Cage-Busting Leadership

February 13, 2013 posted by Tom Greene

Tom Greene works to transform public education by raising national awareness of the research-based, common sense solutions offered by StudentsFirst. Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_greene

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute just released a new book, Cage-Busting Leadership, which reminds me of my time teaching in the classroom in North Carolina.

In the book, Hess captures the underlining problem in our failing education system: "When it comes to improving schools, we hear a lot about what educational leaders can't do." According to Hess, the culture of "can't" goes unchallenged, easily pervading cultures from the superintendent's office to school-level leadership across the country. Hess rightly claims that for far too long educational leaders have lived inside cages of overregulation, union contracts, and bloated bureaucratic rules, yet a closer examination reveals these rules, regulations, and systems provide a ton of room in which to maneuver, solve problems, and create high-performing schools. Hess explains that education 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, it is also the case that leaders have far more freedom to transform, re-imagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed." These rules, regulations, and bureaucratic mandates are cages that educational leaders live in far too often, yet Hess shows that in reality these cages are pretty brittle.

As a teacher in the North Carolina public schools, I faced the culture of can't. For example, the lack of seniority threatened my teaching job for the first two years in the profession due to deep budget cuts in the district. Even though I closed the achievement gap in my class (something that plagues this relatively high-performing school district), and built a reputation for employing high expectations and engaging lesson plans, I faced being laid off based on my lack of seniority rather than on the results I produced in the classroom. This didn't make sense. I didn't know of any high-performing organization operating in this way. I don't read about professional sports teams cutting all-star rookies or successful new surgeons getting fired due to the lack of seniority: why do our schools operate in this way?

Through that experience of constant uncertainty, I learned quickly that education policies are adult-centered and school leaders were paralyzed by a culture of "can't."

Many school leaders sympathized with my situation, calling it unfair and wrong. Still, they only shrugged and reiterated that this was the way school districts operate. I kept hearing, "I'm sorry Tom. We hate to lose such a high-performing teacher, but our hands are tied." Looking closer at the state law: North Carolina gives its districts authority to set their own lay-off criteria, yet leaders in my district stayed in the cage prioritizing seniority over performance.

During my first three years in the classroom I had to work a second job to earn a decent living. After school ended at 4 p.m., I ran to my second job waiting tables. Instead of teachers working two jobs to make ends meet, high-performing teachers should be rewarded based on their performance, like any other profession. No other profession makes staffing decisions based on seniority while also paying every employee the same amount based on years worked, through automatic, unearned annual salary increases. High-performing organizations use data to inform decisions, hold their staffs accountable to high expectations, and pay them well to retain their talent.

Hess is right; leaders have far more elbow room to work and implement student-centered reforms than many believe. Taking a closer look at North Carolina law reveals local district leaders actually have the power to create their own salary schedules giving more weight to performance over seniority. Rather than great novice teachers working two jobs, cage-busting leaders in North Carolina could create a pay scale that significantly factors in performance, rewarding our best teachers. We need cage-busters in leadership positions that create effective and efficient systems based on merit.

As Hess notes, not everyone blames the cage: former Chancellor of the DC Public Schools and current Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst looked beyond the cage. Hess retells the story of Michelle Rhee and her team challenging seniority-based lay-offs and aggressively challenging the "we've always done it this way" mentality in DC. Her team worked within the "reduction in force" policy to prioritize and weigh performance significantly more than seniority. Additionally, Michelle raised $65 million dollars to support a new performance pay system to help retain top teaching talent in DC (which seems to be working). Michelle's leadership at DCPS is a big reason I moved across the country to work for StudentsFirst.

Yesterday, Michelle joined Rick and other cage-busters featured in the book: Deborah Gist, Kaya Henderson, Chris Barbic, and Adrian Manuel to discuss the significance and power of dedicated leaders that establish cultures of "can," who solve problems by overcoming policy obstacles and inefficient bureaucracies. If you missed this dynamic discussion, check it out. Aspiring education leaders and reformers should read this book, consider its counter argument to entrenched thinking on school leadership, and start developing a game plan to bust cages.

Rick's solutions-oriented message offered by the book that focuses on the "can" mentality within the current labyrinth of education mandates is refreshing and timely. We here at StudentsFirst are working to remove the cage entirely, and the cage-busters whose stories are told in Hess‘ book give us inspiration and direction for ensuring that no child in America goes to a school governed by a culture of "can't."

Topics: School Governance