Education Experts Tackle ‘Cage-Busting Leadership’ in Washington

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Photo from StevendePolo | FlickerAt an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel discussion held Tuesday in Washington, titled “Cage-Busting Leadership in K-12 Education,” moderator Frederick M. Hess compared the state of school leadership in the United States to the fate of Sisyphus -- the mythical Greek king sentenced to an eternity of fruitless toiling.

“We continually stumble upon innovation that seems promising,” the AEI director of education policy studies said. “And then, it all rolls back down.”

The author of a new book, “Cage-Busting Leadership,” Hess framed the evening’s discussion by stating how he believed certain rules and policies make it more difficult for schools to prove successful. Without great leaders, he said, even terrific policy agendas are oftentimes rendered ineffective and inefficient. He cited several “urban myths” he believes lead to a prevalent “culture of can’t” in U.S. schools, and was quick to pinpoint the importance of principals, superintendents and chancellors in reshaping policies.

Panelist Christopher Barbic, founding superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, said schools required the “autonomy to build their own teams” in order to produce improved educational outcomes. “I think there’s often a disconnect between what happens on the ground and what happens in the policy world,” he said. “We have to connect those two pieces.”

How education leaders use their influence and authority, he believes, is pivotal in creating innovative infrastructural changes. “People generally want to do the right thing,” he said. “The work is hard, for all the right reasons.”

Michelle Rhee, CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, said that although advocates can elicit change in educational policies, an “environmental” change in rules and policies are needed so that innovators in education can “push the envelope” and “go even further than they can now.”

“We think that we play a very particular role in the education reform community, but it’s just one role,” she said.

She recalled working with principals in Tennessee, who had no idea that recent layoff policy changes had been enacted in the state. Without adequate execution or implementation, she said, even beneficial reform can produce minimal changes.

She also advises school leaders to put together general counsels filled with more reform-minded “cage-busters” than “compliance-driven” lawyers. She also believes many education leaders compromise for the sake of collaboration, and encouraged more principals and chancellors to push as aggressively “as needed” for policy changes.

Adrian Manual, principal of Kingston High School in Kingston, N.Y., became a principal for the first time when he was just 26 years old.

“So much of what I learned in ed school was not usable,” he said.

At a previous school, he proposed a new model that would allow teachers to instruct students for just four days a week, using the extra day to plan, go over assessments and collaborate with colleagues. After speaking with union representatives, he was able to implement the policy by having teachers “break contract.” The decision, he said, allowed teachers to design programs and protocols in-school, giving them a sense of “ownership over that policy.” When the proposal was put to an annual vote, he said the policy had “100 percent” backing every year he was at the school.

Manual’s vice principals and assistant principals are all given copies of their contracts, he said; together, they comb through the paperwork to find “leverage points.” Twice a month, he meets with union representatives to discuss school issues, with contractual matters firmly in mind.

He even fired one test prep consultant and used the freed up funds to create in-house innovation grants, among other things. “I didn’t believe in test prep, I believed in good teaching,” Manual said. With the new resources, he was able to buy every sixth grader in his school a laptop computer; other funds went toward building a digital library for students, as well as various technology-centered classes, including robotics courses, a media literacy program and a class anchored around developing smartphone applications.

“We took that money and did so many other things with it,” Manual said. “All that stemmed from that one change.”

Deborah Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island, said when she was a teacher, she often felt as if the system was working against her. School leaders, she stated, have a responsibility to change that dynamic.

Many times, she believes educators refuse to push back because of fear of reprimand or worsening conditions. Frequently, Gist said educators are silenced due to rules that are either non-existent or interpreted in a way that can be easily addressed by both teachers and education leaders.

To change the culture, Gist believes the right conditions must exist for innovators to rise. “You have to have leaders that are willing to do things differently and take heat,” she said.

Additionally, she said interaction between local, state and federal agencies was crucial. When local schools had “great ideas,” she said, it was the state Department of Education’s duty to advocate successful policies all the way up to the federal level.

Policies that grant opportunities for innovative changes are essential for educators to thrive in the 21st century, Gist said. “Great teachers are the ultimate leaders doing this kind of work,” she said. “They’re going to do whatever is best for their students, no matter what else is going on.”

Kaya Henderson, chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) said education leaders need to be problem solvers with expertise on navigating their way around existing constraints. “Half of what we did in D.C. that was so radical was read,” Henderson said, referring to employee contracts and policy guidelines. She recalled combing through collective bargaining agreements until she found a way to pay principals in the district differentially.

In many ways, she feels as if the educational bureaucracy is set up to control and constrain school leaders. “Obstacles come up every single day, and our job is to figure out how we move through them,” Henderson said.

Sometimes, she believes addressing intricate education issues hinges on merely reframing a problem. Instead of talking about “fixing” broken public school systems, she asks colleagues what they would desire out of their children’s educations. From there, she said, the matter becomes a question of how the district goes about providing such services to all children in the system.

By closing down several schools in the D.C. area, Henderson said the district was able to free up approximately $10 million. She said the district used some of the funding to create an "innovation zone,” with the district evaluating start-up programs and expanding the more successful models to other schools.

One of the major problems she finds with education leaders at the current is that some shy away from pushing for aggressive policy changes.

“If you do not hit it straight on, you don’t stand a fighting chance,” she concluded. “That’s the thing that I think keeps the boulder rolling down.”

Photo from Stevendepolo | Flicker