Honoring a Lifetime of GEAR UP Achievement


At the 2017 GEAR UP Capacity Building Workshop, California GEAR UP director Shelley Davis was presented with a lifetime achievement award. These are her remarks.
As the director of the California State GEAR UP program over the past 17 years, I have had the distinct pleasure to learn from and support a wonderful team of professionals in service to thousands of educators, students, families, and communities throughout the state of California. Our work has been driven by a deep commitment to social justice and equity for ALL in the pursuit of academic success. This is clearly demonstrated by the testimonials of those we serve, the positive outcomes of our efforts, the many lessons learned and contributions to the statewide and national school reform agenda.  While we have had a significant impact in this important work, there is still much to do.
Since 2001 I have worked alongside individuals and organizations that place a high value on educational equity and access which provided the foundation for true collaboration and meaningful relationships.
In the words of First Lady Michelle Obama: “I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong; so don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education. Then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope; never fear.”
I live and work by these principles, which I believe are more important now than ever before. To my GEAR UP family and friends out there, know that there are moments every day that you have the opportunity to impact a students life. Seize these moments, work tirelessly to fight for those who don’t have a voice, and know that you will be on the right side of history.

GEAR UP Government Relations Update


(this updated provided in part by NCCEP in Washington DC)

The last week has been incredibly busy on Capitol Hill. Congress passed a resolution to set the 2017 budget and decide funding levels for 2018-2026. This means that Congress wants to create a budget that won’t have to be approved by the Administration and help speed up the process of creating the budget. The primary target of budget discussions has been the Affordable Care Act and not education funding levels.

With the election of President Trump, we’ve been working hard to shore up support for GEAR UP among our Congressional stakeholders, while trying to acquaint the Trump transition team with the importance of the GEAR UP program to communities all over the nation. In December, we submitted a transition memo to key players on the incoming administration’s education transition team, including Robert Goad, who is widely expected to have a key role on the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

This week, the Senate HELP committee held Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing for the role of Secretary of Education. The hearing was exceptionally partisan and short on policy specifics. Republicans came out in support for with DeVos’s general approach to increasing school choice, whereas Democrats questioned DeVos’s lack of approval through the ethics process, the amount of money she has donated to political campaigns, and her inexperience with the complexities of federal education policy. While her passion for low-income students certainly came through, much of the beltway chatter this morning is focused on her refusal to commit to not privatizing public school, her relative silence on some of the most pressing education issues of the day, and the need for her to be surrounded by a strong team while leading the Department of Education. There’s certainly enough votes on the Committee to approve her appointment, so we’ll be working hard with her and her team to ensure that GEAR UP remains a deeply valued program.

Finally, committee assignments are coming together in the House and the Senate. So far, in the House we know that Diane Black (WI) is likely to chair the House Budget Committee; Rodney Felinghuseng (NJ) will chair the House Appropriations Committee; Virginia Foxx (NC) will chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; Tom Cole (OK) will chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Service. In the Senate, Bernie Sanders (VT) will be the ranking member for the Senate Budget Committee; Patrick Leahy (VT) will be the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee; and Patty Murray (WA) will be the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. We are waiting to hear more from House Democrats and Senate Republicans on leadership assignments.

UPDATED 2/2/17

Yesterday, the Senate HELP Committee voted on Betsy DeVos’s nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education. With the public weighing in at an unprecedented level, DeVos was narrowly approved by the committee along a party-line vote (12 for and 11 against). While the nomination will make its way to the Senate floor, two Republicans who supported her in the committee have not committed to supporting her on the floor vote. This is becoming the most contested vote of all of the President’s cabinet nominees so far; Democrats only need three Republicans to vote “no” to succeed in blocking her appointment.

While this committee is somewhat unique in their bipartisan collaboration, Chairman Alexander’s (R-TN) refusal to postpone the vote to allow for deeper inquiry into DeVos’s ethics filing and questionnaire responses sparked an unusually strong rebuke from Ranking Member Patty Murry (D-WA). In addressing the Chairman, she said that the process has dramatically impacted their “ability to work together in good faith moving forward”.

As we shared in a previous Digest, we asked the Senate HELP committee to pose GEAR UP-related questions during DeVos’s hearing. While the hearing itself did not include many program-specific questions, a modified version of our questions were included in the follow-up questionnaire, which required the nominee to submit written responses to the committee.

The questions posed by committee members communicated that GEAR UP and TRIO enjoy “strong bipartisan support” and “play a critical role”. This is a crucial message for them to send to the potential Secretary, and we welcome their sentiment. However, her generic responses to the questions signal very little specifics about where she stands relative to the programs. To her suggestions that she will be “reviewing the effectiveness” and “strengthening” the programs if need be – that is a meeting that we are very eager to have. We have the evidence demonstrating that GEAR UP works and have a reauthorization package to make the program even better!

When given the opportunity, we have no doubt that the GEAR UP and TRIO communities will make an impassioned, evidence-driven case for expanding the modest federal investment in our students, families, and communities. We have included the pertinent questions and her answers below in full.

Senate HELP Committee Questions for DeVos Related to GEAR UP

Question #53 (P.38)
According to a recent report, racial gaps in college completion between white and African American and Hispanic students have widened significantly since 2007. At the same time, the face of the American college student is changing. Students from low income backgrounds, as well as older students and students with children, are increasingly enrolling in colleges across the country. Yet, retention and graduation rates are low for these students compared with so-called “traditional college” students.
  1. With 65 percent of jobs by 2020 requiring education beyond high school, how will you as Secretary help ensure that our historically disadvantaged students are able to access and complete college at a rate comparable to their white classmates, in order to ensure that students from all backgrounds have a fair shot of getting the jobs they need to be successful in a 21st century economy?
  2. Given that creating a highly skilled, competitive American workforce increasingly requires a college degree, what will you do to ensure that traditionally underserved students are able to enter and succeed in college?

ANSWER: The goal of the federal student aid programs is to ensure access to postsecondary education for traditionally underserved populations. These programs are supported by college access programs like TRIO and GEAR UP. If confirmed, I will review these and other programs to ensure they are operating as effectively as they can be. Should these programs need reform because they are not producing appropriate outcomes, I look forward to working with you and your colleagues to strengthen them during the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Question #87 (P.52)
The TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) are competitive grant programs that identify and seek to increase the number of low-income students who are successful in K-12 and higher education. These programs have strong bipartisan support and play a critical role in ensuring that promising students from low-income families have the resources and the community that they need to be successful. Do you think that students who face greater barriers to success in their education, such as the students who participate in TRIO/GEAR UP, need additional resources such as tutoring and financial assistance to be successful in K-12 and higher education? If so, do you think the federal government has any role in providing those services?

ANSWER: The Higher Education Act (HEA) has several programs designed to help underserved students gain access to higher education and be successful in their pursuits. If confirmed, I look forward to reviewing the effectiveness of these programs and working with you and your colleagues to strengthen programs with a demonstrated track record of success in the HEA reauthorization.

Data for the People Build Community Power


This repost is courtesy from Education Week.

(Editor’s note: The announcement that Education Trust-West and a number of civil rights and community organizations were founding a data hub in San Bernardino County, struck me as an important opportunity to increase the capacity for community voice in the California Local Control Funding Formula process.  Here, Ryan Smith, the organization’s executive director, expands on the value of getting actionable information to the people.)

By Ryan Smith

Recently, during a policy briefing in the Central Valley, a community leader asked if she could comment by telling a story.  She spoke of a small cadre of mapmakers from up north that would spend time making maps for communities with no input from the people who lived there.  Townspeople would openly complain: the map didn’t reflect the ground they knew—they had missed rivers, peaks, and other valuable landmarks in the community.  The mapmakers came back and told them “Our maps are right, it’s your ground that’s wrong.”

Point taken. Today, well-intentioned education policies still feel as if they’re being done to and not with communities.  Laws that start off as puddles in Sacramento can come down like waves to school communities, particularly communities of color.

LCFF Provides Unique Opportunity

The time is ripe to invest in bottom-up policymaking.  California’s move to the Local Control Funding Formula and the current redesign of our state accountability system provide a unique opportunity to accelerate meaningful engagement of educators, students, parents and community members.

Thumbnail image for SB Data Hub.jpgFurthermore, the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires robust information be publicly available and disaggregated by subgroups.  ESSA also calls for college enrollment data and any other available data deemed helpful to parents to be included on school report cards.  This information can shine a brighter light on student outcomes and empower families in their education decision-making.

However, ESSA is a vehicle for empowerment—but it doesn’t drive itself.  For local control to move past lip service, stakeholders must fully understand complex data, research, budgets, and policy and use this knowledge to make informed decisions.  Without an intentional focus and resources dedicated to data readiness, these efforts to meaningfully engage communities feel more like empty promises.

Bring Data To The People

Building community understanding of data utilization can start to bridge the gap.  When data are effectively understood and used locally, there are long-term benefits for transparency, efficiency, system performance, and student outcomes.  Although we’ve made progress making education data readily available, we’ve never done a decent job of helping education stakeholders actively use data to inform decision-making.  Stakeholders are too often forced to make decisions based on anecdotes, because they do not have access to high-quality, accessible information.

It’s time to finally bring data to the people.

This means the state must develop data systems that are cultivated with consideration for the community members who need this information.  California can’t afford to simply warehouse data in confusing and cumbersome ways.  Even as the use of technology increases, a vast digital divide exists in low-income communities and communities of color.  We have to meet communities where they are through the use of tools designed to develop community members’ awareness of how this information connects to their daily experiences.

The right data matter as well. When it comes to school and district performance, we must resist the urge to artlessly data dump and call it a day.  Transparency is not providing teachers a one hundred page data binder or creating data dashboards that drown parents in fifty indicators of success.  The state has an obligation to provide the right, digestible data including summary measures that don’t mask how students achieve.  Let’s stay away from the dark ages when California’s accountability system painted a pretty picture that covered up distressing disparities in schools and districts failing our most forgotten students.

Invest in Community-Based Expertise

We must also partner with organizations that have a track record of authentically partnering with community members.  Groups like Californians for Justice, P.I.C.O., the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Californians Together work directly with students, parents, and community members to comprehend how to use data to hold schools accountable for success.  We’ve spent $40 million to get County Offices of Education up to speed on supporting LCFF.  Similarly, let’s invest in the groups with this type of community-based expertise rather than recreating the wheel.

We have to equip those on the frontline with more tools. Recently Ed Trust-West partnered with a number of advocacy and education organizations in San Bernardino to open a community-based data and research hub that will serve as a catalyst to build knowledge around budgets, data, and policy at the local level.  Our first step is facilitating data equity walks, a program designed to understand the disparities in the data we see in low-income communities and communities of color.

Let’s work toward democratizing data.  Measuring and understanding success in education is critical to all stakeholders.  Making sense of education information for the average citizen is big data’s last frontier. It’s time for policymakers to embrace the challenge and make sure that a system showing data of the people is also for the people.  The mapmakers who visited the Central Valley weren’t wrong to make maps—they just started and ended with their own view of the world.  Whether data comes in the form of a map or a pie chart, ignoring the local geography gets us nowhere.



California GEAR UP Core Values


 California GEAR UP – Core Values 

We are proud to share our Core Values: principles we have been cultivating and working on since 1999 and it was through the extraordinary organizational work of our teams that we have published them all in one guiding document.

California GEAR UP is committed to the principles of social justice, equity, and community combined with passion for teaching, learning, and positive impact on students’ lives.

Professional Standards

• We are responsible and accountable to our schools, communities, stakeholders and funders to ensure sustainability of our goals and objectives.

• We take a purposeful and professional approach with all stakeholders, and remain committed to high-quality, professional service.

• When we model these standards, we ultimately increase the likelihood that these practices will sustain.


• We serve as a catalyst to develop meaningful relationships and support learning opportunities for students and adults alike.

• We share time and expertise to further our educational mission.

• We engage constituents, analyze needs, and embrace ingenuity.

• We practice with passion, reserve judgment, and exude respectful service to peers, schools, and communities.


• We open our minds to new learning and effective practice.

• We are unafraid to wonder and be vulnerable.

• We listen with the intent to understand, rather than respond.

• We respect differences and embrace diversity.

• We take responsibility for our own growth and assume goodwill.


School Success Stories: Using Tech to Support Students

jefferson heartGUOne of our amazing schools, Jefferson Middle School, has a story to tell. We caught up with Darlene Pope, teacher and GEAR UP Leadership Team Member, who shared with us some of the technology she uses in her class to support her students and stay in touch with families.

Zoom video conferencing (and it gaining in popularity across many fields, not just education) is free up to 40 minutes, but I have a subscription. I meet every Wed evening in a virtual online face to face session with students and parents. I meet for an hour. I answer clarifying questions. I can have up to 20 people in my virtual meeting. We kind of look like the Brady Bunch. Check it out at zoom.us.
Remind is awesome. It is how I communicate with parents and students. This is how I alert parents their student has missed an assignment and how I send homework tasks to my classes. I can also text with students about homework. It is a free and digitally safe texting tool. I can even attach documents, www.remind.com.
Darlene was considerate enough to sit down with us and answer more questions about how she uses these resources.
  1. Does the entire school use either of these tools? If not, how many teachers do?

No the entire school does not use these tools, but it takes time for it to catch on. However, about 10 teachers are using Remind and I have as a goal getting more on board. I am the only one experimenting with Zoom. I use it as a tool for student support and parent communication as well as conferencing. It allows me to share my desktop, record a session and have about 25 people in on a single conversation. Students pop in and out to ask a question and get clarification.  I can envision it as a way to flip a classroom or as a way to hold class in the event that class is canceled.

  1. How did you hear about them?

I learned about Zoom through my work with CTQ and the NEA. I facilitate online learning with cohorts of teachers who are designing and implementing teacher leadership projects. I learned about Remind from a teacher at our high school several years ago.

  1. What is the response from parents?

Parents love both of these tools. It provides them an easy way to stay in touch. Remind even has an translation feature! I can send a doc via Remind as well. Zoom allows me to see into the home environments of my students as well. They parents who use it are most appreciative.

  1. How many parents do you engage with each tool?

Remind about 90% of my students’ families. Zoom is a much smaller group. Probably only 15%, but this will increase as I modify my parent info presentation to include a demo of this.

We thank Darlene and all the awesome teachers at Jefferson for their forward thinking and deep passion for doing what it takes to ensure ALL students have access to a great education.

Will these resources and Darlene’s experience with them inspire you?


ESSA: What’s at stake for California’s students?


From our Partners at The Education Trust West.

In December President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), a bipartisan bill that for the first time in 14 years provides a new framework and requirements for states as they develop their own systems to hold schools and districts responsible for student learning and growth. California is in the midst of redesigning the way we hold schools and districts accountable and policymakers have some important decisions to make:

  • Will we measure student progress through an aspirational accountability system or will we compare schools to a state average?
  • Will our state system combine multiple measures in a way that prioritizes student achievement, or will we have so many measures that it’s tough to easily see if students are learning?
  • Will we have a clear, parent-friendly way to see how schools are doing that also helps policymakers direct support to fix schools that are failing groups of students?

Our latest Equity Alert digs deeper into these questions and examines how California can build a single, stronger accountability system that supports and protects vulnerable students. Read the Alert to learn more about what’s at stake for California’s students of color and low-income students as the state makes these crucial decisions.


Becoming a Transformational School Leader



(This repost is courtesy of The Edvocate)

Though community-building takes time, its impact is long-lasting. In order to implement change in a school environment, creating a common vision is paramount. The biggest challenge for school leadership is handling different kinds of people, with various goals and interests. A school leader has to ensure that students are following curricula, excelling academically, and becoming outstanding members of society. In comparison, teachers’ are focused on meeting curricula deadlines and ensuring that students keep up with class work. The leader must confront student deviance , as well as teachers’ possible cynicism and lack of motivation.

A transformational school leader ensures students focus on their studies by being considerate of individuality, being charismatic in influencing them, and inspiring them. Instead of using set problem-solving techniques, he or she involves students and teachers to come up with solutions to problems as they arise. Transformational leaders in a school setting quickly identify areas in need of improvement, seeking out-of-the-box solutions. The leader identifies cynicism and intentions to quit among teachers, through consultation and individualized consideration. Realigning their values and goals to resonate with those of the school, the leader reassures teachers that they are needed and valued.

Emphasis in a transformational school shifts from “leadership” to “professionalism.” Direct leadership and professionalism do not mix. Studies show that professionalism cannot develop when stifled by command and instruction based leadership. Professionalism is more about competence than skill. It involves a higher degree of trust, and ensures a teacher’s commitment to caring, excellence, and to professionalism as a given.

T. J. Sergiovanni, proposed five alternative approaches to full transformational leadership in schools. These are:

• Technical leadership: sound management of school resources
• Human leadership: networking; establishing social and interpersonal bonds
• Educational leadership: expert knowledge on educational matters
• Symbolic leadership: role-modeling and behavior
• Cultural leadership: regarding the values, beliefs, and cultural identity of the school

The first three approaches—the technical, human, and educational aspects of leadership—are the primary influences on a school’s effectiveness. The symbolic and cultural aspects add the most value and are responsible for the overall excellence of the school. The traditional concept of direct leadership places an enormous burden on a school leader to run almost every aspect of leadership. Substituting a community-based approach, coupled with professionalism and cooperation, can produce speedy results. Transformational leadership can change the mindset of staff and students. Emphasis is placed on the school community, not just the leader’s interests.

Transformational leadership also brings about professionalism in the teaching staff by allowing them the autonomy and room to improve. Because a leader allows followers to meet and overcome challenges on their own, teachers are more involved in school affairs. Cooperative relationships are most likely to develop when challenges are surmounted together, without supervision from the leader.

Clearly, transformational leadership improves job performance through the four pillars of charismatic/idealized influence, individual consideration, inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation. Studies have now shown that it also positively affects the psychological well-being of employees.

Transformational leadership helps in individual goal-setting and goal commitment, by transferring responsibility- making the individual feel part of a whole. In a shift of focus, the leader no longer offers rewards, but empowers followers to become leaders through mutual responsibility and trust. This inspires staff performance beyond leader expectations. Transformational leaders help their followers maximize performance, by finding and emphasizing common ground.

Research studies suggest that highly effective leadership styles positively influence student performance. Transformational leadership can bring about a wide range of results at a personal level (i.e., followers’ empowerment and identity) and at the group or organizational level (cohesiveness and collective power to make changes). It produces these positive effects primarily by shaping the followers’ self-worth and promoting identification with their leader.

What distinguishes a transformational leader is the combination of head and heart, and the ability to understand and apply emotions effectively to connect with and influence followers. Transformational leadership results in wide-ranging changes wherever it is introduced and is effective in solving problems in the school environment. It would be prudent for school leaders in the U.S. to utilize it in their school communities.



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).