Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Cage-Busting Leadership by Rick Hess

These are my notes from Rick Hess’ SXSWedu breakout session, “Cage-Busting Leadership.” Rick just published Cage-Busing Leadership as a book through Harvard Press in February 2013. MY THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS.

Rick Hess @AEIeducation discussing "Cage-Busting Leadership" [PIC] #sxswedu

– was prof of education after getting my PhD
– many of my experiences have very little to do with helping kids learn
– 10th floor of a DC office building is not the place to give advice about how kids learn
– I travel around and talk to a lot of people
– I’m sitting in a blimp 30,000 feet up and see a different picture than many others

Sisyphus and School Reform
– Sisyphus robbed travelers
– his Greek god punishment was rolling a stone

Remember past reform issues:
– “Effective Research of 1970s
– block scheduling
– 8th grade algebra
– all these initiatives with promising results,
– results at scale always disappoint

Our lessons are either:
– that idea was stupid
– we say it was an implementation problem

Many times we tell a 4th grade teacher with 32 students:
– ‘just differentiate’
– ‘just use best practices’
– ‘data-driven decision-making’
– ‘professional development’
– ‘relational trust’

now we have term ‘turnaround schools’

often these are good ideas, but my problem is we’ve been lazy and unreflective
– to avoid talking about the mountain, we given these ideas to “totemic powers”
– we move from snake oil to snake oil

My friend Michelle Rhee was controversial in Washington DC
– she had the radical notion that if parents know when kids showed up at school, parents would be more involved
– tried to figure out how to get that attendance data to parents
– at that time it took DC schools EIGHT DAYS to tell parents their kid’s attendance data

D.C. Union said data entry is an “unpermissible work duty”
– I don’t see this as union villainy
– problem is WTU (union) is in the position of defending a contract which was negotiated over decades of time
– this to my mind is a source of much of our frustration
– good educators and system leaders spend enormous time NOT spending problems, but trying to figure out a workaround a contract provision written in 1987, or a state interpretation devices by a state bureacrat in 1977

THAT is the ‘cage’ I’m talking about
– wrong analogy to talk about ‘the mountain’ because that’s from nature
– ‘the cage’ was put in place by other people
– many of these rules were put into place when they were NOT unreasonable

We often hear about how private sector analogies are not applicable to education
– I think this is nonsense
– look at GM, PanAm, Bethlehem Steel, Microsoft trying to cram Windows into cyberspace in 1991
– normally we allow these organizations to fail
– these businesses
– average lifespan of fortune 500 companies is 50 years


all our districts today existed in 1965
– we never get that ‘clean sheet’ of paper
– we never get to repurpose decades old rules andation regulations

One strategy is to try to create green fields: “Education Unbound” book

1 Americans in 10 used to attend high school
– our system was built to batch process people for trapped labor

We need leadership which can repurpose schools
– problem: we don’t give leaders preparation and support for this work
– we talk a lot about instructional leadership (those advocates are small people, education IS about teaching and learning)
– problem is when those people look at the cage, they JUST see instructional leadership

we are missing the ‘cage busting’ side of the equation, so you’re no longer trapped by these established bars

Over half our school superintendents were in their position before age 30
– small percentages of our principals have had jobs outside K-12 education
– we bubble wrap educators in their prep programs, they don’t have access to diverse ways of thinking

Graph: what ed leadership wrote about
– mostly culture, professional development, and collaboration
– not much about regulation, layoff, collective bargaining and labor agreement

What does it mean to be a cage buster? These are the 4 tools you have at your disposal:
– time
– talent
– tools
– money

Mentioned “Rocketship” and “Carpe Diem”
– citizen schools is Boston based, inundated with professionals in the community who are willing to teach enrichment courses for free once per week

Money is lazy man’s lobster
– when people say they need more money I am skeptical

Univ of Michigan studies show what LOW percentage of the school day is used for instructional time

book “Teach Like a Champion” Doug Lemauve
– it’s a mistake to think of this as a way to teach
– tight transitions are key

Rethink tools
– I just know 1 technology that has systematically transformed education, educators were p***** off about it initially: The book
– 500 years ago you could only learn from someone in your community
– that made educators nervous, most education was church supported, fear was people might read things and misinterpret ideas
– the book allowed you to go home and learn, even away from school
– we’ve been flipping the classroom for hundreds of years, but much of our flipping sucks

the book DID allow us to unbundle the teacher role
– mentoring
– coaching
– delivering content
– assessing

how do we use these tools to rethink what we do in classrooms and schools
– this conversation RARELY happens with school leaders and CTOs, however

rethinking talent (picture of stormtroopers)

Stormtroopers by aa7ae, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  aa7ae 

– most significant thing we have in schools is talent

why talking about teachers and their role
– it’s like John Dillinger saying why he robbed banks: that’s where the $$$ is

we feminized teaches in the early 1900s when Horace Mann was building out the common school movement
– we did it to get a pool of cheap labor who couldn’t go anywhere else
– that is why we created “normal schools”
– we were teaching teachers the ‘norms’ of working with kids, we didn’t trust them
– traditional staffing model meets demographic need and opportunities very poorly

Caged solution: taking the talent as given
– more mentorship

Analogy to best cardiovascular surgeon who leaves the surgery to go supervise the cafeteria, while the worst one comes in to sew up the patient
– that’s a crazy way to use instructional talent in schools

Cage Bar Continuum
– things you can already do
– thinks you can do if you’re a little creative
– things you can do if you alter little policies
– things you can do only if you change big P policies

Lots of things leaders think they CAN’T do they CAN do
– many of us are very disinterested in the laws of what education rules ACTUALLY are

person who worked for Joel Klein
– was told you have to have 5 evaluations before initiating action against a teacher for poor performance
– actual contract number was ONE

We need to get in the habit of figuring out, are we allowed to do this or not?

How we think about legality in schools
– some say a general counsel’s job is to keep a district out of litigation
– Joel Klein who ran anti-trust against Microsoft and others say: role of an attorney is to help you solve problems

So many “no” answers for what is allowed
– many just use ‘what has been done before’ as their measuring stick

“new teacher project” founder telling story about school superintendent who complained they couldn’t do anything
– it is enormously easy for school boards and superintendents today to blame unions and contracts for their own gutless failure to act

only about 10% of labor agreements in 50 biggest districts are flexible
– 32% ar restrictive
– rest are pretty flexible

we have allowed leadership to be excuse mongers and fail to exploit their authority
– I don’t expect leaders to use all their time erading rules
– they need help with this

– senate bill 736 in Florida, blew up with so much controversy
– value added instruments being developed, adopted Marzano or Danielson framework for evaluation, 5 annual evaluations for each teacher
– after all of this, percentage of teachers in Florica rated proficient plunged from 99% to 97%
– similar in Tennessee, went from 99% to 98%

these challenges can’t be fixed through policy
– many reformers act like they just need to change the laws

policy can just create the conditions where educators can serve students well
– we need to think more about training and socialization
– incentives and accountability for leaders
– more…

5 tips for cage busters
– remember your Sun Tzu (every battle is won before it’s thought)
– build a coalition of the willing
– carry a pocket constitution
– play Bre’r Rabbit
John Henry is not a role model

most of what matters in education is how WELL you do something, rather than whether you do it

Story of superintendent who kept being told “you can’t do that” carrying around the actual teacher contract, so she could hold it up and show people, “yes I can”
– staffing and school time rules
– need to understand these issues

Michelle Rhee doing teacher DC contract
– used philanthropist money to promise they would have money if we do this
– shifted things for the union leaders
– allowing outside partners to attach conditions to money can be positive and let things move

why Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift in Newark was so poorly spent

We get into a bragging contest about how many hours we work per week

You don’t do cage busing leadership when we are exhausted and burned out

Responses to questions:

1- If you’re told you can’t do something, ask that person to show you where the law says you can’t
2- if that doesn’t work, tell the official what you want to do and ask them what creative ways they could accomplish this

(reformulate the problem in a new way that is permissible)

1 problem in education is: We’re really bad about talking about problem solving
– I do a lot of turnaround workshops and ask people what they want to accomplish

There are fantastic charter schools today that are caged, just moving the boulder a little more / faster
– charter schools which emerged in the 1990s are the ones we are excited about
– “there is tendency to pull up the bridge behind these guys”

I’d like to see more Carpe Diem’s and Rocketships


I’m surprised by Rick Hess’ consistent use of profanity in his #sxswedu session. I understand the passion, but profanity isn’t professional

Comment on Profanity in Rick Hess' SXSWedu session

Druker and Jack Welch should be on the required reading list for educational leadership courses
– I don’t just want ‘people who understand business’ to run schools
– we need people who can solve problems

I know of no district sending career educators in finance or HR to actually look at how Vegas casinos do quality assurance with unskilled labor
– partnering with UPS and FedEx to tighten working timelines
– working with 3M or Google to make sure talented professionals are using available bandwidth to generate new solutions

Are an enormous number of people in systems today who do lots better
– director of student services in large district story: using K-12 art and music teachers to cover conferences, can’t cover preK because they don’t have the endorsement
– leads to $1.8 million outlay for teachers driving around covering conferences, but the irony was the same district had 20 long term subs
– creative solutions to things like this never gets rewarded or encouraged

Question: Who looks like Virgin, Southwest or Jet Blue in the education space now?
– answer: Carpe Diem or Rocketship are probably the answer, but they are more like Subway

We don’t have a critical mass of folks thinking and talking this way

Question on standardized testing
– I don’t like standardized testing, it’s essential, it doesn’t deserve the “boogeyman status” it’s often assigned

Fairly common experiences I had in 1990s in Baton Rogue and other
– only feasible way to have a backdrop of assurance that people are teaching the skills


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One response to “Cage-Busting Leadership by Rick Hess”

  1. Jake Heister Avatar

    I often feel the same about Hess-can’t agree with everything, but he offers important challenges to educators. I totally agree we should all learn the actual laws related to our field. So many take something they heard someone say and take it as gospel truth. Look at all of the misconceptions about CIPA, COPA, and copyright issues for example.