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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

Four Traps for Leaders to Avoid

By Rick Hess — February 06, 2013 3 min read
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So, we’re well into Cage-Busting Leadership mode. It’s on my mind a lot. As I noted last week, “cage-busting” leadership is nothing more (or less) than thinking ambitiously about how to create great schools and then doing what it takes to make them real. It empowers them, frees them from the iron grip of bureaucracy and routine, and helps them become savvy leaders of a public enterprise. Most leaders embrace all of this, at least as an aspiration. So, what’s the hold-up? Well, a particular challenge is the four self-imposed traps that ensnare many leaders. Here’s a quick snapshot of the four (you can check out the book for a more extensive discussion):

The Platitudes Trap: In practice, too many leaders resort to vapid generalities that foster muddled thinking. They’re told to value good things like “consensus,” “collegiality,” “relational trust,” “coherence making,” “child-centered learning,” and “professional growth.” And well they should. But high expectations, competition, decisive leadership, and discipline are also good things. And these values can conflict in messy ways that shrink-wrapped platitudes won’t sort out. This means that leaders should know what they hold most important, and lead accordingly.

The “Sucks Less” Trap: When you’re scrambling to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) or hit proficiency targets, it’s easy to get caught up mimicking modestly better performers--what New Orleans-based 4.0 Schools founder Matt Candler has aptly labeled the “sucks less” trap. When we look at schools that surpass minimal bars we’ve set for reading and math achievement, high school graduation, and college enrollment, there’s a tendency to mimic them rather than try to build on their successes. Because of the “sucks less” trap, we often fail to aim high enough. We talk about “exemplary” schools where just 30 seniors out of 600 are getting 4s or 5s on AP BC Calculus. We talk about schools that are “outstanding” because 96 percent of kids are proficient in basic reading and math-- without asking how many are fluent in a second language, terrific writers, or advanced in science.

The “More, Better” Trap: Perhaps the signature mark of caged leadership is school and system leaders who imagine that improvement is only possible when they have more dollars to spend. The fact is, that’s a cop-out. The most innovative organizations in the world tend to be cash-poor startups that rely on moxie, creativity, and elbow grease. In education, however, “innovation” has typically meant layering new dollars and programs atop everything that came before. Does more money, more time, and more staff usually help? Of course. But what matters most is what you do with it.

The MacGyver Trap: Readers of a certain age may remember the 1980s TV show MacGyver. Each week, MacGyver would find himself in impossibly tight jams, only to escape by inventing some ingenious contraption. Trapped in a Bolivian jail cell with a pillow, a paperclip, and a toothbrush, he’d construct a diesel-powered bulldozer. Great leaders use a similarly ingenious bag of tricks. They have a buddy in procurement who helps get the instructional materials they need. They’re old pals with the deputy superintendent who gets them extra funds for this program or somehow transfers out that teacher. If we’ve got a hundred thousand principals and fourteen thousand superintendents, there’ll be a few MacGyvers able to build a flamethrower out of a Q-tip and a can of bug spray. But most people can’t do that. In this way, MacGyverism creates a distorted sense of what’s possible. At its best, cage-busting pioneers solutions and opens up new opportunities.

Recognizing these traps and working to avoid them doesn’t offer any quick-fix magic, but it can help leaders identify habits that get in the way of operating as focused, sharp-eyed problem solvers. And that’s a hell of a start.

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.