does not say you can’t do something, it’s not about philosophical debates, you’re allowed to do it.

More specifically, you mention superintendents who learned to work around collective bargaining agreements to gain positive change. How can leaders make CBAs work for them?

Hess: First, any leader who has not read their CBA is not fully prepared to do their job. It tells you what you are and are not allowed to do. Second, if you know operations in ways that are permissible, you can change the context of a conversation. When Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C. wanted to give raises to all principals, the administrative bargaining unit said that she couldn’t just give raises to principals. But she didn’t feel comfortable putting more money in the pockets of all administrators, given the limited resources in the district. She learned that, according to the contract, the D.C. chancellor is empowered to give raises up to $20,000 for any one person if they are at risk of being recruited away, and she did just that in the 2010-2011 school year.

It’s important to have the right people in place. You mention how former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Superintendent Peter Gorman had to hire and fire three human resources chiefs to get a quality person. Are there enough ‘quality people’ in K12? And if so, how do you find them?

Hess: There are about 6 million people in the K12 education space nationwide. There are a whole bunch in the middle [as far as greatness] and a few who are phenomenal and a few not so good ones. And more people aren’t great not because they aren’t competent, but because we created a system that encourages educators and administrators to focus more on compliance than on problem solving. Peter Gorman’s problem with human resources was about what HR does. It’s just about making sure you don’t run afoul of guidelines and policies.

A lot of this is about how education leaders start out as K12 teachers, and spend the better part of their career there. But in the private sector, energy traders and hospital executives are trained side by side and have exposure to different things. And most leaders have little opportunity to see how budgeting, accountability, personnel evaluation, or compensation are tackled in other, more dynamic sectors.

And it’s not so much about finding quality leaders, but preparing them to address compensation, staffng, and budgeting—not with the customary emphasis on compliance—but with an eye to cage-busting. Rice University’s Educational Entrepreneurship Program, for instance, prepares educators to be school leaders, but does so within the “professional” MBA track at its elite business school. This makes possible broad exposure that can serve would-be cage-busters well.

What about getting buy-in. You say it’s a tactic, not a credo. How should leaders address this?

Hess: There is an obligation and responsibility to have good lines of communications with stakeholders. If you get 60 to 80 or 90 percent of the people excited about what you do, you’re working downhill.

The guiding light of a cage-buster is to make sure we are promoting great teaching and learning, and figuring out how well you’re doing things that are important, like second languages, music, kids mastering AP classes, and reading at grade level. When you can use collaboration and teambuilding, that’s fabulous, and building strong cultures is part of what helps you do these things better.

But you must solve problems first. Peter Gorman had trouble getting principals to rigorously evaluate their teachers. So he started to take teachers who had been bumped and send them to schools where everyone had a positive evaluation. When the principals pushed back he said, ‘Now clearly, you can handle it because everyone at your school’s got a great evaluation. You’ve got time to work with them.’ The principals realized that taking the lazy way out impacted their school negatively, and so they started to take the evaluations seriously, and what happened was a new culture started to gel.

What about cage-busting as a movement, based on your book? What is that about?

Hess: The premise of “Cage-Busting Leadership” is simple. It istrue, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, it is also the case that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.

Cage-busting is not about picking fights, attacking unions, or firing people, and it does not give cage-busters license to wantonly alienate educators or community members. It empowers leaders, frees them from the iron grip of bureaucracy and routine, and helps them become savvy leaders of a public enterprise.

What impact do you want this book to have on K12 education and the leaders within?

Hess: I’m often surprised that folks are open to thinking like cage-busters. They’ve never been told it’s okay; they’ve never been shown what it looks like. I don’t think traditional leadership programs have given leaders all the tools to do this. There are huge numbers of leaders who are hungry for this and for whom cage-busting will be the how-to guide in instructional leadership, professional development, and differentiated instruction. You do cage-busting because it gives you more bang for your buck, more impact with teachers and much more time for faculty and kids.