Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Rick Hess's Cage-Busting Lessons

Rick Hess has been busy promoting his book about Cage-Busting Teachers, and he reported ten lessons that he learned out on the circuit. As always I find Hess worth paying attention to because (unlike some of his reformy brethren) he's not sloppy or lazy in his thinking. So what did he learn (and, by extension, think the rest of us should get)?

1) Schools and leaders are hungry for teacher leadership. Well, they say they are. Which, of course, is often the problem. Most of us have had encounters with administrators who project a clear message of, "I would love to see some teachers step up and become leaders in pursuit of exactly what I tell them to pursue." This is a recurring issue that I have with Hess's cage-busting model. Sometimes the cages are built strong, wired with electricity, and coated in poisonous venom.

2) Advocates on all sides of the reform/public ed issue love the idea of cage busting teachers. I think that's probably true, but only if we get that there's a wide number of ideas about what a CBT is and what obstacles need to be busted.

3) Hess agrees. Everybody likes CBT, but nobody knows how to grow them. I have some thoughts. But Step One is for administrators to let go of the notion that teacher leadership has to look like they want it to and result in the outcomes they demand.

4) Reformers have focused too much on getting rid of bad teachers, while teachers have not focused on it enough, but everybody should focus more on giving great teachers what they need. Hess is landing near the Hero Teacher Fallacy here, but he's not completely wrong. Guys like Andy Cuomo who believe that there are a gazillion terrible teachers who just need to be found and jettisoned are wasting their time.

5) Veteran teachers are used to a culture that has no respect for excellence. Yes, I'd say that's true. And this:

I've been struck at how enthusiastically these educators describe the lift provided by modest recognition, and how appreciative they are for some of the perks that twenty-something policy types take for granted.

Yup. I've argued for years that money discussion would be less contentious at contract time if districts just offered to treat teachers like respected grown-ups. But they don't.

6) Teachers don't code switch. Sigh. I hate it, but I know he's right. Too many teachers don't get how to function in places that aren't their classroom, and are bad at the most essential part of dealing with people-- understanding what those peoples' priorities and foci are. The most cringeworthy argument I hear teachers make to advocate against a policy is offering some version of, "But this makes me sad.."

At the same time, it's hard not to resent the underlying power dynamic here-- to be heard, teachers have to learn to speak the language of policymakers and boardrooms and suits and even think tanks. Why is it that none of these people have bothered to try learning our language?

7) Reasonable and polite teachers should speak up. We know that Hess prefers his cage busters polite and genteel and not speaking up loudly, rudely or at inappropriate moments. This remains the weakest part of Hess's position-- he's concern trolling and tone police in one, worried that if teachers speak up too loudly or too rudely, gosh, they just won't be taken seriously by the People Who Matter. I won't deny that there are some teachers who are in a seemingly permanent state of High Dudgeon (and reformsters who are stuck in a state of Righteous Crusading Against Infidels). But I'm reminded of something I've said often-- if people don't believe they are being heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voice. If someone is yelling at me, nine times out of ten it's because they don't believe I hear them. If I don't like being yelled at, it is often within my power to stop it. It's not that I'll listen to them when they adopt a proper tone; it's that when they know I'm listening, they'll get quieter on their own. Just saying.

8) While Hess reminds us that reformsters by and large mean well, he reminds reformsters that teachers actually have to make all these bright ideas work.

That power and precision accorded to accountability systems, teacher evaluation systems, turnaround models, and the rest is sometimes disturbingly disconnected from an interest in how this affects the actual work of the teachers who are expected to make these deliver.

9) Teachers surprise Hess by actually being quite open to New Stuff. Well, yes. We're always looking at new stuff, trying new things, and experimenting like Doofenshmirtz hunting for a great new Teachinator. Reformsters have made this mistake over and over and over and over again, assuming that because we don't like their stupid new idea, we don't like any new ideas at all. Reformsters consistently fail to ask the question that teachers, experimenting in our classroom every day, always ask-- Does this actually work? Does this actually help me teach students?

10) Policymakers and Other Important People listen to teachers better when teachers provide concrete specific examples of what they're talking about. Fair enough.

My cage busting problem (and I freely confess that I have not yet read the book) is that Hess's whole model seems to assume a maintenance of a certain power status, with teachers on the bottom. In the wrong light, Hess starts to sound like a solicitous parent saying, "Of course, you can come sit at the grown-up table, just as soon as you act grown-up and show us that you can handle it."

What he says sounds reasonable, and it may in fact be a clear dose of Realpolitik, but to get at what troubles me, let me propose an alternative book. In this book Hess (or someone) says, "For too long we've been trying to keep teachers locked up and constrained, forcing them into the shape we demand of them. So let's release them from the cage we've built for them. Let's stop talking to them about how to do their job, shut our mouths, sit down and listen to the experts, the teachers who have devoted their lives to education. And maybe after we have listened and learned, we can prove to them that we deserve to be listened to and our ideas deserve to be considered. But first we need to free them to do the work they know." The author of this imaginary book could call it Cage-Busting Policymakers.

But that's not the book he wrote. And while teachers do need to step up and are (and have been) doing most of the heavy lifting of the teaching world, Hess's assumption that of course policymakers, whether elected or self-appointed, are rightfully in charge, and teachers are, by default, rightfully not.

Hess's best insight is that too many teachers are so used to being caged and powerless that they don't test the limits and they don't break through some bars that are weak and pointless and deserve to be busted. But he is disingenuous to avoid acknowledging where those cages came from in the first place, or the huge number of new cages that have been built in the last fifteen years.

Damn. I'm going to have to read his book.


  1. One thing I have come to understand over the years is that people sort themselves into jobs that they feel comfortable in doing. The relative security of public school teaching, where competition between between individuals is minimized and individual effort is not rewarded by the system, is unlikely to attract people who will become cage busting teachers. In fact, the current system mostly attracts people most comfortable in the cage.

    1. Of all the baloney you've ever dropped in this comments section, that is one of the thickest slices, my friend.

    2. Peter,

      I will grant you that at one time women became teachers because it was one of the few professional jobs open to them, but now that women have a great many choices, the decision to become a teacher depends on how good a fit the job is with the person.

      If you are a person that values stability, public school teaching has much to offer. You are unlikely to be fired, your pay rate changes automatically with longevity, and you are working in the environment that you have come to know best over your own sixteen or seventeen years in a school.

      A person with a different personality would look at public school teaching and say that public school tenure is not that valuable to me because I am unlikely to be fired and even if I was fired I could find another equally good job, that I want to be paid based on my individual efforts rather than steps and lanes written on a table, and that sixteen or seventeen years in a classroom is enough.

      This sorting of people into job types based on matching personalitiesis why changes to public education are so hard for public school teachers to deal with. They became public school teachers because they value stability more than the average member of society and now they are being told that they may not know exactly what their salary will be in two years or exactly what their monthly pension payment will be when they retire. There is the possibility that they might have to change careers because they have lost their teaching job unjustly when a VAM score was unluckily low. There is even the possibility that students will choose not to attend their school.

      Of course this does not hold for every teacher, nor is it only public school teaching at attracts people with a certain personality traits.

    3. What does me "competing" with other chemistry teacher in my building even look like? Please be specific, because I apparently have a lot to learn.

    4. I think people become teachers because they want to share their knowledge. The main trouble with teaching now is the disrespect we're shown as professionals and that people who don't understand what we do are trying to mandate that we "teach" in ways that don't make sense and don't work.

    5. I can argue against each of teachingeconomist's points, using myself as a counterexample for most, but will that change teachingeconomist's beliefs? I doubt it. To use anecdote, the preferred method of teachingeconomist, I find most people reluctant to give up belief in the face of rational argument, or even directly contrary evidence.

      This reluctance is the bane of my existence as a physics teacher, as I ask students to give up their naive beliefs of how the universe works by presenting clear evidence contradicting those beliefs. The tenacity of worldview is astonishingly powerful. It takes a long time and many, many experiences to change people's minds, and some never do.

      I do not find teachingeconomist's view of human nature and its motivations convincing. But I doubt that rational argument alone will do anything to change teachingeconomist's mind. Or those like him/her.

      So how do we change the education landscape if rational argument is not effective? I see a tiny ray of hope in the charter school struggles. The reformsters sold a "this will be easy, cheaper and more efficient" bill of goods to the few people actually paying attention to education in the first place. Now they are crying "this is HARD!" and "we will need more money to do such a hard thing!" Time and direct, painful experience may be our only hope.

    6. Lets think about this in another way. Amoung the reasons commonly given for someone to own a small business is that they can be in charge of their financial destiny, they can be in charge of their schedule, and they can choose whom they work with. Do you think that the people who find these reasons to start a small business compelling are equally likely to want to work in a public school?


      I am not sure what is irrational about the idea that people sort themselves into jobs that have characteristics they are comfortable with. I would not even think the notion to be controversial.

    7. Teaching economist, it's unclear whether you are merely saying that teaching attracts people who are inclined to be teachers. In other words, disregarding their reasons, regardless of how the labor market works, and regardless of any social explanation.

      If you are saying that teaching attracts people who are inclined to be teachers, that's not controversial. People who own small businesses are unlikely to be teachers, because they are doing something else. That's not controversial.

      But if you claim that teachers are more risk adverse than people working at other jobs, or that teachers have a particular psychological make-up, this needs empirical support.

    8. TE, saying that people tend to look for careers that suit their personality is not controversial. That's an okay generalization to make. But to say that teachers choose teaching because they're risk-averse and want stability and security; are "uncomfortable about their ability to compete"; and therefore would not be good innovative leaders ("cage-busters") - I don't know where you get that idea. I assume you must be generalizing based on your own personality and why you chose to teach.

      People become teachers for many reasons. I've never known any who chose teaching because they were looking for stability and security. The best teachers always feel it's a calling, and almost all teachers I know are innovative and could be successful in other careers, they just prefer to teach because they like teaching. The main ones I've known who just went through the motions were coaches. (This is not true of all coaches.) They became teachers because they wanted to coach, not because they wanted to teach, and back in the day people who could coach were hired before people who couldn't who had better credentials.

      You're not a K-12 teacher. Teaching K-12, at any level, is in many ways more difficult than teaching post-secondary, and is not for the faint of heart. You take risks every day. Every day is a performance that could flop. Every day parents, administrators, and even other teachers might not understand or agree with your teaching methods and can hassle you. You never know how a class is going to go or if tensions between students will boil over into a fight that you have to defuse. You could even have a student in class carrying a gun, as I did once. So I don't see how you can say we're risk-averse.

    9. And money or making yourself stand out are not the only incentives to innovation.

    10. Aaron,

      Every job is a bundle of characteristics. Teaching in public schools is no exception. One of the relatively uniqe characteristics of public school employment is that teachers are not "at will" employees. Another relatively unique aspect public school employment is that individual effort has no impact on compensation or job security. Do you really think that these aspects of the job have no influence on the people who take the job?


      I agree that there are some high school teachers that are coaches, not really teachers (my youngest child would agree as well, though he would say that he learned far more from the coach than any other teacher in his high school). I also agree that the best teachers view teaching as a calling, though the best are, by definition not most teachers.

      Every day could be a flop, but unlike the theater or a concert, even if today is a flop, the teacher knows that the audience will be at there tomorrow.
      performance, and the teacher's paycheck is unaffected.

    11. I didn't say there are high school teachers that are more coaches than teachers. Coaching is like a form of teaching, I was talking about teachers of math, social studies, and English who aren't into teaching that and don't do a good job of it because they don't care, they just want to coach football or whatever, and the administration gives them a pass. However, where I live the people who were hired just because they said they could coach have all retired and that is not such a consideration in hiring now, since there are so many coaching jobs and they are separate contracts and the coach might not teach in the building or even be a teacher.

      Sometimes I wonder about your reading comprehension abilities. You seize on one inconsequential thing that somebody else said but don't address the main issue. You don't see the forest for the trees. No, I really don't think "these aspects of the job" have much influence on choosing teaching as a career. I don't think young people even realize that about it, and most jobs you get automatic raises anyway if you're doing a decent job because they want to retain people and not have high turnover and have to be training new people all the time. There isn't any evidence that teaching candidates think about this, much less that teachers choose the career because they have a certain type of "risk-averse" personality. These are all assumptions on your part, seen through Randian glasses.

    12. Teaching economist, no one denies that attitude to risk is part of how humans vary. But they also vary with respect to the range of choices available to them. Also they vary with respect to the value each gives different choices.

      Some people start small businesses because that is the only viable choice for them to make a living. Others take on large risks for the sake of things other than money.

      It may be almost universal for people to value autonomy, but autonomy comes in many different ways. Teachers, for example, are likely to put a high value on their autonomy in the classroom.

      There are many possibilities, and it isn't clear what you are claiming about them. In finance it may be possible to talk about attitude to risk (bonds versus stocks) in a way that is independent of all this qualitative and evaluative stuff. But elsewhere, not so easy.

      Assuming that you want to model human behavior by rational decision-making, which your talk of risk suggests (and I'm willing to accept), this is how we need to think through the problem, even before we formulate a hypothesis, let alone test it.

      You seem to have jumped all the way to a conclusion, without having a hypothesis, let alone evidence. This jump is human and normal, hence forgivable.

  2. Teaching attracts people who are naturally cooperative not competitive!

    1. I would say that teaching attracts people who are naturally uncomfortable about their ability to compete, but it amounts to the same thing.

      Exemplary or not, all teachers move along the same steps, this is a comfort to some, frustrating to others. It I the others who are more likely to be the cage busting teachers.

    2. I've known a few teachers who are "competitive", and they're scary. They don't work well with others, and this is not a productive thing. They're not people who care about becoming better teachers, they're narcissists who just want to look good.

      What you need is people who don't compete with each other but who are constantly trying to improve what they do, like an athlete trying to best their own score rather than other people's, since collaboration is much more important in what we do. If each person strives for excellence, and collaborates with others, the enterprise as a whole will become better.

      In order to strive for excellence, (which means find the best ways to help the most students learn,) you need to try new things, which most teachers will if they have the time to do research and be creative, which is difficult with a typical K-12 schedule (it is also difficult to find time to be collaborative), and if principals are supportive.

      Another problem is that most principals I've had are failed teachers who have taught very little, don't like teaching, and don't know how to do it well.

  3. In my experience, the field of education as a whole only seems to want and honor those cage-busters who cage-bust in "desirable" ways, those ways currently sanctioned by Reformers.

    But so much as rattle your cage bars, let alone "bust" the cage, for better working conditions? For another period of recess for Kindergarteners? For sufficient planning time? For reduction in the burden of standardized testing? Against "data-driven" instruction? That's when your knuckles get rapped. :-(

  4. I'm continually frustrated that actual cage-busting teachers that lead the way for so many others, usually by publishing books about their big ideas, complete with clear research (people who might be referred to as a "guru" like Nancie Atwell) don't get more attention from the reformster side. These are teachers that have broken the mold, written bestselling books, and are mostly comfortable at the "big boy" table with policy people, but they don't get listened to either.

    Basically, Hess's "just behave yourself and we'll listen to you" is simply not true, because we have a lot of people that are behaving themselves (along with a lot of actual education researchers) who are continually ignored while economists get all the attention in the room.

    1. Yes, there are good ideas and analysis in education.

      But in order to be heard, one must tell powerful people what they want. This often has nothing to do with anything that actually works or helps people. But powerful people's needs have to be served.

      So teachers have to talk to "reformers" as if the "reformers" really have good ideas about how to improve education. (It's possible!)

      So if anyone has a good idea about education, it must be expressed in the way that powerful people will accept, and one must have a strategy for how to do this, even if the idea really has nothing to do with what powerful people think.

      For example, if a powerful person is working to destroy public education, but says (and thinks) he is trying to save it, one must go along by pretending that the discussion is about improving public education. That's "code switching."

      Or one can try telling the truth, which is harder yet.

    2. Most of the teachers I know don't make the best politicians - and what you're describing is politely described as "politics." (I have less-polite terms for it too, but I don't want to be banned from the Comments section. LOL) The folks I've met who DO do "politics" well are too often administrators who have let their memories of actual classroom realities fade; in other words, they become more of the politicians and policymakers we're already trying to educate and fend off, AND now they can wave their previous classroom experience at us, AND now they're our principals and superintendents and can hire and fire us.

      Is it so novel a concept that teachers be given the time to do their jobs AND maybe have a bit of time left over to do the kind of advocacy, or at least information-gathering, that we need to do in order to stay informed and keep each other and our communities informed, let alone engage in "politicking?"

      They keep us busy, they keep us cowed, they keep us afraid - until we leave the system and speak out (and are still discounted, code-switching or no). It's a great gig for those who can play the game - but too few of those who CAN don't get pulled to The Dark Side, where they exude charm and schmooze with the best of them until they get their own private gigs where they can wield even more influence.

      Discouraged? You bet I am. The career I was called to (which is NOT politics, by the way) is dead in the water in many places, and dying a slow painful death in most others. There is no more time to play politics, to pander to the likes of Petrilli and Duncan and The Publication That Shall Not Be Named - my own children are in school NOW.

  5. I learned early on that administrators, with rare exception, will nearly always waste my time at best or actively inhibit me from excellent teaching at worst. So I do everything I can to bust out of the cage stealthily, without being "listened to" at all.

  6. Helene makes a terrific point in response to TE -- I too teach physics and recognize how difficult it is for people to give up their pre-existing ideas, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. TE also needs to understand that a school is a community of people that all work together, in all facets, all of the time (to be successful). This calls for cooperative people, not competitive people. Competitive people ruin schools, or parts of schools. Beyond that, teaching is a calling -- a profession. I worked in private sector (non-teaching) for many years, successfully, and then stayed home with children, and now I teach. I don't believe TE works in public schools K-12, but I can say that the people I work with are very professional, very compassionate, caring, hard-working folks who deserve far respect than TE's blithe dismissal of all of us as "people craving security in our jobs".

  7. Helene makes a terrific point in response to TE -- I too teach physics and recognize how difficult it is for people to give up their pre-existing ideas, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. TE also needs to understand that a school is a community of people that all work together, in all facets, all of the time (to be successful). This calls for cooperative people, not competitive people. Competitive people ruin schools, or parts of schools. Beyond that, teaching is a calling -- a profession. I worked in private sector (non-teaching) for many years, successfully, and then stayed home with children, and now I teach. I don't believe TE works in public schools K-12, but I can say that the people I work with are very professional, very compassionate, caring, hard-working folks who deserve far respect than TE's blithe dismissal of all of us as "people craving security in our jobs".

    1. Julie,

      You might look at my reply to Helene above. I am not dismissing anyone, just pointing out that some professions involve more risk than others and, as a result, attract people in part because of the risks involved. People who like to work outside, who like to do physical labor, or who dislike dealing with children are unlikely to become teachers as well.

      I find it hard to believe this is even slightly controversial.

  8. It is difficult to be a cage-buster when you have no job protections. It's also right near impossible when overworked and over stressed as much as teachers are.

  9. teachingeconomist, I don't get what you mean by claiming that because teachers achieve tenure, they are avoiding "risk."

    Teachers may not have to think much about losing their job, if they're tenured, but they do run the risk of failing. Teaching is nothing but risk. It requires a lifetime of experimentation, much of which is bound to fail, and some of which can't be replicated - what works brilliantly with one kid will bomb with another. Teachers can never, ever stop improving, reinventing, and rethinking, and the teacher who does should retire right away.

    And indeed, one can make precisely the reverse argument: that jobs which might be easily lost do not exactly encourage risk-taking and innovation. Indeed, job security is often touted as a requirement for jobs where people must risk doing something unpopular, or difficult, or experimental. That's why we have the concept of an "ivory tower," because the great risk of research is that you will dig up unpopular truths, or (especially in science) that you won't find anything at all. That's why the Supreme Court get a lifetime position, so that judges won't lean towards politically popular interpretations in an effort to protect their jobs.

    I have tenure in a community college. Short of becoming seriously derelict in my duties, I won't be fired. This has liberated me to do all kinds of experimental and interesting things, which is kind of draining actually, but keeps me on board. If I had to worry about my job, I think I'd focus on creating a syllabus and approach that the dean liked, and make sure to stick to it.