7 Myths About Cage Busting Leadership


From the Harvard Education Publishing Group, this is reposted as part of our series on Leadership and is written by Frederick Hess about his new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. 

I’ve been on the road this spring, talking with educators, community leaders, advocates, policy makers, and foundation types about my new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. In doing so, I’ve been struck by some of the mythology that seems to shape what people think it means to be a cage-busting principal, superintendent, or school system official. The book argues that school, system, and state leaders can do much more than they often realize but tend to be hindered by a “culture of can’t” in which urban legends (“the contract requires that teacher assignment be driven by seniority—when it actually doesn’t”), misinformation (“we’re not allowed to spend Title I funds that way“), and undue caution (“we’re not sure if that’s an fully approved use of school improvement funds“) stop them from doing what they think will be best for students.

By contrast, a cage-busting leader focuses on identifying opportunities to promote great teaching and learning, works with her team to devise smart solutions, and then uses every inch of her authority to assign teachers, employ Title I funds, and spend school improvement dollars in ways that she thinks will make the biggest difference for students. Rather than pursue “instructional leadership” within the conventionally accepted confines of policy, regulation, and contract, the cage-buster challenges those conventions so that she can drive instructional leadership more powerfully.

Anyway, I mentioned that some myths seemed to have cropped up. So, what are some of these myths . . . and what’s the real story?

Myth 1: Cage-busting holds that instructional leadership, buy-in, and school culture don’t matter and distract school and system leaders from questions of teaching and learning.

The Real Story: Look, let me be really clear. Instructional leadership, strong cultures, stakeholder buy-in, and professional practice are all good things. The mistake is to imagine that leaders can foster these things successfully or sustainably without addressing the obstacles posed by regulations, rules, and routines. We’re all on the same page when it comes to recognizing that school leadership is about nurturing great teaching and teaching. The cage-busting point is that it’s frequently hard to do that well given the cages erected in today’s schools and systems. Cage-busters value school culture but, like Principal Adrian Manuel did in New York City, will work with their faculty to waive contract provisions restricting teaching loads so that faculty teams have one full day a week to meet as an instructional team.

Myth 2: Cage-busters are ill-tempered union haters who yearn for conflict.

The Real Story: Cage-busting is not about picking fights, attacking unions, or firing people. Period. It doesn’t give cage-busters license to wantonly alienate educators or community members. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than thinking ambitiously about how to create great schools and then doing what it takes to make them real. Not only is cage-busting not an assault on unions, but it holds that leaders need to stop blaming unions, contracts, tight budgets, and the rest for their own failure to lead. A careful reading of contracts and regulations can reveal that leaders already have much more freedom than they might think to reward hard-working educators, address poor performance, or reconfigure staffing. Yes, some employees or families will inevitably take issue with some decisions. And any cage-buster worth her salt will stand fast rather than back off from doing what she thinks is best for her students. But conflict is not the goal. In fact, antiunion broadsides too often excuse timid, lethargic leadership. After studying Massachusetts’ collective bargaining agreements, for instance, Vanderbilt professor Dale Ballou observed, “On virtually every issue of personnel policy, there are contracts that grant administrators the managerial prerogatives they are commonly thought to lack. When more flexible language is negotiated, administrators do not take advantage of it [but still] blame the contract for their own inaction.” In Cage-Busting Leadership, I note a bushel of similar examples and research.

Myth 3: Cage-busting leadership is less important than it was five years ago because school leaders have more power to hold people accountable and drive school improvement, given new teacher evaluation systems and turnaround efforts.

The Real Story: Actually, these developments make cage-busting more relevant than ever. New teacher evaluation systems in Tennessee and Florida have led to remarkably modest changes in the rigor of teacher evaluation—with the percentage of educators rated effective “plunging” from 99 percent to 97 or 98 percent. Whoops! The Center for Reinventing Public Education has raised important questions about the ambition and coherence of today’s turnaround efforts. These policies create opportunities to boost quality, but their results require leaders with the skill and will to take full advantage. These policies are helpful, reducing the barriers that leaders face and giving them new tools. But those opportunities make a cage-busting mind-set that much more critical. Turnaround efforts can be a powerful opportunity to redesign schools, leverage new technology, and radically alter expectations and routines—but only when school and system leaders use them accordingly.

Myth 4: Cage-busting implies that tackling policy doesn’t matter, that school improvement is all about charismatic leaders.

The Real Story: Some have wondered whether I’ve misplaced my familiar skepticism and now imagine that remarkable leaders can wish away the hard truth of troubling policies and outdated systems. I do not. Policy matters enormously. Let’s keep it simple. It is absolutely true, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, what I’m arguing is that it’s equally true that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed. And this is a challenge that would-be reformers have too often failed to note, or address.

Myth 5: Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are the alpha and omega of cage-busting leadership.

The Real Story: Not at all. First, I take pains in the book to try not to name any particular list of cage-busters. Lots of leaders have some potential cage-buster in them. In fact, the book is rife with cage-busting anecdotes and tales from more than 100 leaders from schools, systems, and states. Now, Rhee and Klein absolutely exhibited some cage-busting chops in overhauling the central office, freeing school and system leaders to repurpose funds, revamping teacher evaluation, removing mediocre school leaders, and forcefully tackling persistently low-performing schools. But the combative approach they adopted is just one of many that cage-busters may employ. While some cage-busters tend to be heated and dramatic, there are plenty of others who tend to be cool, calm, and collected. What defines a cage-buster is not their personality but a probing mind, an unwillingness to accept convention as a given, and an appetite for smart, strategic ways to solve problems and promote great teaching and learning. Recall that Rhee and Klein were nontraditional leaders who came into recalcitrant, troubled, urban systems in major media centers, and that they were outsiders hired to produce dramatic change. How they went out about it was noteworthy and (to my mind) invigorating, but there are plenty of cage-busting leaders who make fewer headlines because they adopt a less controversial course. As more educators, in more contexts, with a variety of skills embrace cage-busting, I’m confident that we’ll see more publicized models of how to bust the cage in a variety of ways.

Myth 6: Cage-busting leadership is only necessary in district schools; it doesn’t apply to charter schools or private schools.

The Real Story: Even charter schools, supposedly besotted with autonomy, frequently choose to dwell in the cage. The reality is that most charters haven’t done all that much with their newfound autonomy. The National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University reported in 2011 that the role of charter school principals “was not significantly different” from that of district principals. As a whole, the nation’s 5,000 charter schools have done a modest job of leveraging the ability to rethink the school day or hire, pay, and use teachers in smarter ways. In a 2011 study of charter school collective bargaining agreements, the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Mitch Price noted that, despite the chance “to craft agreements from scratch . . . charter school contracts look quite similar to their district counterparts.” Charter leaders can be trapped by mind-set, even when rules or requirements are relaxed.

Myth 7: Cage-busting is just for martyrs; it’s a sure recipe for leaders having to go find a new job.

The Real Story: It’s true that school boards, business leaders, parents, editorial boards, and civic leaders tend to have long prized tranquility above excellence. Leaders who keep the waters calm, avoid harsh cuts, and say the right things have tended to earn good reputations and laudatory press. But things change. In the past decade, the center of gravity has shifted in K–12, producing more tolerance and enthusiasm for cage-busting than was once the case. Charter schooling, virtual delivery, value-added systems, and new providers offer bold leaders new tools and a new set of attractive opportunities. Accountability systems, increased transparency, and tight budgets have made it easier to justify tough-minded changes. A growing number of cage-busters, backed by impassioned advocates, foundations, and public officials, means there’s safety in numbers. And cage-busters themselves can boost the odds that they’ll be more than martyrs.

That’s why Cage-Busting Leadership is stuffed with strategies that can help leaders leverage existing rules, reduce friction, frame the public debate, mobilize allies, operate strategically, and avoid reckless posturing. It shares lessons from superintendents who have shown how they can work within existing contracts while finding new ways to reward valued teachers and principals who take on important challenges. School and system leaders have shown how tough, disruptive choices (like launching a new program or creating a new academy) can be made palatable—even popular—by allowing faculty and families to opt in. School leaders have shown how they can more expeditiously and systematically deal with the handful of “bad apple” staff so that they can devote more time and energy to supporting and coaching the 90 percent who are eager for such help.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2013).


2015 GEAR UP National Conference Wrap Up

 July 19-22, 2015 San Francisco, California

The 2015 GEAR UP Annual Conference took take place July 19–22, 2015 at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square in San Francisco, California.  The Annual Conference actualized the theme: Together we Rise and featured five plenary sessions, approximately 135 concurrent sessions, and a variety of pre- and post-conference events.


“Awesome NCCEP conference this year. My team was fully Engaged, Excited and Energized! The California delegation is mobilized to excel and prove why GEAR UP is the most effective college readiness program in the nation.  We will be sharing what we learned at the conference, focused on improving service to schools, students and families throughout our State.”
 Shelley Davis, Director

California GEAR UP
At the conference, California GEAR UP convened the second ever meeting of all the GEAR UP programs across the state, now called the California Partnership Initiative. The California Partnership Initiative (CPI) is a project of the California State GEAR UP Program. Since 1999, the California State program has enjoyed working in collaboration with GEAR UP partnership projects to reach our mutual goals: increasing college and career readiness for low income students and improving the college going culture in schools.  CPI was formalized at the National GEAR UP conference in Washington, DC in July 2014 and continued at the national conference this year. The CPI planning committee was formed and representatives from the partnership projects met again at the NCCEP CBW in Philadelphia in February 2015. This initiative brings together the 19 active partnership projects and the state grant to strengthen our efforts for ALL students throughout California.
California GEAR UP was recognized this year as a leading program for both innovation and quality services, which was on display at a multitude of sessions from Parent Engagement in conjunction with PIQE to National GEAR UP week, to Common Core strategies, and the amazing work of Vista Preps focus on student teacher relationships.
“The conference was a wonderful reminder of the power of community.  Our leadership team was met with a warm welcome by GEAR UP personnel at every turn, whose genuine interest lies within their hearts as seen through their actions.  We were able to share ideas, which when  coupled with a genuine sharing of like-minded people whose focus is all the same allows one to come away with the architecture for the labor of passion that provides support to move mountains.”
Isaac Scharaga
Vista Preparatory Academy Principal/Conference Presenter
“In the spirit of Ranjit Sidhu, President and CEO of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, my reflections from the conference align with the his words on conference theme “we must celebrate our impact and rich history as a social movement, but at the same time, strive for even greater heights.” With the conference theme of unity: Together We Rise, the conference did inspire and motivate through speakers like Mary Mazzio and Sal Khan.”
Kay Coelho
California GEAR UP
One of the highlights of the conference every year is the GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy. In order to better support the GEAR UP mission nationwide, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) created the GUALA program to show the GEAR UP dream actualized.  GUALA works to advance college and career readiness in communities by providing 12 months of training for Alumni Leaders on topics related to peer-to-peer outreach and mentoring, social media engagement, public speaking, and education policy. It’s really cool to see the academy members talk about their struggles and demonstrate their resiliency.
Sean Brennan
California GEAR UP
The GEAR UP Youth Congress is a youth leadership program that implements a student-focused curriculum, blending leadership development with life skills and strategies for increased learning. Offered during the NCCEP/GEAR UP Annual Conference each July, GEAR UP students who participate in the Youth Congress have the opportunity to experience a professional conference while interacting and learning with other students from around the country.

“The experience was great! I am a HUGE
fan of GEAR UP and would like to thank
everyone who made this possible. I may
have only been here a few days but the
experience will stay with me forever!
Hope I’m invited again.”

— Youth Congress 10th Grader

As in past conferences, we were all exhausted from the extensive professional development, collegially working with other GEAR UP professionals, and learning more about effective practices from programs across the country. Now we return to our own organization to share what we learned and to be more effective in the powerful work we do every day.


National GEAR UP Week Sept 21-25, 2015


2015 National GEAR UP Week – September 21-25!

Join thousands of students, parents, teachers, partners and college access professionals from across the nation to celebrate GEAR UP and the successes of your hard work and dedication!

National GEAR UP Week is an opportunity for you to raise awareness in your community about the positive impact GEAR UP is having locally.  It’s a time to engage all your stakeholders – local, state and federal elected officials, funders, partners, as well as local, state and regional media – to share your program’s accomplishments and to get them more involved with your services to students and families.

We encourage you to use the resources below to plan and prepare for 2015 National GEAR UP Week.

Please share your plans, ideas, and materials with us so we can all benefit from your creativity and energy.  Let us know if you have any questions or comments about National GEAR UP Week and check back often for additional/updated resources.

Share your National GEAR UP Week plans with us!  Just complete this form.  Have cool resources or other materials to share?  Send them via e-mail so we can upload them on this page!



  • Download the National GEAR UP Week logo
  • Download the #I<3GEARUP / #IheartGEARUP sign
  • Download the 2014 GEAR UP by the Numbers infographic
  • Proclamation request template – Use this letter template to request a proclamation for National GEAR UP Week from your Senators, Representatives, Governor, Mayor, Councilmembers, etc.
  • Proclamation template – Attach this proclamation template to your proclamation request to save you time!
  • Student letter to Member of Congress – Use this letter template as a guide to encourage your students to share their GEAR UP successes with their Members of Congress!

Press & Media:

  • Media Advisory – This template is to notify media outlets in your area to cover the event you are hosting.  Media advisories are distributed ahead of the event so that outlets can schedule and plan to cover your event.
  • Press Release – This template will help you create some “buzz” about your event.  You can send it out before or after the event takes place, just make sure you edit it accordingly!
  • Op-Ed: Guidelines & Talking Points – Op-eds are a great way to raise awareness about GEAR UP at the local and regional level.  Follow the tips and use the template in this resource to submit your op-ed to your news outlet.

Community Resources: