Voices in Education

7 Myths About Cage-Busting Leadership
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 29, number 3). Copyright 2013 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

I’ve been on the road this spring, talking with educators, community leaders, advocates, policy makers, and foundation types about my new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. In doing so, I’ve been struck by some of the mythology that seems to shape what people think it means to be a cage-busting principal, superintendent, or school system official. The book argues that school, system, and state leaders can do much more than they often realize but tend to be hindered by a “culture of can’t” in which urban legends (“the contract requires that teacher assignment be driven by seniority—when it actually doesn’t”), misinformation (“we’re not allowed to spend Title I funds that way“), and undue caution (“we’re not sure if that’s an fully approved use of school improvement funds“) stop them from doing what they think will be best for students.

By contrast, a cage-busting leader focuses on identifying opportunities to promote great teaching and learning, works with her team to devise smart solutions, and then uses every inch of her authority to assign teachers, employ Title I funds, and spend school improvement dollars in ways that she thinks will make the biggest difference for students. Rather than pursue “instructional leadership” within the conventionally accepted confines of policy, regulation, and contract, the cage-buster challenges those conventions so that she can drive instructional leadership more powerfully.

Anyway, I mentioned that some myths seemed to have cropped up. So, what are some of these myths . . . and what’s the real story?

Myth 1: Cage-busting holds that instructional leadership, buy-in, and school culture don’t matter and distract school and system leaders from questions of teaching and learning.

The Real Story: Look, 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 things successfully or sustainably without addressing the obstacles posed by regulations, rules, and routines. We’re all on the same page when it comes to recognizing that school leadership is about nurturing great teaching and teaching. The cage-busting point is that it’s frequently hard to do that well given the cages erected in today’s schools and systems. Cage-busters value school culture but, like Principal Adrian Manuel did in New York City, will work with their faculty to waive contract provisions restricting teaching loads so that faculty teams have one full day a week to meet as an instructional team.

Myth 2: Cage-busters are ill-tempered union haters who yearn for conflict.

The Real Story: Cage-busting is not about picking fights, attacking unions, or firing people. Period. It doesn’t give cage-busters license to wantonly alienate educators or community members. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than thinking ambitiously about how to create great schools and then doing what it takes to make them real. Not only is cage-busting not an assault on unions, but it holds that leaders need to stop blaming unions, contracts, tight budgets, and the rest for their own failure to lead. A careful reading of contracts and regulations can reveal that leaders already have much more freedom than they might think to reward hard-working educators, address poor performance, or reconfigure staffing. Yes, some employees or families will inevitably take issue with some decisions. And any cage-buster worth her salt will stand fast rather than back off from doing what she thinks is best for her students. But conflict is not the goal. In fact, antiunion broadsides too often excuse timid, lethargic leadership. After studying Massachusetts’ collective bargaining agreements, for instance, Vanderbilt professor Dale Ballou observed, “On virtually every issue of personnel policy, there are contracts that grant administrators the managerial prerogatives they are commonly thought to lack. When more flexible language is negotiated, administrators do not take advantage of it [but still] blame the contract for their own inaction.” In Cage-Busting Leadership, I note a bushel of similar examples and research.

Myth 3: Cage-busting leadership is less important than it was five years ago because school leaders have more power to hold people accountable and drive school improvement, given new teacher evaluation systems and turnaround efforts.

The Real Story: Actually, these developments make cage-busting more relevant than ever. New teacher evaluation systems in Tennessee and Florida have led to remarkably modest changes in the rigor of teacher evaluation—with the percentage of educators rated effective “plunging” from 99 percent to 97 or 98 percent. Whoops! The Center for Reinventing Public Education has raised important questions about the ambition and coherence of today’s turnaround efforts. These policies create opportunities to boost quality, but their results require leaders with the skill and will to take full advantage. These policies are helpful, reducing the barriers that leaders face and giving them new tools. But those opportunities make a cage-busting mind-set that much more critical. Turnaround efforts can be a powerful opportunity to redesign schools, leverage new technology, and radically alter expectations and routines—but only when school and system leaders use them accordingly.

Myth 4: Cage-busting implies that tackling policy doesn’t matter, that school improvement is all about charismatic leaders.

The Real Story: Some have wondered whether I’ve misplaced my familiar skepticism and now imagine that remarkable leaders can wish away the hard truth of troubling policies and outdated systems. I do not. Policy matters enormously. Let’s keep it simple. It is absolutely true, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, what I’m arguing is that it’s equally true that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed. And this is a challenge that would-be reformers have too often failed to note, or address.

Myth 5: Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are the alpha and omega of cage-busting leadership.

The Real Story: Not at all. First, I take pains in the book to try not to name any particular list of cage-busters. Lots of leaders have some potential cage-buster in them. In fact, the book is rife with cage-busting anecdotes and tales from more than 100 leaders from schools, systems, and states. Now, Rhee and Klein absolutely exhibited some cage-busting chops in overhauling the central office, freeing school and system leaders to repurpose funds, revamping teacher evaluation, removing mediocre school leaders, and forcefully tackling persistently low-performing schools. But the combative approach they adopted is just one of many that cage-busters may employ. While some cage-busters tend to be heated and dramatic, there are plenty of others who tend to be cool, calm, and collected. What defines a cage-buster is not their personality but a probing mind, an unwillingness to accept convention as a given, and an appetite for smart, strategic ways to solve problems and promote great teaching and learning. Recall that Rhee and Klein were nontraditional leaders who came into recalcitrant, troubled, urban systems in major media centers, and that they were outsiders hired to produce dramatic change. How they went out about it was noteworthy and (to my mind) invigorating, but there are plenty of cage-busting leaders who make fewer headlines because they adopt a less controversial course. As more educators, in more contexts, with a variety of skills embrace cage-busting, I’m confident that we’ll see more publicized models of how to bust the cage in a variety of ways.

Myth 6: Cage-busting leadership is only necessary in district schools; it doesn’t apply to charter schools or private schools.

The Real Story: Even charter schools, supposedly besotted with autonomy, frequently choose to dwell in the cage. The reality is that most charters haven’t done all that much with their newfound autonomy. The National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University reported in 2011 that the role of charter school principals “was not significantly different” from that of district principals. As a whole, the nation’s 5,000 charter schools have done a modest job of leveraging the ability to rethink the school day or hire, pay, and use teachers in smarter ways. In a 2011 study of charter school collective bargaining agreements, the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Mitch Price noted that, despite the chance “to craft agreements from scratch . . . charter school contracts look quite similar to their district counterparts.” Charter leaders can be trapped by mind-set, even when rules or requirements are relaxed.

Myth 7: Cage-busting is just for martyrs; it’s a sure recipe for leaders having to go find a new job.

The Real Story: It’s true that school boards, business leaders, parents, editorial boards, and civic leaders tend to have long prized tranquility above excellence. Leaders who keep the waters calm, avoid harsh cuts, and say the right things have tended to earn good reputations and laudatory press. But things change. In the past decade, the center of gravity has shifted in K–12, producing more tolerance and enthusiasm for cage-busting than was once the case. Charter schooling, virtual delivery, value-added systems, and new providers offer bold leaders new tools and a new set of attractive opportunities. Accountability systems, increased transparency, and tight budgets have made it easier to justify tough-minded changes. A growing number of cage-busters, backed by impassioned advocates, foundations, and public officials, means there’s safety in numbers. And cage-busters themselves can boost the odds that they’ll be more than martyrs.

That’s why Cage-Busting Leadership is stuffed with strategies that can help leaders leverage existing rules, reduce friction, frame the public debate, mobilize allies, operate strategically, and avoid reckless posturing. It shares lessons from superintendents who have shown how they can work within existing contracts while finding new ways to reward valued teachers and principals who take on important challenges. School and system leaders have shown how tough, disruptive choices (like launching a new program or creating a new academy) can be made palatable—even popular—by allowing faculty and families to opt in. School leaders have shown how they can more expeditiously and systematically deal with the handful of “bad apple” staff so that they can devote more time and energy to supporting and coaching the 90 percent who are eager for such help.

About the Author: Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2013).