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A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But taking that first step requires knowing where the heck you’re trying to go.
Here’s a simple exercise I often use when working with school and system leaders:
You’re in Washington, D.C. You need to get to Los Angeles. Question: How fast can you drive there? Go.
Give or take, it’s about 2,500 miles. What inevitably happens is that folks turn to their smartphones to figure out the distance and then calculate how long it will take to drive. Most estimate three to four days. Then the more aggressive go to work. They figure out that they can do the drive with friends, eat in the car, and get there in 45 or 50 hours.
Frequently, though, one or two people will have a different answer. Instead of casually assuming that they should drive from D.C. to L.A. just because I said so, they think about the purpose of the trip. Not seeing any reason to drive, they decide the point is to travel from D.C. to L.A. They hop online and find the quickest flight, a nonstop that will get them there in five or six hours. They’re focused not on instructions but on solving the problem. This requires blasting past routines, assumptions, and mental traps that plague even the most acclaimed schools and inspiring leaders.
Leadership always entails two complementary roles. One is coaching, mentoring, nurturing, and inspiring others to forge dynamic, professional cultures. This half often absorbs the whole attention of those who tackle educational leadership. Lost in the discussion is the second half of leadership—the cage-busting half, in which leaders upend stifling rules, policies, and routines to make it easier for successful professional cultures to thrive.
Bring a Beginner’s Mind
It’s tough to cultivate the cage-busting mind-set. For one thing, leaders are surrounded by colleagues who are used to the cage. For another, they’re surrounded by experts who claim to already know what needs to be done. For instance, many authorities continue to cite a paper that Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning published in 2003.1 It identified 21 leadership responsibilities thought to be associated with student achievement. These included celebrating school accomplishments, being directly involved in designing curriculum and assessment, having quality contact with teachers and students, challenging the status quo, leading new and challenging innovations, and ensuring that staff are aware of the most current theories and practices. Leaders can get so intent on all of this that they get overwhelmed.
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
Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist noted how being new in an organization can open up possibilities:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The most innovative organizations in the world tend to be cash-poor startups that rely on moxie, creativity, and elbow grease. In education, however, “innovation” has typically meant layering new dollars and programs atop everything that came before. Does more money, more time, or more staff usually help? Of course. But what matters most is what you do with it.
Own Your Beliefs
Avoiding these pitfalls requires clarity, honesty, and knowing what your goals are. “Raise test scores” or “Make AYP” are bad responses here. They’re secondhand goals, defined for you by policymakers and test developers. They should be signposts along the way—not the destination.
A good response identifies the destination and lights a path forward. A good response is that you want every 8th grader to speak a second language, master algebra, or volunteer in his or her community. Knowing what you care about frees you to push back on the stuff you don’t think important.
For instance, Steve Dackin, superintendent in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said,
My concern about the [highly qualified teacher] requirement is—I’m not [concerned]. I’m less concerned about a credential than I am about making sure the teacher is effective. My report card will speak for itself. We received an A on the last report card, and we hit 26 out of all 26 performance goals while reducing our expenditures.
Dave Wilson was asked to take over as principal at the high school with the worst graduation rate in Nevada. He observed that much of the school’s problem was due to high truancy rates, as many students worked full-time to help support their siblings. Wilson said, “I decided that what matters is whether the students are learning the material—not whether they’re necessarily sitting in classrooms.”
It turned out the principal has the authority to look at each case and determine whether to issue credit, despite the number of absences the student had that semester. Wilson decided, “If the student can pass the exams and demonstrate mastery, this is what matters.” He increased the number of absences allowed by two and saw a 15-point graduation boost.
Is Wilson’s strategy the right one? Not necessarily. But Wilson owned his judgment and led accordingly. How did the superintendent respond? He said, “I just get out of Dave’s way. I wish I had more like him.”
Problem Solving, Not “Reform”
Cage-busters try to begin every conversation—with parents, board members, staff, and the pizza delivery guy—by talking about the problems they’ve identified and how they might solve them.
Is reading performance far below where it should be? OK. Moral urgency is swell, but what are you going to do besides care more and work harder?
You don’t need “innovation” or “reform.” You need to solve a problem. Why are you coming up short? Is it the curriculum? The amount of time on task? The caliber of instruction? The lack of student engagement? The lack of parental support? Some of these? All of these?
Define, as concretely as possible, the problem you’re trying to solve. Remember, excuses love ambiguity. Once you focus on this problem, as it exists here and now, it’s a lot easier to identify possible solutions.
Take, for example, professional learning communities (PLCs). Nearly every school claims to be—or aspires to be—a PLC, but it’s remarkably hard to make it happen. Between contracts and master schedules, schools can’t find the requisite planning time for teams. It takes days, or sometimes weeks, to get the results of formative assessments—and the data or the data analysis tools may not be granular enough to inform instruction. Professional development is too often provided through drive-by workshops or in generic monthly staff meetings. A problem-solving approach can’t birth a PLC, but it helps identify and deliver what is needed for PLCs to fulfill their promise.
Ultimately, a problem-solving focus helps you continually circle back to six questions that should guide every action you take:
That’s it. You can boil cage-busting down to those six questions.
Call Problems by Their Name
An ancient Chinese proverb advises, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” Doing so helps focus the mind and pierce the fog of platitudes. It permits us to see problems and to surface solutions.
For instance, if you’d like 50 percent of your students to master a second language and currently only 40 percent do, that’s a problem. If you don’t know how you’re faring because you don’t track those data, that’s a big problem. It’s a problem even if your numbers are relatively good. Why? Because you just said so. When you identify objectives you deem important and then determine 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 challenges 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 5 percent.”
“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 principal focused on solutions. Could he get a waiver or memorandum of understanding 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.
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 hide. Craig Pliskin, an assistant principal in Cypress-Fairbanks, a district just outside of Houston, Texas, put it beautifully:
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.”
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 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 prohibitions 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 surprisingly tractable in isolation.
I recall a meeting with school leaders to discuss parental involvement in which I asked one principal from a high-performing school what percentage of her parents attended parent-teacher conferences. She said the figure was around 50 percent. I asked what percentage she’d like it to be. She said 90 percent. Suddenly, instead of vague pledges to “boost parental engagement,” we had an actual goal and a specific problem to solve.
She began to focus on solutions. The school could have parents sign in on big nights to get hard numbers and track gains. She could ask staff to visit habitually absent parents and perhaps drive them to the school, if necessary. She could have teachers do more to ensure 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.
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 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.
1 Waters, 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.
2 Suzuki, S., (2006). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Boston, Shambhala, p. 1
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.
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