Speaker: Removing constraints will improve public education

Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- Frederick Hess, a  scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, speaks about how they can transform classrooms, schools and systems through what he calls Show caption
Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- Frederick Hess, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, speaks about how they can transform classrooms, schools and systems through what he calls "cage-busting" leadership during a talk sponsored by Stand for Children and held at the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators on Friday.

A former Baton Rouge high school teacher turned education scholar said Friday that reforms of public education have mostly failed and will continue to fail until school leaders learn to “cage-bust” the constraints placed upon them and that they place on themselves.

Author of several books, Rick Hess is promoting a new one, “Cage-Busting Leadership,” that was just published this month by the Harvard Education Press. The parent activist group Stand For Children organized the talk. Hess said he had already planned to be in Baton Rouge on Friday to talk to Louisiana Superintendent of Schools John White.

Hess, a scholar at the Washington, D.C-based conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, said he is a supporter of charter schools, private school vouchers and alternative certification programs for teachers. He also said he is a fan of many of the controversial new education laws pushed the Louisiana Legislature last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“A lot of things we think we can’t do are things we can do if we’re smart and strategic about the things we’re doing,” said Hess, speaking to an audience of about 50 people gathered Friday morning at the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators in Baton Rouge.

Hess said past reforms — school-based management, small high schools, he gave as examples — did not work that well because they ran aground when they were implemented, an area often ignored by activist groups. He said he worries that the same fate awaits Jindal’s changes.

“I get hugely concerned that some of the policy changes will not change anything,” Hess said.

Hess identified the main problem as the combination of restrictive rules enacted to deal with problems of yesteryear and perceived rules that people believe prevent action. He described these collectively as a “cage” that requires creative and daring leaders willing to break out of it.

Hess apparently has a history of fighting against constraints. He recalled two years he spent in the early 1990s as a brand new social studies teacher at Scotlandville High School in Baton Rouge.

His principal from those days, Freddie Williams, was in the audience Friday and Hess thanked him.

“He was kind enough at the time not to fire me, even though I was a major pain in the butt,” Hess recalled.

Since leaving teaching and become a scholar, Hess said, he watched with frustration as schools have tried in vain to improve their operations.

“It’s less stories about good and evil and more that people in these systems work hard to do things that will get very little results,” Hess said.

Hess told a story about how it used to take eight days for parents in Washington, D.C., public schools to find out whether their children had been at school because of an antiquated way of taking attendance.

New Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee suggested giving teachers laptops and having them type in attendance numbers, which would make them immediately available. Rhee, however, ended up in 12 weeks of discussions. The problem was an old rule, one that may have made sense when instituted, in the teacher bargaining contract that prohibited teachers from doing data entry, Hess said.

Hess said that schools could do more to maximize their instructional time. He pointed to a University of Michigan study suggested that just 65 percent of the school day is spent on classroom instruction.

One way to add time is to find ways to get teachers to take fewer days off. Hess said teachers on average take eight days off each year. If a school could cut that in half, they could not only add nearly a week of instruction each year and save in the cost of paying substitute teachers. To get teachers to go along, the school could pay them a share of the cost savings, Hess said.

Hess said taking time to make schools efficient and to get around needlessly restrictively rules helps children.

“You don’t do it instead of instructional leadership,” he said. “You do it so you can do instructional leadership better.”

Even charter schools — public schools run privately — often fail to take advantage of the added autonomy that such schools have compared with traditional public schools.

“There are 6,000 charters in America,” Hess said. “I would argue that 80 percent of them use their autonomy not at all.”

Hess said the unwillingness to use that freedom, to “cage-bust,” is linked to how almost all educational leaders, including most charter school leaders, have spent their whole careers in education. He noted that in private business, managers spend more time learning about other fields and gain more experience outside their core areas.