A Conversation on "Cage-Busting Leadership". Managing Editor Angela Pascopella Speaks with Author Frederick M. Hess

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Recalling the myth of Sisyphus repeatedly pushing the same boulder up a mountain in his new book, author and educator Frederick M, Hess explains how the K12 education leadership is faltering, and how it can rise above. "Cage-Busting Leadership" (Harvard Education Press, February 2013) is a new book and consequently, a small, growing movement for educators trying to take a machete to administrative red tape and contracts that tend to paralyze district leaders from doing what's best and right for the students.

Hess, who is also director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, explains in the introduction how Sisyphus' 'mountain' in schools can be seen in, for example, having to plead for funding or trying to slash routines that smother creative problem solving. Hess provides real examples of cage-busters making change now, and he believes that any administrator can and should bust out of their cages using such examples as evidence that moving beyond barriers is possible.

DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION'S Angela Pascopella recently spoke with Hess, who also serves as executive editor of Education Next, and as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, to learn how leadership can take a different path in the years ahead.

DA: You write about Steve Jobs and how he encouraged his employees to do things they never dreamed possible. Unlike the private sector, schools are beholden to laws and rules. Shouldn't the system change before great change can occur?

Hess: It's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg type of reality. Folks in any organization, public and private, are beholden to rules and regulations. And how leaders approach their work is a function of a mindset. Regarding mandatory class size laws, even if you think there's a better way to configure students, laws are laws. But some of the 'softer stuff,' like what federal grants coordinators tell you what you are allowed to do, are much more malleable than leaders originally thought. Ask and figure out, 'what is a smarter way to solve the problem?' Tell the coordinator, 'here is the problem I want to solve. Can you help me figure out how to do this in a way that's permissable' under the law and regulations? Then you open the door to he or she being a partner in solving the problem instead of the gatekeeper. And you are much more likely to get a constructive response.

You offer interesting tidbits about the challenges. Can you sum them up?

Hess: The first challenge is that we have a habit of not talking about what we want to solve for kids and how to solve it. We tend to talk in broad strokes. We want to fix schools, have better curriculum and raise math scores. But there is a lack of precision about the problem, and then we get a lack of precision around the solution. We say we need more time on task, and we need more instruction, and that turns into longer years, more days, more dollars, more staff. And then people say, 'we don't have more dollars, and we can't give you an extra two weeks.' Get more granular and ask, 'how do we get more time on task for assessed math?' Then the next barriers tend to be contractual and regulatory. 'What's permissible by state or federal statute, or district policy?'

And how would school leaders maneuver around typical contracts or laws?

Hess: When Adrian Manuel, a principal in Kingston, N.Y., was a principal in New York City a few years ago, he wanted teachers to work as teams to improve their practice. But teachers were prohibited from teaching more than three periods in a row and they couldn't plan collaboratively. So he sat down with the union steward and said, 'Teachers don't get to work together, and if we could allow that, it would be a game changer. It would give them this time to discuss their practice. But their contract makes it physically impossible.' They realized there was no way to give their colleagues the time to plan without asking people to teach four periods in a row. …