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What to Think About AEI’s Cage-Busting Leadership Event

Published:  February 20, 2013
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Flickr photo by Ahmed ElHusseiny

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a panel of education reform leaders to discuss the role of transformational mindsets and management in celebration of Rick Hess’ new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. Hess argues that most would-be education reform leaders feel hemmed-in by a cage of regulations, policies, and collective bargaining agreements that prevent them from implementing real change. However, most of these perceived roadblocks are the result of group mindsets – “a culture of can’t” – rather than actual restrictions.

“Cage-busting” education leaders, like those featured on the panel, work to find places where they can play through the rules to break organizational habits and achieve true reform. Here are the lessons they’ve learned:

Human Capital is Key (And A Good Lawyer is Essential)

Nearly every leader mentioned a time when they were told they couldn’t implement an initiative because of legal or contract barriers. But in each case, the rule either didn’t exist or was superfluous. Instead, institutional culture had built up to the point where the status quo was perceived as carved in stone.

Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist recalled the power of asking “why?” – pushing others to think beyond “the way it’s always been done.” Michelle Rhee, CEO of StudentsFirst, referenced her experiences in a contentious contract negotiation with the Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) over a pay-for-performance system. When talks stalled, outside mediator Kurt Schmoke found a “cage-busting” solution by writing a provision that gave DCPS the power to institute a pay system that the WTU would not have to oppose or endorse.

Others cited the importance of bringing on employees who share the same vision. Chris Barbic, of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) and former CEO of charter network YES Prep Public Schools, spoke of “unplugging from the Matrix” those teachers who had spent several years in traditional schools. He estimated that only about half of them were able to shift their mindset and adapt to the charter school culture.

Collaboration Should Be Goal- and Vision-Oriented

To many on the panel, collaboration was another means to get change going. As a school principal, Adrian Manuel wanted to move all of his teachers’ prep time to one day to allow for cross-grade collaboration, site visits to model schools, and more intentional planning. In the process, teachers would need to teach more periods on other days, a move prohibited by the contract. Manuel sent teacher representatives on a weekend retreat with the contract to find a way to implement the idea. The representatives returned with a solution that they presented to the staff, bringing the majority of teachers onboard without making the measure feel like a top-down initiative.

A shared vision is also critical in the central office. When D.C. Public Schools reallocated funds after closing fifteen under-enrolled schools, Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s leadership team initially pushed for more of the same programming they already had. Rather than stick to the status quo, Henderson asked a different question – what would you want to spend money on if your child was in DCPS? This new framework pushed her staff to imagine beyond what they had already done to consider new enrichment programming and technology initiatives.

Flexibility and Vertical Integration of Policy Is Crucial

Education reform doesn’t happen in a vacuum; each of the leaders also cited the importance of flexibility and cohesiveness within federal, state, district, and school policy.

When the Providence Public School District wanted to establish a new labor-management contract as part of their School Improvement Grant (SIG), Gist and her staff were able to work with the U.S. Department of Education to implement the reform under the “Restart” model, which is normally used to transform traditional schools to charters. This flexibility allowed the district to gain ownership and tailor reform to their needs.

Barbic found that implementation and alignment of state policy to the local level was also a challenge – even within the state-led ASD. It took two separate pieces of legislation to get the parameters of the ASD right, and even then, the effects of reform often didn’t trickle down to schools. Tennessee eliminated a last-in, first-out policy for teacher layoffs, but when Barbic visited principals in Chattanooga, they hadn’t even heard of the change.

Questions Remain

It is clear from this panel that flexibility in regulation can be a useful tool for school leaders – an important point given ongoing debates over No Child Left Behind waivers and the implementation of reforms like Race to the Top that allow for state innovation. However, it seems to be equally important to push for a deep bench of future “cage-busting” leaders. Can “cage-busting” be taught, and if so, how should policymakers think about preparing future principals and superintendents? Policy can include all the flexibility in the world, but it won’t matter if schools don’t have leaders with the determination and vision to use it well.

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