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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

Caged Leadership Fuels Policy Overreach

By Rick Hess — July 17, 2014 2 min read
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Each summer, I get to spend consecutive weeks teaching policy at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education and then teaching cage-busting leadership at Rice’s Jones School of Management. Many of the school and system leaders I teach are frustrated by policy and sense that they’re hemmed in by bureaucracy, regulation, and politicians. Meanwhile, they’re often unclear on what they might do about it. One of the themes we touch on time and again is that passive, caged leadership actually fuels this kind of troubling micro-management.

I find myself trying to explain the insight that motivated Cage-Busting Leadership: caged leadership frustrates policy makers and advocates, leading them to propose new rules and policies as they scramble to force leaders to, well, lead. In this way, caged leadership creates a perverse cycle of frustration. On the other hand, problem-solving, cage-busting leadership creates a virtuous cycle of trust and autonomy.

When school and system leaders fail to rigorously evaluate staff, spend dollars cost-effectively, or push the boundaries of what’s possible, reformers may decide that they have to compel leaders to do these things. The problem is that, because the solutions are intended to force leaders to act, they are written into policy. And policy is not nimble. It’s a crude lever to force the hands of laggards. And it often creates new headaches or burdens for others.

But the inaction of cage-dwelling leaders invites efforts to use such a lever. For instance, by blithely labeling nearly all of their teachers as satisfactory, school and system leaders convinced policymakers that they couldn’t be trusted to rigorously gauge quality. After all, a few years ago, TNTP reported in its influential report The Widget Effect that, in districts using binary teacher evaluations, more than 99 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory.

Noted TNTP president Tim Daly, “In Chicago, we learned that the state law said that you have three evaluation ratings that you can assign to a teacher: unsatisfactory, satisfactory, and excellent. While researching their system, we found that Chicago had applied for a waiver to put an additional rating on top of that system. It’s called ‘superior,’ and we could not find any official definition that explained the difference between superior and excellent. It was just better than excellent. So, we kept asking people, ‘Why do, like, 65 percent of your teachers get this rating? Can anyone even tell us what it means?’” The answer: not really.

This kind of passive management isn’t the fault of unions. Teacher unions and collective bargaining cause their own problems, of course, but this stuff is a failure of leadership. Period. Even for teachers with tenure, principals could, at the very least, take stronger steps to evaluate them. Faced with inaction, would-be reformers feel they have no recourse but to champion inflexible, one-size-fits-all evaluation systems that would finally force school and district leaders to do better. The way out of this box is to start acting before one’s hand is forced. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “There are simple answers, there just aren’t easy ones.”

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.