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Rick Hess Straight Up

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 — January 30, 2013 5 min read
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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. 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.

Agree or not, it’s time that we get serious about a topic that we’ve rarely explored (the closest we come is vapid declarations that we need “better” leaders.) My contribution on this score is my new book, Cage-Busting Leadership, which (while not officially out until February 12) is now available from Harvard Education Press. If you want to get a feel for the argument, especially as it relates to advocacy, law, and policy, check out the new Education Next piece “Combating the ‘Culture of Can’t.’” And if you want to learn about cage-busting, watch clips of some terrific leaders discussing their strategies, check out related resources, or see where I’ll be talking next, you might want to bookmark this site.

Now, let’s be clear. I’ve never been a school leader, district official, school board member, or state chief, and I’ve spent relatively little time working in schools or school systems. Instead, I’m an academic who has visited, studied, and supported a raft of school improvement efforts across the nation. But in my wanderings, I inevitably encounter folks who have horror stories about getting penned in by rules, regulations, policies, and statutes; and others who have stories about finding ways to escape or explode those constraints.

Leadership always entails two complementary roles. One is coaching, mentoring, nurturing, and inspiring others to forge dynamic, professional cultures. This half absorbs almost the whole attention of those who tackle educational leadership. Lost in K-12 is the second half of the leadership equation--the cage-busting half that makes it easier for successful and professional cultures to thrive. You don’t do cage-busting instead of mentoring, coaching, and inspiring, but so that you can do these things better.

Cage-dwellers spend most of their energy stamping out fires or getting permission to lead, and most of their time wooing recalcitrant staff, remediating ineffective team members, or begging for resources. Cage-busters wake up every morning focused on identifying big challenges, dreaming up solutions, and blasting their way forward.

The problem is that in selecting, training, socializing, and mentoring leaders, we have unwittingly encouraged “caged” leadership. You need only to talk to school and system leaders or school board members, observe education leadership courses, or read texts by education leadership icons to understand that leaders are expected to succeed via culture, capacity building, coaching, and consensus--no matter the obstacles in their path. Indeed, talking about how to address or trample those obstacles is typically dismissed by leading thinkers on ed leadership as a distraction.

Now, let me be really clear: instructional leadership, strong cultures, stakeholder buy-in, and professional practice are all good things. The mistake is to imagine that leaders can foster these things successfully or sustainably without addressing the obstacles posed by regulations, rules, and routines.

Meanwhile, the sloganeering and anti-union broadsides launched by impassioned reformers too often blame unions and contracts for all manner of ills, even as they excuse timid, lethargic leadership. This can lead would-be reformers to talk, and to act, as if changes to contracts and policy are self-executing and to underinvest in helping leaders take advantage of reforms.The result: progress is expensive, grudging, and uneven; and when heroic leaders move on, much of their personality-infused success evaporates.

Consider 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 so on. Much of this is valid. But it’s also the case that leaders can do a lot more than is sometimes thought. For example, when John Deasy, now superintendent of Los Angeles’s public school system, was superintendent in Prince George’s County, Maryland, he transferred hundreds of teachers to new schools and initiated a pay-for-performance system despite the assumption that these moves weren’t possible under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). When asked how he managed this, Deasy’s answer is simple: “Nothing prohibited any of this.” Unfortunately, Deasy is the exception, not the rule.

The shame is that, 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 besotted with autonomy, frequently choose to dwell in the cage. Legal analyst Mitch Price, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, has concluded that, given their freedom to craft new “agreements from scratch,” charters are “not as innovative as they might be” when it comes to areas like evaluation, staffing, and compensation.

While educational leaders are hindered in real ways, it’s become clear to me that leaders are already able to do much of what they say they can’t do, think they can’t do, or just don’t do, is stuff that they are already able to do. Let me say that again: contracts, rules, regulations, statutes, and policies present real problems for smart leaders, but they can frequently find ways to bust them--with enough persistence, knowledge, or ingenuity. The problem is they don’t know they can. Or don’t know how to get started. Or are too nervous to try. Or have never been taught they are supposed to push.

We have done a poor job of equipping leaders to address these challenges; squeeze the most value out of scarce funds; and to make the fullest use of twenty-first-century talent, tools, and technology. Cage-Busting Leadership is one modest attempt to help us do better.

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.