that you’re falling short (or don’t even
know how you’re faring!), you’ve identified problems.
And identifying problems is great! It
generates clear, concrete goals. It flags
precise opportunities to get better. And
it enables you to identify and cast into
sharp relief the obstacles in your way.
I recall one principal who said it was
hard to drive improvement because
his school already performed well on
California’s accountability rubric and
thus lacked clear, motivating chal-
lenges evident in turnaround schools.
When asked if he had goals beyond
California’s reading and math metrics,
he said, “In a perfect world, 100 percent
of my students would be able to speak
two languages.” When asked what the
number currently was, he said, “About
“So, you’re failing there,” I said.
He reflexively responded, “No, we’re
not.” Then he paused, thought, and
said, “Yeah, we are.” He explained, “Not
everyone is interested in our language
offerings, and I’d like to offer sign
language. But I can’t fund it. I want to
bring in people who aren’t credentialed
to teach other languages, but we don’t
have any way to do that.”
Able to articulate his goal, the prin-
cipal focused on solutions. Could he
get a waiver or memorandum of under-
standing that would allow uncertified
sign language instructors to come in
and teach? (He didn’t know.) Could he
use Rosetta Stone or another computer-
assisted provider to offer language
instruction that he couldn’t afford to
hire teachers for? (He would ask.) Could
he find a way to reconfigure his budget
or staffing to fund language offerings?
(He hadn’t looked.) Identifying the
problem unlocked a raft of potential
new ways to tackle it.
hide. Craig Pliskin, an assistant prin-
cipal in Cypress-Fairbanks, a district
just outside of Houston, Texas, put it
There are four kinds of barriers. There’s
“We don’t have to” or “You can’t make
me,” which is culture. There’s the legal
“We’re not allowed to.” There’s “Why
we can’t do it,” which is about logistics.
Finally, people will explain, “Why we
shouldn’t do it.”
that notices made it home to parents or
guardians in languages they understood.
In hindsight, these ideas all struck
her as obvious, leading her to good-
naturedly grouse, “We should have
started looking into these three years
ago.” Precise, identifiable problems lead
to problem solving.
These excuses thrive in ambiguity
and shrink when subjected to scrutiny.
We can combat “You can’t make me” by
making clear that they do have to or by
Create the Schools You Imagine
Now, you may be wondering, where
are the paeans to children, best practices, and the grandeur of teaching?
After all, most tomes on education
leadership emphasize heart, culture, and
Knowing what you care about frees you to push
back on the stuff you don’t think important.
instruction, and here I’m talking about
bureaucracy, precision, and problem
solving. The oft-overlooked truth is that
you don’t do cage-busting instead of
mentoring, coaching, and inspiring, but
so that you can do these things better.
Cage-busting helps create the conditions in which you can be the leader
you want to be. The reward? The
chance to create schools equal to your
aspirations. The chance to spend time
and energy supporting great teaching
and learning, rather than begging for
permission to act. The chance to create
schools that can unlock the talents of
teachers and leaders and begin to realize
the new possibilities of 21st century
schooling. Cage-busters believe that’s a
deal worth taking. EL
1Waters, T., Marzano, R. J., & McNulty,
B. (2003). Balanced leadership: What 30 years
of research tells us about the effect of leadership
on student achievement. Aurora, CO: McREL.
2Suzuki, S., (2006). Zen mind, beginner’s
mind. Boston, Shambhala, p. 1
Specificity Lights the Way
A cage-buster can’t settle for ambiguity,
banalities, or imprecision. These things
provide dark corners where all manner
of ineptitude and excuse-making can
offering incentives so that they’ll want
to. We can fight “We’re not allowed to”
by finding specific policies or contract
provisions that permit action or, more
often, by showing that supposed pro-
hibitions don’t actually exist. We can
counter “Why we can’t” by scrutinizing
resources to find a way forward. And
that narrows objections to “Why we
shouldn’t,” a complaint that’s surpris-
ingly tractable in isolation.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American
Enterprise Institute and author of
Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education