Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Cage-Busting Life

If you have been anywhere remotely in the neighborhood of Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, you've heard the phrase "cage-busting teacher." Hess has a book by that title coming out, and he's been preparing the ground for the seeds that book is meant to plant. You can find bits and pieces of the cage-busting idea in various bits of his writing lately, but a good cage-busting primer is on AEI's website, with excerpts from the book itself.

Busting Cages by Leaning in with Gritty Bootstraps

Cage-busting shares a great deal with the conservative ideas expressed by proponents of grittology and the book Leaning In. The underlying idea-- that people should step up, get tough, exert their power, and generally stop waiting for help is a hard one to talk about.

"Get tough. Find a way. Set a goal and work toward it. Don't depend on help. Figure out a solution you can pursue with the tools at hand."

As advice to yourself, this can be powerful and exceptionally useful. As advice to others, particularly others over whom you have power and administrative control, it can be dismissive and unhelpful. As an excuse to withhold assistance and support from those who need it, this stance is morally and ethically reprehensible.

As self-talk, this is useful stuff. "What can I do with the goals that I have and the resources that are available to me?" is powerful, far more powerful than "Well, there's no use trying because I'm boxed in on all sides." For decades, I have described teaching as a kind of guerilla warfare, where there are many people who don't want you to do your job (including people who should be supporting you and who are, technically, in charge of you) so you have to be willing to get your job done through whatever means you can come up with. So it's possible that I am already a cage-buster of sorts.

And yet I have misgivings about Hess's description. While I have seen him occasionally acknowledge that some teachers inhabit cages that are wrapped in barbed wire, covered by machine guns, and electrified, mostly he doesn't. His examples include a teacher who defied a school policy of only giving ACT info to top students via the guidance office by handing out ACT info himself to any and all students who asked. The story has a happy ending-- even though the guidance counselor was furious, the administration ultimately shifted stance. But the end of the story could have as easily ended with the teacher being ripped a new one by a principal and charges of insubordination.

Hess's examples are, in fact, pretty tame, and likely to remind many teachers of the time an administrator "empowered" them by saying, "You can address this issue with any ideas you like as long as you do the work on your own time and it doesn't cost the district a cent." That's not nothing, but it's not exactly earth-shattering, either.

Cage-Busting Entrepreneurs

While Hess likes classroom teachers whose cage busting nibbles around the edges of policy, he really loves cage-busters who are entrepreneurs finding great new programs to market ideas to shift education. He says that "cage-busters know they sometimes need to step out of their schools or classrooms to do their best work." His examples are the founders of EMERGE and LearnZillion, and they illustrate the difficult gap between cage busting and just plain cage leaving. Of LearnZillion founder Eric Westendorf, Hess writes:

Sure, Westendorf has left the classroom to tackle this problem. But a cage-buster would have a hard time suggesting that he’s left schools, teachers, or students behind.

Okay. But is the problem unintentionally revealed here that teachers have to leave the classroom to have real effects on schools?

One Person's Cage-Buster

Cage-busting and rabble-rousing are, for Hess, two different animals. In a recent interview with the Colorado edition of Chalkbeat, Hess has this to say.

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Now, make no mistake-- when it comes to calling out fellow reformsters on their bad choices, their misreading of the field, and their just plain lies, Hess is in the forefront. His picture of the education field is complex and careful, but absolutely geared toward the corporate conservative values that he and AEI back. But he does not reflexively slam teachers, nor does he automatically support anyone who is on His Team.

But he does seem to prefer his cage-busting within certain boundaries. When Newark students, frustrated with a school superintendent who literally refused to meet with the citizens and students of Newark-- when those students followed Cami Anderson to an AEI event to confront her, Hess was not impressed by their cage-busting spirit. Instead, he called them rabble-rousers.

Nor do I look for him to come out in support of teachers supporting the opt-out movement as a way to try to effect policy change. Hess's cage-busters seem to be primarily supporters of favored reform programs.

In fact, most of Hess's examples seem to be ways in which teachers can step up and help the school more effectively pursue the policies it is already pursuing. Hess's Cage-Busting comes perilously close to Cage-Redecorating.

So, Can We Bust a Cage

Hess's basic advice-- step up, do what you can with the resources you have, and don't be afraid to cross some lines to do it-- that's advice I endorse. I'm not sure that Hess fully endorses it, or really wants teachers to bust only certain cages only in certain ways, but that's okay-- the fact that he might not fully embrace the implications of his own advice doesn't make the advice bad. We can still take cage-busting steps.

Teachers really do ask for permission more often than we need to. One of the best ways I know to sell a program is to do what you can with what you've got and then present it to the Powers That Be, saying "See how successful we were with peanuts! Don't you want to give us more resources so we can do more?"

Private industry is loaded with people who fight the system. Teachers often have a natural reluctance to break the rules, even when we know they need to be broken. But sometimes in the service of education or our students, we need to just go ahead and work around the system, push the system, find ways to coax the system into new shapes, or just plain poke holes in the system.

But you have to know the territory. You have to know which line-crossing will lead to Very Bad Consequences, not just because VBC are hard on the recipient, but because you won't achieve your objectives if the VBC are raining down.

You have to recognize the possible consequences. As with Hess, lots of people like the idea of a rebel, as long as they're rebelling against the right things in a proper politely rebellious manner.

And while I appreciate that Hess's book is directed at teachers and not, say, policymakers, I would hate to see it used by policymakers as an excuse. Grit, leaning in, cage-busting-- these are all ideas that are sometimes used by people in power to avoid facing their own responsibility for finding solutions. The value of bootstrapping strategies depend completely on context. Deciding, "We'll just eat rats and plants," is a fine survival strategy for a starving person to choose for himself. But looking down at a starving person from your seat at the Endless Buffet and saying, "Well, you should just eat rats and plants" is indefensible.

Teachers should be problem-solvers who take initiative regardless of what resources and support they may or may not have. As Hess acknowledges, every school in the country has cage-busting teachers in it and always has. But the existence of cage-busting teachers does not excuse cage-welding administrators, politicians, and policymakers from their own obligations to help solve (and to not create more) problems.


  1. "Get tough. Find a way. Set a goal and work toward it. Don't depend on help. Figure out a solution you can pursue with the tools at hand."

    Get knuckles rapped by inflexible overbearing administrators with points to prove. Cower in corner or find new career. (I don't do cowering.)

    Hey - at least I'm out of THAT cage now. *sigh*

  2. not sure how one pulls up their bootstraps when they don't have any boots to begin with-