October 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 2
Developing School Leaders Pages 28-33
Cages of Their Own Design
Frederick M. Hess
Breakthrough leadership is possible in schools—if reform-minded educators boldly step out of self-defeating mind-sets into the turbulence of change.
Principals and superintendents frequently lament that their hands are tied by contracts, policies, and regulations—especially when it comes to hiring and firing staff, assigning employees to schools or classrooms, designing programs, or allocating resources. There is something to these complaints, and I believe they are real problems.
But more than one thing can be true at a time. It is also the case that education leadership is marked by a debilitating timidity; reform-minded administrators could make much better use of their existing authority.
John Deasy, former superintendent of Prince George’s County, Maryland, gained national acclaim for overseeing substantial achievement gains in low-performing schools. Even in a district with a collective bargaining agreement widely judged as restrictive, he shattered notions of what local leaders could do by transferring hundreds of teachers to new schools and initiating a voluntary pay-for-performance system. “Nothing prohibited any of this,” Deasy explained. “Why does it not happen? [Because] most people see the contract as a steel box. It’s not. It’s a steel floor with no boundaries around it. You’ve just got to push and push and push.”
In 2008, Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee dusted off a decade-old statute permitting principals to weigh other factors alongside seniority when making staffing decisions. The law had sat unused even as Rhee’s predecessors complained they were powerless when “bumping rights” enabled senior teachers to displace younger peers. “Bumping rights had been viewed as a problem for those of us trying to get quality teachers in the classroom,” said Kevin Chavous, a Washington, D.C., council member who helped craft the law. “[But] even after the law was passed, superintendents operated under the assumption that bumping rights were still there” (Hayes, 2008).
In district after district, much that might be done goes untried.
The Familiar Reasons
One common excuse for moving gingerly on teacher performance or assignment is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). However, in a 2008 analysis of CBA work rules, teacher compensation, and personnel policies in the 50 largest U.S. school districts, policy analyst Coby Loup and I found that although one-third were highly restrictive, most included substantial ambiguity on various counts (Hess & Loup, 2008). Vanderbilt University professor R. Dale Ballou (2000) reported that, in Massachusetts,
On virtually every issue of personnel policy, there are contracts that grant administrators the managerial prerogatives they are commonly thought to lack. When more flexible language is negotiated, administrators do not take advantage of it [but still] blame the contract for their own inaction. (p. viii)
A second familiar complaint is the heavy hand of state and federal regulations. One of the few attempts to address this challenge, however, suggests a more complex story. In the 1980s, the California legislature allowed districts to apply for waivers if they could demonstrate that laws or rules were hampering school improvement. Columbia University professor Henry Levin (2006) recounted, “Fewer than 100 [waivers] were made in the first year” out of more than 1,000 districts. More surprising, noted Levin, was that “the vast majority of all requests for waivers were unnecessary” (p. 173). A review by legal counsel found that nearly all the proposed measures were permissible under existing law. Superintendents and boards mistakenly thought policies were more restrictive than they were or, Levin (2006) added, were using laws and regulations “as a scapegoat … to justify maintaining existing practices” (p. 174).
A third excuse for tepid leadership is, “We don’t have the money.” On this count, an immense problem is the practice of regarding salaries and staff time as sunk costs and failing to pursue new efficiencies. Districts rarely eliminate staff, even when a new product or service might enable 9 employees to accomplish what once took 10. The result is that labor-saving technologies or services rarely appear cost-effective.
Tim Daly, CEO of the New Teacher Project, a New York–based venture that helps districts recruit faculty and address human resource challenges, explained that districts frequently say, “They loved our work” but that “we are too expensive … that our teachers were $5,000 to $6,000 per head and that their human resources department could recruit teachers for $100 or $150 per head.” In fact, Daly said,
This calculation was based solely on two expenses: fees paid to attend job fairs and ads placed in newspapers. It didn’t include any of the costs for staff salaries or benefits, or office space used by the recruiters, or technology infrastructure, or placement costs, or mentoring. They just added up the most readily tallied costs and divided by the number of teachers hired.
Managing this way means that reform proceeds only as fast as new resources are layered atop the old—and it grinds to a halt when new dollars stop flowing.
A Defensive Mind-Set
So, if it is not (just) the contracts, rules, or a lack of money, then what is the problem?
Put simply, education leaders are trained and raised to operate from a defensive posture. Superintendents and principals learn early to tread gingerly, pursue consensus, get clearance before acting, and abide by established procedures. Whatever the statutory and contractual hurdles leaders face, these are dramatically worsened by the socialization, training, and legal culture of the K–12 environment.
A Premium on Conventional Wisdom
A significant obstacle is that training often emphasizes requirements and standard procedures while providing little understanding of where opportunities for change may lie. New York City Chancellor Joel Klein noted, “There is probably more flexibility inside some contracts than gets exercised … and I think that’s [in part] simply about knowledge. When I got there, I was astonished at how few principals knew they had authority to do things.” Education law scholar Perry Zirkel agreed, asserting that administrators are less hamstrung by statute than they believe but that “knowledge deficits” have led them to “overestimate legal requirements.”
Education leaders sense the problem. In 2006, Public Agenda reported that more than 60 percent of principals and superintendents thought “typical leadership programs in graduate schools are out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today’s school districts” (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006).
In 2007, education researcher Andrew Kelly and I examined more than 200 syllabi from a sample of U.S. principal preparation programs and found little or no attention to such issues as removing mediocre employees or using data to overhaul operations (Hess & Kelly, 2007). The most widely assigned texts typically echo Thomas Sergiovanni’s (1996) assertion that “we [must] accept the reality that leadership for the schoolhouse should be different, and … we [need to] begin to invent our own practice” (p. xiv).
The most commonly assigned authors included such school leadership icons as Thomas Sergiovanni, Michael Fullan, Lee Bolman, and Linda Darling-Hammond. Absent were such influential management thinkers as Michael Porter, Jim Collins, Clayton Christensen, and Tom Peters. Leaders who have spent their entire careers in K–12 education may have had little exposure to different ways of thinking and may learn to regard familiar routines as inevitable and immutable (Hess & Kelly, 2007).
Also, one ironic consequence of this lack of exposure is that thinkers like Collins and Christensen too often become objects of faddish fascination for educators. Having seldom had the opportunity to scrutinize this body of work or coolly assess how the insights translate into K–12 schooling, school leaders can easily misapply sensible insights, swallow pat but misguided prescriptions, or mistake jargon for action. The point is not to celebrate management thinkers—much less to assign them talismanic status—but to produce leaders who poke and prod challenges from many angles and are able and willing to devise smart, tough-minded solutions.
Socialized to Accept the Status Quo
Fully 80 percent of superintendents follow a career path that leads from teacher, to principal, to superintendent, with two-thirds serving in the district central office en route (Glass, Bjork, & Brunner, 2000, as cited in Orr, 2002). Principals are almost entirely drawn from the ranks of former teachers, and almost all receive their leadership training in schools of education where inclinations toward a consensus-driven worldview can calcify into dogma.
Although education leadership lies at the intersection of two vibrant and powerful bodies of thought—education and leadership/management—it tends to be the province of a narrow population of “education administration” specialists. Most other fields approach leadership training differently, hiring graduates of MBA programs (where those interested in an array of for-profit and nonprofit roles learn together) and managers and leaders who have worked in other sectors and organizations.
More than anything, principals and superintendents live in a culture that puts a premium on collegiality and consensus. Although managers in most walks of life take for granted the utility of rewarding effective employees and sanctioning ineffective ones, this is a radical practice in education. Public Agenda reported in 2006 that only 20 percent of superintendents and 17 percent of principals thought linking rewards or sanctions to student learning would be a “very effective” way to improve teacher quality. Only 29 percent of principals thought eliminating teacher tenure would be a “very effective” way to boost teacher quality (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006, p. 18).
On the other hand, 62 percent of principals thought teacher quality could be boosted “very effectively” by increasing professional development; 54 percent, by decreasing class size; and 45 percent, by raising teacher pay. In short, there seems to be a strong preference for nonconfrontational strategies and a deep reluctance to consider more muscular approaches (Johnson, Arumi, & Ott, 2006, p. 18).
A consequence of this mind-set is that change is typically slow and expensive. The strategies that principals and superintendents tend to prefer all require new dollars, and they promise no new efficiencies. In the course of their professional experiences, few superintendents have seen firsthand more assertive models of leadership. Those seeking successful careers do well to steer clear of heated clashes over staffing, school closures, new delivery models, or nontraditional vendors; instead, they move deliberately on less controversial instructional and curricular strategies.
The Law as Stop Sign
Finally, school and district leaders are hindered by a tendency to regard the law as a stop sign—and their attorneys as traffic cops. As Robert Holster, superintendent of the Passaic, New Jersey, school district for more than 16 years, lamented, “I run a lot of decisions by legal counsel, getting input as to, ‘Is this the legal decision to make?’ It seems like we are challenged more by everyone today—from students to parents to staff. Everyone has a lawyer.”
Education leaders typically view the law as a series of established hurdles when it is actually a far more uncertain beast. Maree Sneed, an education lawyer and partner at the Washington, D.C.–based law firm Hogan and Hartson, explained that legal questions often do not have yes or no answers. “Lawyers shouldn’t decide what is done,” she said. “Their job is to say ‘Here are the parameters. Here is a way to do it—but there is some risk.'”
Alan Bersin, now President Obama’s “Border Czar”—but in previous roles San Diego superintendent, California secretary of education, and U.S. attorney for Southern California— noted that attorneys are instinctively cautious and that the superintendent’s job is to push back. “If a lawyer, for instance, told me that I couldn’t do something, I’d always ask, ‘Why, and what are the circumstances or changes that could permit us to do it?'” he said. “That’s the attorney-client dialogue that ought to occur. A good lawyer would never just say that you can’t do something … and a competent CEO would never take just that as a final answer.”
Flying Free of the Cage
Painting inside the lines may work in well-situated suburban communities, but it is an enormous hindrance in locales where leaders face a steep climb to aggressively boost teacher quality, tackle ineffective practices, find new efficiencies, or revamp outmoded routines. The crucial step in breakthrough leadership is shifting from a defensive to a change-agent mind-set. Five strategies can help leaders, policymakers, and reformers make this shift.
Strategy 1: Look beyond the usual boundaries of what is permissible.
Recognize the difference between how business is usually done and how it could be done. Scrutinize the contract and related policies, asking whether there is anything explicitly prohibiting an action. A crucial task is soliciting fresh perspectives by pursuing training, reading, and experiences that can help you learn how leaders operate outside K–12 education. John Deasy, for instance, noted that when it comes to redefining what is permissible, “my most formative experiences have developed almost entirely in relationships and mentorships with noneducators.”
Strategy 2: Promote transparency.
Shine a public floodlight on what laws, regulations, and labor agreements actually say, and explain the problems caused by restrictive policies. By flagging the problems caused by seniority-driven “bumping” rules, the New Teacher Project has played a crucial role in altering teacher assignment policies in New York and elsewhere. The ensuing media glare made it tougher for the United Federation of Teachers to defend problematic practices, gave the union leadership reason to seek a deal that would staunch the bad publicity, and consequently put district leaders in a stronger bargaining position. Putting anachronistic or perverse practices on public display is a terrific way to mobilize civic leaders, attract media attention, and build support for leaders to scrap the old ways and take bold action.
Strategy 3: Get the law on your side.
Crucial to change-minded leadership is making the law a tool of reform—to make ambiguity and uncertainty work for, rather than against, a leader’s school improvement efforts. Because the law sets forth what can and cannot be done, it is a mistake to try to work around the corners of the law; leaders intent on overhauling policy or practice must be prepared to tackle the law head-on. This requires smart, creative, substantive, tough-minded attorneys focused on helping leaders drive change.
Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, noted, “A good general counsel … will tell you how to achieve what you want and how to do it within the law.” Whether this help is funded by the district, granted by donors, or offered pro bono by local firms is immaterial—what matters is the focus on ways to help district leaders drive improvement.
Strategy 4: Welcome nontraditional thinking and leaders.
Those who come to education leadership through nontraditional routes and who are not education careerists may find it easier to observe and to say that the emperor has no clothes. They are less likely to accept prevailing norms and more likely to ask, Why do we do it this way? The point is not that we should prefer nontraditional leaders to seasoned educators, but that standard practice can prevent decision makers from tapping into unconventional skills, insights, or ways of thinking.
Whatever their backgrounds, leaders need to be exposed to how others outside the confines of K–12 education tackle hiring, professional development, evaluation, accountability, and budgeting. Do not assume that professional development should focus narrowly on traditional education leadership; explore alternative options, including executive partnerships and business schools.
Strategy 5: Provide cover.
If you practice change leadership, you are asking for grief without support from above. As the University of Memphis’s Thomas Glass noted,
Where superintendents and principals know their boards are going to support them, they are more likely to take risks aimed at bringing about reform. But superintendents unsure of what their board members want or insecure about how they will respond to controversy are reluctant to stick their necks out. (Education Writers Association, 2003, p. 6)
For this to ring true, boards and district leaders must honor change agents and accept inevitable reversals. Joel Klein, for example, encourages principals to make aggressive personnel decisions—even if some of them do not pan out. Referring to his time in the Clinton administration, he notes, “When I was at the Justice Department, I used to say, ‘If we’re winning every case we bring, we’re not bringing enough cases.'”
Looking Conflict in the Eye
I am not suggesting that there is some grand virtue in conflict or in pushing against rules; only that deep reform almost invariably entails creating some hard feelings, upending familiar routines, and overcoming established procedures. Superintendents and principals intent on sidestepping conflict while overhauling low-performing schools and systems will prove, at best, tepid agents of change.
Geniality is a good thing, but there is a time for consensus and a time for conflict. Principals and superintendents intent on radically improving schools and systems need to accept and be prepared for a good bit of turbulence.
Ballou, R. D. (2000). Teacher contracts in Massachusetts. Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. Available: http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/wp12.pdf
Education Writers Association. (2003). Effective superintendents, effective boards: Finding the right fit (Special Report). Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://www.ewa.org/docs/leadership.pdf
Hayes, V. D. (2008, July 3). Rhee seeks tenure-pay swap for teachers. The Washington Post, p. B1.
Hess, F. M., & Kelly, A. P. (2007). Learning to lead: What gets taught in principal preparation programs? Teachers College Record, 109(1), 244–274.
Hess, F. M., & Loup, C. (2008). The leadership limbo: Teacher labor agreements in America’s fifty largest school districts. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Available: http://www.edexcellence.net/doc/the_leadership_limbo.pdf
Johnson, J., Arumi, A. M., & Ott, A., (2006). The insiders: How principals and superintendents see public education today (Reality Check 2006, Issue No. 4). New York: Public Agenda.
Levin, H. M. (2006). Why is this so difficult? In F. M. Hess (Ed.), Educational entrepreneurship: realities, challenges, possibilities (p. 165–182). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Orr, M. T. (2002, April). Learning the superintendency: Socialization, negotiation, determination. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.
Sergiovanni, T. J. (1996). Leadership for the schoolhouse: How is it different? Why is it important? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Author’s note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are drawn from personal interviews with the author.
Frederick M. Hess is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Executive Editor of Education Next; firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of No Child Left Behind: A Primer (Peter Lang, 2006) and Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).