do now m e dia

Picking the right battles
For school leaders, the key is more brains and less bravado, says Rick Hess / By Leah Fabel (Chicago ’01)


chool leaders come in two types, says longtime education writer Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. There are cage-dwellers—those who accept the constraints of union contracts, state legislation, and the like, and there are cage-busters—those who bend those constraints or blast right through them. In his most recent book, Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press), Hess argues that it’s the cage-busters who are doing the bold, innovative work necessary to create great schools for every child.

their visions. Remember the 1970s TV show, Kung Fu? The main character, Kwai Chang Caine, walked the earth trying to protect the weak and issue justice—he had zero interest in picking fights. But if you’re standing up for what matters, there are times when you’ll have no choice but to fight the fight that comes to you. And if you do that, you damn well better win. LF: How can schools of education better train cage-busters? RH: There are two halves to being a great school leader. There’s instructional leadership, which of course is critical, and is almost all of what ed schools teach. The other half is something taken for granted outside of education, which is the ability to reshape organizations and routines to support excellence. This is the stuff of human resources, information systems, budgeting, and the bottom line—and this stuff is almost completely ignored in the educational leadership canon, and in major education publications. The most necessary shift, when it comes to preparation and support, is to introduce and treat seriously this second half.

LF: You make a point early on in the book of saying that this isn’t about harping on the unions. Does that signify a concession among reformers? RH: It shouldn’t. I’ve been having this argument for a decade, and people know I’ve been pretty hard on my friends at the unions for a long time. And in a lot of cases, they’ve deserved it. But it’s also true that they get blamed for any number of things that are less their fault, and more the result of gutless or inconsistent management.

Cage-Busting Leadership
Harvard Education Press

LF: What’s an example? RH: Dan Weisberg, [formerly the chief of labor for the New York City Department of Education], has talked about a common assumption in the New York City schools that principals needed to do five evaluations before they could even start the process to remove an ineffective teacher. Turns out, they only needed one evaluation. But it wasn’t the unions who started that, it was the system’s legal counsel who recommended five evaluations because they’re risk-averse.

“Good leadership isn’t about fighting, but when you do the hard stuff, you’ll sometimes wind up fighting—so it’s important for leaders to have strategies to follow through on their visions.”

LF: You go on to say that this book isn’t about picking fights. But then you spend an entire chapter going into detail about how to win fights. So which one is it? RH: Good leadership isn’t about fighting, but when you do the hard stuff, you’ll sometimes wind up fighting—so it’s important for leaders to have strategies to follow through on

LF: Some notable reformers have cagebusted right out of a job. How much is too much? RH: You stop when you’re doing more harm than good. One of the big mistakes people make is to say, “I know the right thing for kids, so I don’t have time for politics, strategy, or for what the community will tolerate.” And that doesn’t do anyone any good. Savvy leaders figure out what problem they’re trying to solve, find solutions, and then determine how to get from here to there. In many cases, they don’t need to change the laws or make broad announcements, they can just do it. When they anticipate backlash, cage-busting leaders take care to stack the political deck in their favor. They’re gamblers, not tough guys. Great gamblers don’t worry about appearing macho, they spend time maximizing the chances that they’ll win. 


One Day • spring 2013

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