Local education leaders want to transform a rigid, bureaucratic system — re-imagining the delivery of instruction, giving more freedom, flexibility, and accountability to teachers and principals at the school level. But then some interest groups or just plain old naysayers come along to protest, saying “We’ve never done it that way before.” Or maybe a little self-doubt creeps in and the leader wonders if that’s really something he or she should do.
Well, into the fray comes American Enterprise Institute (AEI) education scholar and guru Rick Hess with an Education Next essay to help infuse a little can-do attitude into the discussion:
It’s true that prescriptive union contracts and procurement processes, rules and regulations like the federal “supplement not supplant” provision, state laws, board policies, and the like hinder school officials in all kinds of ways, making it difficult to repair a fence, hire talented staff, or schedule grade-level team meetings. But it has become increasingly clear that much of what administrators say they can’t do, think they can’t do, or just don’t do is in fact entirely possible. 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.
Hess identifies this other, less easily defined obstacle to effective changes in K-12 as the “Culture of Can’t.” Believe you me, he’s on to something. Just look at the age of the institution, the knowledge gap that often tilts the playing field toward the status quo, and the track record of various interests at blocking reforms. Not that meaningful change can’t happen, but that it’s hard to do.
Color me intrigued, not just because of this essay but because it points to a fuller discussion in Hess’s new book Cage-Busting Leadership. The book garners praise from two prominent Colorado voices with experience trying to effect change in local K-12 systems: former Denver Public Schools superintendent and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, AND current Douglas County superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who wrote:
Rick Hess raises the bar by challenging leaders to aim for specific education reforms, and he eliminates the most common excuses for mediocre systems by proving that most barriers can and have been overcome already.
Sometimes you’ve got to do the hard work to be a true champion for kids. Whether in Douglas County, at the forefront of innovation, or any of the other local school leaders striving to yield positive change — including Falcon 49, Adams 12, or dozens of high-performing charter schools.
Colorado K-12 education definitely could use some more cage-busting leadership. And maybe a few more backboard-busting slam dunks, too, just because it looks cool.