Cage-Busting Leadership

Cage-Busting LeadershipRick Hess has added an important piece to his shelf-busting bibliography with this new book, which seeks to dismantle conventional thinking about education leadership at all levels. Hess begins by presenting the problem: Ideological traps prevent leaders from adopting simple, widely used leadership tactics that are almost universally effective outside the world of education. Among these “cage-dwelling” ideological traps are the notions that improvement is only possible with more dollars, that hands are so bound by outside forces as to make improvement impossible, and that a district is good simply because it “sucks less” than the average. The rest of his pages give leaders the knowledge and strength they need to chisel through the bars of antiquated, platitude-heavy thinking. For example, he urges them to optimize funding, assign faculty according to their strengths, and know their districts’ collective-bargaining agreements—and work with lawyers to find creative contractual workarounds. This last point may be Hess’s most interesting contribution (and is similar to what he argued in Leadership Limbo): Union contracts, laws, and regulations don’t tie edu-leaders’ hands nearly as much as these leaders (and reformers) assume. They have the discretion and authority to change policy and practice, and they need to find the courage, creativity, and wherewithal to do so. (Reformers, too, would be wise to target energies toward this end, rather than continuing their single-pronged attack on unions.) Still, Hess is mindful that political fear indeed drives ed leaders’ commitment to the status quo. So he shows that reform can be (and has been) done: He interlaces examples of visionary leaders who have already succeeded in shattering the complacency cage, such as Mike Feinberg and Terry Grier. Hess’s book is informative, broad in its scope, precise in its solution, and fun to read (really). Throughout, he lightens this heady topic with pithy pop-culture references and ancient textual wisdom. In the end, Hess has created an informative guide that should give leaders the confidence to bar-bust their way to effective education leadership.

SOURCE: Frederick M. Hess, Cage-Busting Leadership (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012).

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