Podcast S2. Ep 10: Cage-Busting Leadership: Reshaping Counterproductive Restraints - Rick Hess

Character Strong · September 30, 2019

Rick Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is the author of Education Week’s blog “Rick Hess Straight Up” and is a regular contributor to Forbes and The Hill. Since 2001, he has also served as an executive editor of Education Next. His books include Letters to a Young Education Reformer, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, and Cage-Busting Leadership. Rick has been published in scholarly outlets such as American Politics Quarterly and Social Science Quarterly, as well as popular outlets including National Affairs, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Rice, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard University. Rick began his career as a high school social studies teacher. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an Ed.M. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

We talk with Rick about shifting the way that we think about our educational systems, he shares some examples of "How do we do this for kids?" mindset, and talks about the importance of patience when it comes to implementing new ideas.


“... It's don't ask, “Can I do this?” It's, “How do we do this for kids?” When you say, “How do we do this for kids?”, you're doing two things. One, you're telling them that if they say no, you want to know why they're saying no, and they need to show it to you. And two, you're inviting them to solve the problem with you.”

— Rick Hess

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Rick Hess. Rick is a resident scholar and the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, AEI, where he works on K-12 and higher education issues. He is the author of Education Week's popular blog, Rick Hess Straight Up, and is a regular contributor to Forbes and The Hill. Since 2001 he has served as an Executive Editor of Education Next. He is the author of Letters to a Young Education Reformer, Bush-Obama School Reform, Lessons Learned, and Cage-Busting Leadership.
  • John: He teaches and has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Rice, John Hopkins, and Harvard University. Rick began his career as a high school social studies teacher and holds a master's in curriculum and instruction from Harvard. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Rick Hess.
  • John: All right. It is so exciting and such an honor to have Rick Hess with us today on the CharacterStrong Podcast. Rick, do you go by Rick or RJ? What do you prefer?
  • Rick: Rick.
  • John: Okay, Rick. Well, thank you for taking the time. Just an incredible resume that you have as we introduced you here, you're in so many different places and doing such important work. And so we really believe in these CharacterStrong podcasts is cut the fluff, get right to the stuff, because we want to keep it in that 10-minute nature. So I know that one of the things that you do is you meet with school and system leaders about really evading, reshaping unnecessary, counter-productive constraints. So talk to me a little bit about the cage-busting notion and some of the things around that.
  • Rick: Sure. It's important to keep in mind that our schools, our systems of school, have been built up over decades, in some cases centuries. So we do a lot of stuff that maybe once made sense but doesn't necessarily work for kids today, or work for educators. So if you keep that in mind, you're going to look at a lot of things, from bell schedules, to teacher of record requirements, to how we schedule middle schools or elementaries, that are going to cause you to ask questions. Frequently, though, when these things get asked about it all, you're told, "Hey, that's the way we got to do it." Federal Title I funding requirement, or, "That's how we comply with IDEA."
  • Rick: The funny thing is, I wrote a book about a half-dozen years ago called Cage-Busting Leadership because, in working with principals and superintendents over the previous 10 years or so, I had frequently worked with folks who said, “I'd love to do X, but I can't.” And when we actually dug into it and we looked at what the contract said, when we looked at what the federal guidelines actually were about compliance with Title II, it turned out folks had a lot more freedom to spend dollars, to make decisions, than they often realized.
  • Rick: But frequently we're caught up in these cages of our own design, between urban myth, between a lack of mentorship on these things, between what we don't learn in leadership programs. Folks were winding up doing things that they didn't think were in the best interest of kids or their staff simply because they had the mistaken impression, this was how you had to do it.
  • John: Man, talk about immediately, just with that introduction, some solid paradigm shifts. I can guarantee there are going to be people right now that are like, “Okay, tell me more.” So maybe, could you give an example of that, where you were working with a school? These are very real, so many people are going to be able to connect with those constraints that they feel, a way maybe that you've seen a school and/or system cage-bust through that.
  • Rick: Absolutely, there's all numbers, let me give you a school and a system level off the top. The most important thing is to keep in mind that a lot of what folks think to have to do, they may or may not have to do, and you've got to ask to find out. So there was a principal in the Houston Independent School District, took over a struggling school, had a lot of kids reading five, six grade levels behind. He had a school staffed with high school English teachers, but a whole bunch of students who were reading at a third grade level.
  • Rick: He said, "Look, it's not my teachers' fault, it's that they're not actually trained in how do you build the building blocks of literacy, they're taught in teaching literature." So he wanted to use elementary teachers at the high school.
  • Rick: By the time he worked this through with the district, got the go ahead from HR, they ran into a new problem which was that Texas Teacher of Record requirements meant that high school students couldn't get course credit for a high school class taught by somebody who was certified K-6. After the guy had already spent probably 20 hours working with the district to get to this point, a lot of leaders would have just thrown up their hands and said, "For heaven's sakes."
  • Rick: They reached out to the state, they asked about it. It turns out they were able to get a waiver, he was able to get the teachers he wanted working with the kids he thought needed them, teaching what they wanted, teaching what he thought made sense for these kids. And over a three-year window they saw profound gains in improvement in literacy for these kids who'd been way behind the curve.
  • Rick: A system-level equivalent, huge district west of the Mississippi, during the great recession they wound up taking savage cuts, across the board, but especially to stuff that wasn't core. They zeroed out the career technical education for all intents and purposes. When they were trying to rebuild it, they ran into a huge stumbling block, which was the district board policy stated you needed to have an FTE on site anywhere they were doing an externship. Districts couldn't afford to have a full-time person at a site, so they just said, "You know what, we're not going to be able to restart FTE."

“...I think it's really important that the folks trying to do this critical work hold themselves up to the same standard that they're asking educators to meet, and ask, "How do I make sure that I'm not dismissing these voices, that I'm listening, that if I say I want a conversation that I'm actually inviting and taking responsibility for an honest, real conversation?"”

— Rick Hess


  • Rick: We were working out there, we got the head of student services to check where this came from, was told that it wasn't actually board policy, it was state policy. They called the state, the state checked into it. Somebody had actually mis-transcribed state guidance. All the state actually required was that an FTE district person regularly visit a site where students were doing externship, and that was interpreted as just visiting once a month. So, in a span of 72 hours, the head of student services took a district that had said, "Man, we can't restart CTE for at least another year," to getting a program that was up and running.
  • John: Wow. So my guess is that there's then ... I mean, what would be a good way of then articulating this model? Because that's a mindset, the mindset is, when the roadblock comes ... Do you have a phrase that you use with schools? Is it dig deeper? Is it cage-busting? What would be the motto you would use to have that mindset when dealing with so many of these issues that we feel are constraints but maybe aren't actually constraints?
  • Rick: Sure. It's don't ask, “Can I do this?” It's, “How do we do this for kids?” When you say, “How do we do this for kids?”, you're doing two things. One, you're telling them that if they say no, you want to know why they're saying no, and they need to show it to you. And two, you're inviting them to solve the problem with you.
  • John: So good. Okay, how about this, let's go then ... Connected to, but one more angle. We were talking before this recording a little bit, and it really got me thinking about, because it's so true, in education we have a habit for getting really excited about new ideas, but aren't always patient with the implementation of that. Maybe talk to me a little bit about that and how it connects to the work that you're doing.
  • Rick: Sure. Especially if we think about work related to character or school culture or social emotional learning, you've got people who've been dying to get the stuff taken seriously in schools for the last 20 years. Because we took a smart, healthy idea in accountability and we went crazy with it, and drove a lot of important stuff out of schools. And so the focus on character, on culture, on SEL, is a chance to strike a healthier balance.
  • Rick: But, like so much, once we think, "Hey, our hands are tied when it comes to staffing and scheduling," we tend to go over the top with talk about culture and adult training. And a couple of the big, big stumbling blocks that result are one, we get a lot of folks who are so excited about "this is good for kids" that they don't actually have a lot of patience for teachers who are asking those persnickety questions about "How do I do it, how do I do it without displacing content? How do I do it in concert with other priorities?"
  • Rick: And the second thing that often gets trampled is you bring in experts to help adults focus on their opportunities for growth, on their weaknesses, and so we wind up talking about pretty sensitive issues like implicit bias. And I've got to tell you, I hear frequently from educators, because I guess they don't have many other places to turn, who say, "Look, I'm not an idiot, I understand the arguments about implicit bias.
  • Rick: "I understand that it's an issue, but I've got real concerns about how we're talking about it. I've got real concerns about presumption that every unequal outcome is evidence of inequity. I've got real problems that I feel like I'm being told what I'm supposed to think, and I'm being re-educated. And when I speak up, folks are drowning me out, or telling me that it's just because I'm a middle-aged white woman, Becky, and I'm not supposed to speak up."
  • Rick: And so I think it's really important that the folks trying to do this critical work hold themselves up to the same standard that they're asking educators to meet, and ask, "How do I make sure that I'm not dismissing these voices, that I'm listening, that if I say I want a conversation that I'm actually inviting and taking responsibility for an honest, real conversation?"
  • John: Yeah, I love that paradigm shift, even just in the overall, because it's so true. When things move so fast, you could have well-intentioned educators, well-intentioned people trying to all work towards making a difference in the school. But so many times we do, we bulldoze right over questions that we think maybe are ... I think you used persnickety, or problematic, or just like you're challenging. When in reality, I love that challenge of we need to take the time, whatever the topic is, to really listen to those questions and make that a part of that process. I think that's a good challenge for many, I know it's a good challenge for me to hear today.
  • John: Man, here's the constriction that I feel right now, and that is I want to talk to you for a really long time about a lot of things. We're out of time, but how about this? One of the great gifts of these podcasts is leaving people wanting more, leaving people wanting to dig in more, so obviously you've mentioned at least one of the books that you've written, you are involved in a lot of things. How can people either connect with you and/or learn more, what resources would you share with them to kind of close down our time today?
  • Rick: Sure, absolutely. If folks want to reach out to me, I'm always happy to hear, especially from folks who are actually working in schools and systems. I'm on twitter @rickhess99, they can email me at [email protected] As far as a couple of resources, one book that we mentioned is Cage-Busting Leadership. Another book for classroom folks who feel constrained in their own ways is The Cage-Busting Teacher.
  • Rick: For folks particularly interested in thinking about how do we make character and culture building and social-emotional learning deliver on their promise, we've got a series of papers trying to tackle the pitfalls and challenges ahead on this, and how do we make it work for all the kids the way we want. If they go to aei.org, they'll see a webpage that's focused on these analyses of the challenges of making social-emotional learning deliver on its promise.
  • John: So good. Well, Rick, thank you so much for taking the time today. I look forward to connecting with you again soon, but just grateful for the work you're doing supporting schools, systems, educators, and ultimately our community and our country. So thank you for the time today.
  • Rick: Hey, my pleasure. Thank you.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening, make it a great day.

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