Cage-Busting Leadership

Cage-Busting Leadership

Frederick M. Hess
Pub. Date: February 2013
ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-508-4
paper, 256 Pages
Pub. Date: February 2013
ISBN-13: 978-1-61250-506-0
Price: $34.00

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A practical and entertaining volume, Cage-Busting Leadership will be of profound interest and value to school and district leaders—and to everyone with a stake in school improvement.


In Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick Hess challenges our educational leaders to take on the laws, rules, and regulations that prevent them from implementing true transformational changes to our educational systems. Citing many examples of leaders who have busted out of the cage, Hess illustrates the tough decisions that can be made to provide the quality education that we seek for our students. Cage-Busting Leadership is not for the faint of heart. — Dan Domenech, executive director, American Association of School Administrators

Rick Hess is a modern-day Mark Twain. He distills the truth and renders it understandable, humorous, and palatable in the process. — James W. Guthrie, superintendent of public instruction, Nevada and senior fellow and director of education policy studies, George W. Bush Institute

Cage-Busting Leadership should be required reading for every school leader in America. Our schools need people who understand how to break down barriers, enabling good teachers to do great work and students from all backgrounds to learn and thrive. This book provides a framework, common language, and real-world examples of how to do just that. — Becca Bracy Knight, executive director, The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems

This is not just a how-to manual—it is a why-not manifesto. If you can’t lead by fighting for the rights of youth, then you should not lead. This book both affirms this credo and indicates many ways in which to achieve this obligation. — John E. Deasy, superintendent, LAUSD

Impassioned leaders throughout our education system are frustrated by routine and a lack of support. In many cases they are ill-equipped for their crucial work. Rick Hess is a trailblazing scholar who explores a path forward to help leaders break the status quo. — Michael F. Bennet, Colorado senator, and former superintendent, Denver Public Schools

Rick Hess raises the bar by challenging leaders to aim for specific education reforms, and he eliminates the most common excuses for mediocre systems by proving that most barriers can and have been overcome already. — Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, superintendent, Douglas County School District

When someone decides that it is time to bust out of his or her cage, that person discovers that the bars around the cage are those things that resist real reform. In guiding us out of our cages, Rick Hess indicates how not to RTB (roll the boulder) or fall into TMT (the MacGyver Trap). Once out of the cage, be sure to GGD (get going downhill) and always ask WPAYS (what problem are you solving)? Sound like a great read? It is! — Janet Barresi, state superintendent of public instruction, Oklahoma

In Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick Hess outlines a practical, no-excuses guide to problem solving and leadership. Hess tells stories from current education leaders, movies, history, and other authors to give flavor and substance to what is possible when cage-busting leaders push past the limits of ‘past practice’ and compliance-normed behavior to renew their organizations. In the REEP leadership programs, we find that when a leader can identify where the bars are, he or she will not be content to dwell in the cage. — Andrea Hodge, executive director, Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP)

If you believe that changing America’s schools requires not just a new way of thinking, but a new way of doing, then this is the book for you. Hess illuminates how we often—and unwittingly—tie our own hands in the course of attempting to make reform, thereby perpetuating a ‘culture of can’t.’ Then, with straight talk and pithy examples, he shows how school, system, and state leaders can take the kinds of creative action essential to bringing about fierce change. This is a book that leaders and reformers need to read, reread, and then keep, dog-eared and readily at hand. — Monica Higgins, professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Rick Hess could not be more spot-on in his characterization of education leaders (and by this I mean any practitioner choosing to lead) as ‘caged.’ But the key insight is not that cages are created by regulations, laws, contracts, policies, or certification rules; rather, it’s that educators ‘cage’ themselves. This realization is the essence of the book and its examples—and it is the essence of understanding leadership and change. — Robert C. Pianta, Novartis Professor of Education, and dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, and director, Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning

Large organizations exhibit tremendous inertia toward the comfortable. Rick Hess argues in forthright and bold fashion that transformative leaders are not ‘cage dwellers’: they don’t build their own prisons. Instead, they fight the inertia through clear thinking, solid execution, and bold goals. Cage-busting leaders can easily and quickly move from 30,000 feet to the granular, and they don’t spend time staring at their feet. Cage-Busting Leadership is a great tool for urban school superintendents who are often weighed and overburdened by massive bureaucracies and oppressive regulations that stifle creativity. Let’s do what it takes to break out of these cages. — Jean-Claude Brizard, former CEO, Chicago Public Schools

Public school and district leaders are mired in rules, regulations, and red tape, and Rick Hess doesn’t like it. But rather than complain, he’s hell-bent on helping leaders get done the things they need to do despite the challenges. This book provides valuable, concrete suggestions for accomplishing precisely that. Leaders should read it and start to breathe again. — Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and executive vice president, News Corporation

We in education are master cage builders. The feds build cages for the states, the states do it to districts, and the school boards do it in turn to their principals. At each level linger bureaucrats, advocates, union leaders, and vendors, each figuring out how to build a perfect cage to suit their needs. The problem is that the cage of pro forma rules and regulations won’t do if we’re to help children and families—especially those with the greatest and most complex needs—solve the complicated problem of equipping themselves for a productive life in today’s economy. Rick Hess tells it like it is: if we’re serious about educating kids, we’d be more serious about busting down the cage door. — John White, superintendent, Louisiana Department of Education

With Cage-Busting Leadership, Hess pulls the subject of educational leadership out of the ivory tower and drags it through the reality of leading school systems, teachers, parents, and children. Hess makes a strong case that an educational leader’s success will be in large part determined by the effective deployment of talent, tools, time, and money. But what is most striking is Hess’s argument that education leaders have much more freedom in these areas than most imagined. The cage-busting leaders that Hess chronicles combine noble visions with ferocious tactics, and they set the bar for what the next generation of leaders will need to achieve if we are serious about radically improving our nation’s educational system. For educational leaders looking for real-world advice on how to best fight for students, this is your book. — Neerav Kingsland, CEO, New Schools for New Orleans

It’s easy to underestimate the effort it takes to overcome inertia. In Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick has illustrated the tools and skills that are essential for transforming the status quo. Leaders who hope to improve low-performing schools and districts will value the insights this volume provides. — Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Massachusetts, and president, Council of Chief State School Officers

Overall Cage-Busting Leadership is a treasure trove of ideas and information. This book would be useful as a required reading in a doctoral level class on the superintendency. It would also be highly beneficial as a book study for a group of superintendents to evoke strong conversations due to the richness of content in every chapter. — Paul Hewitt, Journal of School Choice

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About the Author

Frederick HessAn educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K–12 and higher education issues. His books include The Same Thing Over and Over, Education Unbound, Common Sense School Reform, Revolution at the Margins, and Spinning Wheels. He is also the host of the popular Education Week blog, Rick Hess Straight Up. Rick’s work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, National Review, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He has edited widely cited volumes on education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, and the impact of education research and No Child Left Behind. Rick serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public School Charters, as well as on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, 4.0 SCHOOLS, and the American Board for the Certification of Teaching Excellence. A former high school social studies teacher, Rick has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University. He holds an MA and PhD in government from Harvard University as well as an MEd in teaching and curriculum.