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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

By Rick Hess — February 29, 2012 4 min read
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As some readers may know, I’m well along on my next book. Tentatively titled Cage-Busting Leadership, it’s due to Harvard Ed Press in July and you can expect to see it out early next year.

The title may be a bit weird, but the premise is simple: I believe that two things are true. It is true, 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. At the same time, however, it is also true that these leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.

The problem is that in selecting, training, socializing, and mentoring leaders (and their teams), we have generally not equipped them for this work. You only need to talk to school and system leaders or board members; examine education leadership programs; or read texts by edu-leadership icons like Sergiovanni, Fullan, Bolman, Deal, and Leithwood to understand that leaders are expected to succeed via culture, capacity-building, coaching, and consensus--no matter the obstacles in their way. Let me be real clear: these are all good things. Instructional leadership, a strong culture, stakeholder buy-in, team cohesion, and professional practice are all terrific. The mistake is to imagine that leaders can do these things successfully or sustainably without also diligently taking steps to escape the cage created by regulations, rules, and routines (or combating the myths, excuses, and confusion that surround these).

Meanwhile, the sloganeering, crude policy proposals, and anti-union broadsides of the “reformers” often fail to address real chokepoints--even as they excuse timid, lethargic leadership by blaming everything on “the union.” Even energetic leaders seen as exemplars are often long on passion, commitment, charisma, and hard work, but are ultimately tripped up by a dearth of smart strategies for escaping the cage. They do good things, but mostly by stacking new dollars atop old, while much of their handiwork evaporates when they move on. We wind up with much happy talk about the need for better “human capital” and accountability, or more time and money and technology, but remarkably little exploration of how schools and systems might use time, talent, and technology in smarter, more cost-effective ways.

A great example of how this plays out involves today’s efforts to boost teacher quality. We hear a lot about what leaders can’t do when it comes to staffing, incentive pay, dismissals, and the rest. Yet, while much of this is valid, it’s also the case that these leaders can do a lot more than sometimes thought. For example, when John Deasy, now superintendent of Los Angeles, was superintendent of Prince George’s County, Maryland, he transferred hundreds of teachers to new schools and initiated a pay-for-performance system despite the traditional belief that these moves were prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). When asked how this was possible, Deasy would smile. “Nothing prohibited any of this,” he said. “Why does it not happen? [Because] most people see the contract as a steel box. It’s not. It’s a steel floor with no boundaries around it. You’ve just got to push and push and push.”

Deasy is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, after studying Massachusetts collective bargaining agreements, Vanderbilt professor Dale Ballou observed, “On virtually every issue of personnel policy, there are contracts that grant administrators the managerial prerogatives they are commonly thought to lack. When more flexible language is negotiated, administrators do not take advantage of it [but still] blame the contract for their own inaction.” Even charter schools, supposedly free from the “system’s” surly bonds, are often voluntary cage-dwellers. In his recent study of charter school CBAs, Washington University researcher Mitch Price concluded that charters are “not as innovative as they might be” when it comes to areas like evaluation, staffing, and compensation, “given the opportunity teachers and school leaders have to craft agreements from scratch.”

As I travel the country, I inevitably hear from folks that have both kinds of stories--horror stories about getting caged in by rules, regulations, policies, and statutes, and cage-busting stories from leaders who found ways to escape or explode those constraints. In addition, my colleague Whitney Downs and I have interviewed school and system leaders, district administrators, educators, board members, consultants, attorneys, business partners, vendors, and state chiefs.

But, and here’s where you come in, we know that even our best efforts are missing a wealth of insight, experience, and expertise. So, I’d love to hear any tales that readers would care to share.

The stories that will be most useful (and most likely to inform the book) are those that illustrate either:
A] the ways in which you’ve been hemmed in by federal/state laws or regulations, district policies, employee contracts, IT/HR/finance operations, established routines, or stagnant cultures, or
B] the ways in which you, or your colleagues, have found ways to escape or explode those constraints.

If you’d care to share, please feel free to post it as a comment or to share it directly with Whitney at whitney.downs@aei.org. (Of course, we won’t use any material without your permission; and it’s perfectly fine to share something with us on background--with the understanding that your name and information won’t appear.)

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.