Education Opinion

Principals: Don’t Settle for the Rolling Boulder

By Rick Hess & Phi Delta Kappan — July 22, 2013 13 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

About two years ago, I visited a Fairfax County (Va.) middle school that had been “turned around” and was now piloting some terrific team-teaching models. The principal credited teamwork, collaboration, and buy-in for getting this troubled school onto this dynamic trajectory. I interrupted and asked, “OK, but how’d you get all the teachers in a dysfunctional school to suddenly change their behavior?”

She looked startled. “Oh, well, not all of them did. We had to change a few teachers.”

“Oh,” I said. “How many?”

The principal looked quizzically at one of her veteran teachers and said, “Probably about 40% or 50% didn’t return that first year, and another dozen probably left that following year.”

Wasn’t that worth a mention? That important bit of information didn’t lessen the school’s accomplishment. But apparently even this acclaimed principal needed personnel changes to set the table for everything else. That she didn’t think to mention it on her own is a problem. An even bigger problem is that experts on educational leadership are uninterested in such things.

In selecting, training, socializing, and mentoring leaders, we have unwittingly encouraged caged leadership. Leaders are expected to succeed via culture, capacity building, coaching, and consensus—no matter the obstacles in their path. 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 practices successfully or sustainably without addressing obstacles posed by regulations, rules, and routines.

Rolling the Boulder

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus tricked and indiscriminately killed travelers and guests. As punishment, the gods condemned him to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain. The nasty twist: Every time he got halfway up, the boulder would slide down . . . and he’d have to begin again.

For those struggling to improve schools, Sisyphus’s tale holds an uncanny resonance. Sisyphus—with his promising starts and recurring disappointments—could be the poster child for a half-century of school reform.

If educational experts and reformers were gathered at the base of the mountain watching Sisyphus climb, we wouldn’t lack for advice. We’d yell, “Widen your grip a little,” “Try a different pair of hiking boots,” “Stop for a rest every 20 feet.” Well, we wouldn’t use exactly those words. Instead, we’d advise him to use “differentiated instruction,” “formative assessment,” “data-based decision making,” “extended learning time,” or any number of ideas every bit as good and sensible as better boots and a firmer grip.

However useful, all this advice would suffer a common flaw. If past is prologue, I’ve a strong suspicion that we wouldn’t bother to mention our hero’s primary dilemma—that he’s trying to roll a boulder up a mountain!

What Mountain Do I Have in Mind?

In Clark County, Nev., a principal sought to con-tract out custodial duties and steer more dollars to instruction. The district, however, could measure only how many custodians the school employed per square foot. The result: There was no way to opt for any alternative arrangement—or even to gauge whether a school was clean or custodial dollars were being spent efficiently. Frustrated, the principal gave up on her wild idea. That’s the mountain—rigid or outdated practices that make it exhausting to spend dollars more wisely.

The mountain is federal program requirements that make it hard to reassign staff or redesign schools, and state regulations that supersize federal dictates around Title I or IDEA. It’s rigid schedules that prevent teacher leaders from holding team meetings. It’s contract provisions that dictate school start times and professional development arrangements that tie the hands of principals hoping to provide training or support to the teachers who need it, when they need it. It’s paperwork that forces staff to spend hundreds of hours a year filling out forms in order to qualify for education funds, Workforce Investment Act funds, or Medicaid reimbursements. In short, the mountain is the accumulated rules and regulations, policies and practices, contracts and cultures that exhaust educators and leaders.

Sisyphus’s grip may well be too narrow and his footwear poorly chosen. But his real problem is that he’s trying to roll a freaking boulder up that mountain. Is there any way to deal with—flatten, bypass, dynamite, chip away at—that? That’s the question that ought to be front and center in every discussion of educational leadership.

The Blind Spot in Education Leadership

When we talk about reform, we have a remarkable ability to look past the mountain before us in favor of boulder-rolling strategies like peer mentoring or extended learning time—which work in a few locations but don’t scale up. Disappointed, we scratch our heads, spend millions on research, and then chalk it up to “flawed implementation.”

Education leadership authorities share the conviction that the stuff of the mountain can be overcome with enough attention to the “five C’s”— collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching, and culture. This leads to a giant blind spot in the canon and a literature that dismisses cage busting concerns like contracts and policy. In the education literature, we commonly find that such words as culture, professional development, and collaboration are used far more frequently than such words as inept, mediocre, grievance, regulation, and due process, which often get closer to the heart of the real problems principals face.

One can peruse the education leadership canon without learning that leaders may have to wade into conflicting, rule-laden waters to observe classes, meet with staff and effectively deliver programs. Such advice has nurtured a belief that leaders can rely on assistance, favors, and goodwill to foster great teaching and learning. This is leadership advice for Fantasyland.

The point is not that the authorities ought to stop paying attention to the five C’s but that they need to start paying attention to the cage.

The Other Half of the Leadership Equation

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 leadership—the cage-busting half in which leaders upend stifling rules, policies, and routines to make it easier for successful and professional cultures to thrive. You don’t do cage busting instead of mentoring, coaching, and inspiring, but so that so that you can do these things better. Cage busting helps create the conditions where you can be the leader you want to be.

Make Policy Work for You

Culture matters . . . a lot. Culture is the glue that binds the community of teachers and learners. Used wisely, policy allows leaders to clarify minimal norms so they can focus on creating a more responsible and professional culture. Policy can be unnecessary when culture is sufficiently strong, but few school or system leaders are that fortunate. This means policy can be a critical tool for strengthening culture and conserving time, resources, energy, and goodwill.

Kingston (N.Y.) High School principal Adrian Manuel made policy work for him when wrestling with teachers who kept showing up late at his former school, Accion Academy in the Bronx. Tired of pleading in vain for cooperation, Manuel started docking their personal time—a tactic entirely consistent with the city’s collective bargaining contract. He told probationary teachers he could let them go; he fired six. Other teachers got the message. “It goes back to principals understanding policy,” he said. “I’ve never lost because I know the 200-page con-tract.” Under Manuel’s leadership, Accion Academy rose in three years from the bottom 5% of New York City middle schools to the upper one-fifth.

Creative Problem Solving

You don’t have to solve every problem head-on. Doing so can be exhausting. Tackling what you can with shortcuts or creative solutions can make it easier to isolate and solve real problems.

James “Torch” Lytle, veteran school and system leader and professor at University of Pennsylvania, recalls that while he was a principal at University City High School in Philadelphia, Pa., he had one particular teacher he thought was bad for the school. “One of my early mentors taught me that as an administrator, and, particularly as a principal, you define yourself by the people you fire or offload . . . A trick I had learned as a central office administrator was to ask Human Resources for my employees’ W-2 (tax statements),” Lytle said (2010, p. 52). A quick run through these documents revealed that this teacher had been paid $35,000 more than his base salary by listing himself on several different overtime payrolls and submitting duplicate invoices. Lytle initiated a formal evaluation process, which ended with his termination.

There’s nothing wrong with using ingenuity to make rules and policies work for you. This is what union locals, recalcitrant vendors, and pushy special interests do—they take the letter of the law and stretch it to their ends. Cage busters employ that same savvy in the service of great teaching and learning.

Focus on Solutions, Not Demands

When talking to supervisors or policy makers, leaders can easily get caught up in what they want or think they need. Instead, try to lead with empathy by asking yourself, “What problem does this listener need my help to solve?” Whether you’re talking to the superintendent or the deputy superintendent for instruction, don’t tell them you need money or special treatment. That’s what they hear from everyone, and it’s exhausting. And, guess what? They probably can’t offer much help. Instead, help them understand how you can help them solve the problems that help them achieve their ends, and it will be in their interest to help provide the flexibility and backing that you need.

Say you’re a principal who thinks the district curriculum doesn’t work for your students. Fair enough. But consider this from the system perspective: Can the superintendent do what you’re asking for all her schools? If not, why should she do it for you? What’s the evidence that this will help? How would she justify this decision to other school leaders and to community members? Show up with answers to these questions, and now the force is with you.

As Spring Branch (Texas) ISD superintendent Duncan Klussmann explains, “A superintendent only knows 5% of what’s happening on their campus. As a principal, if you’re doing well, solving problems, and not asking for more resources, odds are I’ll say yes to your request.”

Use Talent, Tools, Time, and Money Wisely

Cage busters focus not just on more and better education and fixing schools but on finding ways to improve teaching and schooling. And this is largely a question of finding smarter ways to employ talent, tools, time, and money. Talent is all of the expertise, potential instruction, and mentoring that you might tap—whether that encompasses full-time classroom teachers, operational staff, local undergraduates, online instructors, part-time tutors, or volunteer professionals. Tools are the materials, resources, management techniques, training, and so forth that can help support talent, including the technology that allows us to inspire minds, share expertise, track data, and deliver instruction. Time is all the student time and adult time you can use to promote learning. And money is, well, all the money at your disposal.

Cage busters have a simple mantra: It’s not reform if it costs more. Reform is finding ways to improve teaching, learning, and schooling with the resources you already have. Now, I am not saying that schools have enough money. (I’m also unconvinced that they’re underfunded.) I’m saying that the cage buster’s job is to do the best they possibly can for students with the talent, tools, time, and money they have.

Consider Walter Jackson. In taking charge of the turnaround effort at Houston’s Alief Taylor High School, principal Jackson faced a common challenge: Many students were reading far below grade level. Meanwhile, his high school teachers had little expertise in teaching reading. Jackson opted for an unfamiliar solution. “I asked myself why couldn’t an elementary teacher, who approaches instruction using a phonetic standpoint instead of whole language, teach high school kids how to read?” He filled every reading vacancy with someone who had experience teaching elementary reading. The strategy helped drive big reading gains to the point where 90% of his students were proficient on the Texas reading assessment.

What About Instructional Leadership?

Some readers may think reconciling cage busting with instructional leadership is difficult. They shouldn’t. The two are complements, not substitutes. Cage busting creates the conditions for culture building, coaching, and instructional leadership.

Just 10% of principals say they’re satisfied with the amount of time they devote to instructional leadership. Cage busting can help make other roles more manageable, giving leaders more time to attend to what matters most. Yet champions of instructional leadership often denounce efforts to address the cage as distractions. Thelbert Drake and William Roe argue in The Principalship (2003, p. 185), for instance, that “running a tight ship” is a “distortion of the goal of educating children.”

Suggesting that using time and money wisely is a distraction may seem bizarre, yet that notion recurs with startling consistency. Take the unavoidable issue of ineffective teachers. Champions of instructional leadership often imply that responsible leaders accept the staff they have and then cajole, coach, and collaborate their way to great instruction. Fullan and Hargreaves assert in What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School?(1996) that principals should “find something to value in all the school’s teachers. Even poor or mediocre teachers have good points that can present opportunities to give praise and raise self-esteem. The worst thing to do is to write off apparently poor or mediocre teachers as dead wood and seek easy administrative solutions in transfers or retirements . . . Try doing the hard thing, the right thing, the ethical thing, and explore ways of bringing these teachers back instead” (p. 87).

Coaching and cajoling mediocre teachers is important and essential work. But doing this ad infinitum is a ludicrous use of time and energy, and a disservice to the kids involved. Cage busters coach and cajole so long as they think it makes sense for the school, system, and students—and work to briskly replace teachers when that is no longer the case.

Cage busters seek a world in which, rather than begging or enticing mediocre teachers to improve, school leaders have reliable ways to evaluate teachers and to dismiss them when necessary. They seek collective bargaining agreements that expedite the process so that principals can spend more time working with effective educators and forging a collaborative culture on a staff not peppered with malcontents.


Cage dwellers spend most of their energy trying to stamp out fires or win permission to lead, and most of their time trying to woo recalcitrant staff, remediating ineffective team members, or begging for resources. Cage busters wake up every morning focused on identifying big challenges, dreaming of big solutions, and blasting their way forward. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a helluva lot more fun to me.


  • Drake, T. & Roe, H. (2003). The principalship (6th ed.). Upper
    Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for
    in your school? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Lytle, J. (2010). Working for kids: Education leadership as
    inquiry and invention. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 7, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read