The cage-busting mind-set requires stepping back and cultivating what the Zen Buddhists refer to as shoshin, or “
beginner’s mind.” This means approaching subjects with curiosity
and an open mind, even when you think you already know it
all. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki puts it aptly:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the
expert’s there are few.” 2
Gist recalled that when approving the cut scores for applicants to state teacher preparation programs, she asked questions like, How did we arrive at these numbers? How do we
compare with other states? and Who has the authority to set
the standards? She learned that she had the authority to set
the cut scores and that Rhode Island’s cut score was tied with
those of Guam and North Dakota for the lowest in the United
States. Gist explained, “I said we aren’t going to do it
that way anymore. So I raised the scores and sent a
message that things were going to be different.”
Three Leadership Traps
Cage-busting requires navigating three self-imposed
traps that ensnare many leaders.
The Platitudes Trap
In practice, too many leaders resort to vapid generalities
that foster muddled thinking. They’re told to value
good things like consensus, collegiality, relational trust,
coherence making, child-centered learning, and professional growth. And well they should.
But high expectations, competition, decisive
leadership, and discipline are also good things. And
these values can conflict in messy ways that shrink-wrapped platitudes won’t sort out. This means that
leaders should know what they hold most important,
and lead accordingly.
Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist
noted how being new in an organization can open up
Being the new person means you can say, “I don’t understand.
Could you explain this?” even though you probably have a sense
for what’s actually happening. You’re able to see things in new
ways that folks who have been there a long time just accept as
“we’ve always done it that way.”
The “Sucks Less” Trap
When you’re scrambling to make adequate yearly
progress (AYP) or hit proficiency targets, it’s easy to get
caught up mimicking modestly better performers—
what New Orleans–based 4.0 Schools founder Matt
Candler aptly labeled the “sucks less” trap. When we
look at schools that surpass minimal bars we’ve set for
reading and math achievement, high school graduation,
and college enrollment, there’s a tendency to copy them
rather than try to build on their successes.
Because of the “sucks less” trap, we often fail to aim
high enough. We talk about “exemplary” schools in
which just 30 seniors out of 600 are getting 4s or 5s
on the advanced placement Calculus BC exam. We
talk about schools that are considered “outstanding” because
96 percent of their kids are proficient in basic reading and
math—without asking how many students are fluent in a
second language, terrific writers, or advanced in science.
© BULL’S EYE/IMAGEZOO/CORBIS
The “More, Better” Trap
Perhaps the mark of caged leadership is school and system
leaders who imagine that improvement is only possible when
they have more dollars to spend. The fact is, that’s a cop-out.