Rick Hess Talks Cage-Busting Education Leadership

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In April, Education Pioneers co-hosted a reception and presentation featuring American Enterprise Institute's Frederick Hess, in conversation about his book, Cage-Busting Leadership. The event was held in partnership with Teach Plus, The Rennie Center, and Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE).

Cage-Busting Leadership by Frederick Hess

According to Rick Hess, education leaders need to stop trying to roll a boulder up a mountain.

In front of an audience of more than 100 attendees, Hess drew a parallel between education reformers and the mythical Sisyphus, a king who must perpetually roll a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back again. It's similar in education: leaders make incremental, good-faith decisions around instruction time or school budgets for example, and they might see promising early results. But eventually progress isn't sustained, so the boulder hits a roadblock and rolls back downhill.

To truly transform the education sector, Hess argued, we need to see beyond the immediate task at hand-simply getting the boulder up the mountain-and recognize the bigger problem: that there's a mountain in the first place.

That's where "cage-busting" leaders come in. Cage-busters see beyond policies and rules (the mountain) that limit progress towards their goals. They think ambitiously and consider if they're doing everything possible to enable success. "Cage-busting is the missing half of the leadership equation," Hess said.

How can cage-busting principles be applied to education? Here are three of Hess' examples:

  1. Allow for innovation and diverse perspectives. In the private sector, when things stop working, companies get to re-invent themselves and innovate. "They get to start from scratch," Hess said, but explained that that's rarely the case in education. Often, Hess noted, innovation comes from the intersection of multiple perspectives. But in education, there's only one typical route to leadership: "Teacher, principal, central office, superintendent: that's the standard career path," Hess pointed out. How can we get more perspectives in the mix?  
  2. Maximize what already exists. For example, on the issue of time, research shows that only 70% of school time is used on instruction. "We don't need two more weeks at the end of the school year," Hess said. "We need better use of current time." Think about teachers distributing handouts to their students. If it takes one minute for each handout to circulate around the room, and a teacher distributes 15 pieces a day, that's 15 minutes of wasted teaching time each day-over an hour each week. But if there's a "game" where students race against the clock to pass everything out, Hess has seen teachers who shave that time down to 15 seconds per handout. Over an entire school year, that's 40 hours freed up for instruction. "That's cage-busting leadership," Hess said.  
  3. Consider talent, time, tools, and money. Hess called these the four factors that greatly impact success. In concert, they can be especially powerful. For example, are we deploying scare talent in the most effective ways? "Have people spend more time doing what they're great at," Hess said simply. "That's what cage-busting is all about."

Education Pioneers Founder & CEO Scott Morgan, President Frances McLaughlin, and two Alumni also shared their perspectives on cage-busting leadership on Hess' "Straight Up" blog recently. Don't miss their posts!

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