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Cage-Busting Leadership

reviewed by Chase Nordengren - August 22, 2013

coverTitle: Cage-Busting Leadership
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612505066, Pages: 256, Year: 2013
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“Buy in,” reads a heading in Frederick Hess’s eighth authored book on education policy, “is a tactic, not a credo” (p. 185). The declaration, one of many in Cage-Busting Leadership, crystallizes the argument central to the text. Hess argues first that the mindset of collaboration that characterizes much scholarship and practice in education leadership-the focus on “culture, capacity building, coaching and consensus” (p. xi)-ought not serve as the be-all end-all of school leadership. Second, the technical latitude of school leaders to enact substantive change both vastly exceeds what leadership scholars have considered and what leaders themselves have realized. Moving from culture to cage, Hess attempts to shift thinking about what keeps leaders from crafting the schools we want. Unfortunately, the replacement of one active metaphor with another does little functionally to advance the gridlocked debate about education reform that this book claims to place front and center.

The proverbial cage of this work is the set of barriers to change Hess believes are amplified by the push for consensus. These are both institutional routines and regulations of all types: federal, state, piles of paperwork and collective bargaining agreements. Overcoming these can seem impossible, but Hess’s cage is a semi-permeable opening for action, one that can be broken through with strength and cunning. “Contracts, rules, regulations, statutes, and policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them - with enough persistence, knowledge or ingenuity. The problem is they don’t know they can. Or don’t know how to get started. Or are too nervous to try” (p. 6).

That nervousness comes, for Hess, from the “monomaniacal” focus on instructional leadership (p. 162–163) in the educational leadership scholarly community. Instructional leadership here represents all scholarship that considers education a unique managerial context and/or places central securing the buy in of educators. In his evisceration, Hess names names; Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Kenneth Leithwood, Terrence Deal, Lee Bolman and Richard Elmore are all mentioned in the instructional leadership camp. Hess also names, and informally reviews, major publications: Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, Educational Administration Quarterly, Journal of Research in Educational Leadership, and prominent books by the aforementioned. These fail, in his account, to properly emphasize situations where administrators are at odds with unions or policymakers by using terms like “layoffs,” “due process,” “contract,” or “negotiation.”

In focusing on instruction and the unique circumstances of schools, Hess argues, instructional leadership scholars implicitly or explicitly reject the value of “running a tight ship” (p. 17)—and pass those values on to their students. Schools of education, then, are to blame for the complacency of leaders by ignoring collective bargaining, personnel management and technology. These, Hess argues, are the route to creating “the conditions where instructional leadership will stick and where more powerful culture can more easily take root” (p. 137). The simplistic generalizations across a highly diverse set of scholarship here is telling. Hess’s decontextualized book quotes, course titles or contract provisions lead much more to an emotional sense that something is wrong rather than an empirical one.

The book’s second half reads more as a combination manual and motivational handbook for leaders hoping to bust the proverbial cage. The central message here: where most school leaders believe their hands to be tied on certain fundamental problems of organization and culture, they actually experience broad discretion. Hess encourages his reader to seek whatever tweaks and loopholes are available, whether through unclear or non-specific legal provisions, state compliance or other means.

Much of what needs to change, for Hess, resides in collective bargaining agreements. In chapters titled “Swinging that Louisville Slugger” and “Everyone Knows Where the Booze Is,” Hess describes leaders who amend or circumvent CBA provisions on instituting teacher evaluation systems, firing ineffective teachers, changing teacher work schedules, and the like. These are vital changes district offices can make, he argues, without increasing spending. Quality and hardy legal council, a “wartime consigliere” (p. 119), is the most important tool in this version of the leader’s toolkit.

Firing ineffective teachers or teachers who don’t appear to match the desired culture, the aforementioned Louisville slugger, is the primary focus of this section. Hess concedes that “firing lousy employees is some kind of improvement strategy by itself” (p. 134) while rejecting the idea that principals ought focus on coaching or inspiring weak teachers and giving little room to hiring differently or improving retention, two other issues crucial to staff development. Here, one hoped for at least some review of the diverse and growing literature on quality teacher workforces, or at least a review of major problems and controversies in this field.

Much of Cage-Busting Leadership hinges on the essential distinction between management and leadership. Contemporary leadership education has posited, in large part, that a focus on management exclusively limits and reduces the work that principals do; Hess responds by arguing management skills are key to enhancing leaders’ power. Perhaps the focus on leadership in schools of education has inappropriately de-emphasized management; preparation programs have room for improvement, perhaps teaching and measuring management competencies like working with budgets, human resources and regulation. But such emphases alone do not provide the content for the “core technology” of school work: teaching and learning. Businesses in other fields have their own sectors of academia to understand the content of their work and provide guidance on best practices. Like schools of medicine, which control their own training in healthcare management, education schools have largely opted to link content with leadership skills.

That link, tempered by a strong sense of what’s possible in the leadership of any complex organization, is key to the philosophical underpinnings of leadership education as well. Leadership scholars, especially those working in distributed leadership, see “buy in” as neither tactic nor credo, but the way things often must be done among a web of competing actors and priorities. Starting from that perspective, principals may, slowly but surely, adjust to what is fundamentally difficult work, becoming better by acknowledging the particular realities in their schools rather than working exclusively from an overarching ideology. Surveying the high rate of turnover in urban principalships and superintendencies, Hess hopes aloud that developing cage-busting skills allows leaders to “boost the odds they’ll be more than martyrs” (p. 25). Like the weak-kneed collaborator Hess rails against, martyrdom is its own narrative, one that is equally distracting from thinking empirically about how to make schools better.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17226, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:43:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Chase Nordengren
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    CHASE NORDENGREN is a PhD student and graduate fellow at the University of Washington College of Education. He studies how formal and informal teacher leadership functions in K-12 schools, combining qualitative social network analysis with models of distributed leadership. He is currently developing a dissertation using this approach.
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