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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

The Company You Keep

By Guest Blogger — March 04, 2013 4 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Kerri Briggs, director for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute.

As a brief introduction, I’ve held jobs in the federal government, a state government, a university, and various non-profits. In each of those positions, I’ve had the chance to learn from leaders who helped me develop my leadership capabilities. One key lesson I learned was that it is necessary to have support when making tough decisions. It is a lonely place to be out on a limb, all on your own. If you are alone in seeking a change, making a tough decision, or even just identifying a problem, the road ahead is going to be messy (at best) and possibly may end in total failure.

The lessons and advice of Cage-Busting Leadership resonate with me as I try to find a balance between identifying crucial allies and making tough decisions that don’t always garner a lot of support.

In education, there are allies and partners even in the toughest circumstances. In my position as the state superintendent for the District of Columbia, I did not have many obvious supporters. I had just finished working for more than seven years at the Department of Education (including two as assistant secretary) in the Bush Administration, and now found myself heading up a fairly new agency in a city where 93% of those voting, supported President Obama. The State Board of Education, which oversaw the agency and had limited approval authority over new rules, reflected that political demographic. And, the city council, who voted for my confirmation, knew very little about me. I had the support of the mayor, but his attention was focused on the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), while I was tasked with overseeing all of the (city) state’s schools.

It was a scenario set up for a lot of lonely work. One telling example was when I decided to change the contractor responsible for developing the statewide student database. That decision upset a lot of people, led to a council hearing, resulted in legal battles, and meant undoing work on a critical resource for the city’s schools. There wasn’t much external support for my decision, but it was the right thing to do.

In other instances, my team and I were able to find support for our work in unexpected places. For example, the financing system needed a serious overhaul, but the process for doing so required substantial effort from all the school operators in town. With the creation of a state agency that would handle all the federal funds, charter schools had not always received their funding on a regular basis. These charter school operators were anxious for a predictable payment system. As changes started to happen, I was able to explain to these charter leaders that, with the new processes, we were going to begin resolving our ‘high risk’ status with the USDE (something that would benefit them), and also begin to ensure they had more regular and predictable funding. The charter leaders became supporters for the tough changes. My cage-busting takeaway? Partners tend to emerge when you are also solving a problem for them.

Other allies are sometimes easier to find - individuals, schools, organizations who agree with your decision or take on an issue. The key to working with them is to get their input into a particular issue at the right time and then ensure they are confident in your ultimate decision - so confident that they will speak out in support and trust you will implement the issue and not change course midstream. One leader, who may be familiar to RHSU readers, and whom I’ve learned from over the years, is former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She phrased this strategy as having “company for the tough decisions.” With any given issue, we had a conversation about whom that issue affected and who would be supportive. We identified partners that could help us think about particular policy challenges and then serve as key voices for public support. It takes time to build trust and it requires listening and understanding their needs. But with that foundation, you aren’t the lone wolf out on a limb... you can be surrounded by a number of people and organizations who agree with both the problem and the solution.

One process at the federal level that supports this cultivation is the use of peer reviewers. As we thought about providing opportunities for states to incorporate growth models into their accountability systems, the use of a group of trusted scholars, educators, and accountability experts to review state proposals created a natural set of supporters and (at the very least) an objective group of smart individuals. There was no requirement to use a group of peer reviewers to approve growth models into state accountability systems. But by incorporating that step into the process, we were given insight into which plans were the strongest. Peer reviewers also provided Secretary Spellings with the support she needed to make the tough decisions about which models would be accepted.

At the end of the day, sometimes leaders are on their own when it comes to making the best decision they can for kids and schools - but sometimes they can have company. The right company creates the best solutions for kids and schools. It takes a little more work on the front end, but consider yourself lucky - you can save time on the back end.

--Kerri Briggs

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.