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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Cage-Busting Leadership & the Halfway School Reform Agenda

By Rick Hess — February 13, 2013 3 min read
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I’ve little to say on the President’s SOTU last night, or on Sen. Rubio’s response. I found Obama’s remarks predictable and less than compelling (spend more on pre-K, dream up yet another iteration of Race to the Top, blah blah), and thought the same of Rubio’s hat-tip to school choice. The only interesting thing was the president again helping Common Core critics depict the whole endeavor as a federal power grab. Despite prohibitions on the feds getting involved in curricula, and repeated declarations from CCSSO and NGA that the Common Core is a voluntary, state-led exercise, Obama asserted, “Four years ago, we started Race to the Top--a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.” Whoops. That sure seems to make those who claim the Common Core’s not a federal exercise look like dimwits, liars, or apologists. Is the administration that tone deaf or arrogant? Or does the president have a soft spot for the Pioneer Institute?

Anyway, more interesting to me is that yesterday was the official launch date for my new book, Cage-Busting Leadership (available here; e-book version is available here). To wade into questions and explore the nature and challenges of cage-busting, I had the chance to host a discussion among five of my favorite people in the world of education. The lineup included DC chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhode Island state chief Deborah Gist, StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee, Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) superintendent Chris Barbic, and principal of Kingston High School in New York, Adrian Manuel. (You can watch the video here.) Before a packed house, they swapped stories, talked about the political and practical challenges, explained why cage-busting is not about “cage-fighting” (Gist) or being an “a#%hole” (Barbic), and illustrated how much leaders can do today while working constructively with their teams. In that high-powered company, Manuel may have been the breakout star--explaining how knowing his contract cold and focusing on problem solving made it much easier to effectively empower his teachers and students, to give teachers more professional staff time, and to provide new resources for students.

One of the themes that came through, repeatedly, was how to think about cage-busting leadership in the context of today’s “reform” debates. Often, advocates seem to imply that heavy-handed policies (on teacher evaluation, turnarounds, or charter schooling) are going to “fix” schools. Indeed, to talk about things like leadership, preparation programs, or practice is seen by many would-be reformers as a sign of squishiness or an unwillingness to tackle the “real” issues. The result is twofold. One, things that can and should be addressed in schools and systems wind up becoming fodder for policymaking--resulting in overly broad and inflexible measures, which stifle terrific schools and systems while encouraging compliance rather than than problem solving. Two, as Michelle Rhee eloquently noted yesterday, it’s a serious mistake for either supporters or critics to imagine that her advocacy for policy changes is intended to suggest that those changes will improve teaching and learning by themselves. The whole point of policy change, she insisted, is to alter the context in which educators operate--which means the second, crucial half of reform is what leaders do when presented with new opportunities.

On that score, I’ve penned two recent pieces that can help readers think about how to apply the intuitions of cage-busting. In a just-published Phi Delta Kappan piece, titled “Expanded learning, expansive teacher leadership”, Barnett Berry and I explain the kind of creative problem-solving and cage-busting thinking that’s necessary if schools are to take full advantage of extended learning time. And in an Education Next piece, titled “Combating the ‘culture of can’t’”, that was published a few days back, Whitney Downs and I talk about the role that advocates, funders, attorneys, and the rest can do to help school and system leaders reimagine what’s possible and find a way to turn those possibilities into reality.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.