Monday, August 24, 2015

Cage Busting Teachers?

One of my summer reads was Rick Hess's book The Cage-Busting Teacher. Hess comes to us from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted free-market-loving thinky tank, but Hess is no dummy and has shown at times his willingness to think things through, whether that thinking leads him into disagreement with reformster orthodoxy or not.

This new book of his deals the question of the cages that teachers inhabit, what makes the cages, what keeps the teachers in the cages, and how they can get out. It's a challenging book, because parts of it are dead on and parts of it are dead wrong. But I've read it, so you don't have to (or so that you can decide if you want to).

First, the Very Short Version

Teachers complain of being thwarted, boxed in, bottled up, and just plain caged. Hess spent some time talking to lots of folks, and concluded that while teachers lack the organizational authority to bust a cage (we don't control budgets, staffing, scheduling, etc), teachers can make use of the authority of expertise and moral authority. Using those, teachers can shift the culture of their buildings and create concrete solutions to institutional problems.

The more teachers do that, the more trust they'll win, the more policy makers will back off, and the more room they will have to put their expertise and passion to work. That has the promise to flip today's vicious cycle, where micromanagement leads to resistance, which lead to more micromanagement, which leads to more resistance. Cage-busters can create a virtuous cycle in which problem-solving educators earn the trust of lawmakers and administrators, yielding more autonomy and more opportunity to make smart decisions for kids.

Remember that paragraph, because it contains most of what is right and wrong about Hess's idea.

So What Is the Cage? 

The cage consists of the routines, rule4s and habits that exhaust teachers' time, passion, and energy. The cage is why educators close their classroom doors and keep their heads down.

Hess gets more specific. An avalanche of well-intentioned directives. The casual and thoughtless wasting of teachers' time with everything from potty duty to pointless assemblies to --well, just stuff. Every teacher knows the drill. No systemic rewards for excellence. And being "blindsided by accountability," where Hess admits that testing culture is a bit out of control.

And it is so pervasive that teachers have come to accept feeling alienated, disempowered and frustrated. Hess notes the disconnect between surveys showing that teachers think their boss is doing a good job, but feel their work environment is not open and trusting and that they are not treated with respect. Hess's conclusion is that teachers not only work in the cage, but accept that the cage is an inescapable part of the job.

Hess goes on to point out some of the mindsets that keep teachers in the cage. The MacGyver trap, where some teachers just make miracles out of stretching what they have-- but wearing themselves out and keeping others from finding actual real non-gum-and-paper-clip solutions. Hiding in the classroom, disconnected from the full school system. Getting too angry about the big picture to accomplish things locally. Simply waiting for the flavor of the month to pass, rather than dealing with it. And fear-- fear of rocking the boat, causing trouble, being That Guy, making a mistake.

This part of Hess's construct is his strongest, the part where, mostly, he has a point.

Who Are the Busters?

Hess is clear that CBT are not about specific classroom techniques, but simply seeing their world a little differently. Here are some of the things that Hess's cagebuster believes.

* actions, not words, change culture
* teachers can have influence, but have to earn it
* management's job is to root out mediocrity, but teachers should pressure them to do so
* "teacher leadership" is chirpy nonsense unless it comes with real power
* precision and clarity are important
* problem-solving and responsibility are the teachers' tools for creating change
* the lucky get luckier
* that "this stuff is hard" and that mistakes will be made

Cage Busting Teachers wield their authority of expertise by being experts in their field and knowing what the heck they're doing. They get and use their moral authority by being guardians of the public good. Moral authority is earned.

Hess spends a lot of time throughout the book trying to describe this complex of stuff. What I see him saying is, basically, a teacher who is self-directed and intrinsically motivated, who knows what the right thing to do is and does it.

So, How Does One Bust

I'm going to really oversimplify this part, but contained in it is the best part of Hess's book.

Teachers in the cage tend to be compliant, well-behaved, institutional team players who stay in place. As Hess says, there are many reasons for that, but he's onto something when he observes that one way to get out of the cage is... just to walk out of the cage. I was reminded of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, describing how there are no actual barriers keeping the damned in Hell. They could walk right out at any time, but for a variety of reasons, they have convinced themselves that they can't, and so they stay there, suffering.

It starts with cage-busting teachers. It starts with teachers earning, employing and leveraging the authority that will make them masters of their fate. It's about a new deal, where teachers embrace responsibility for what schools do and how students fare.

Instead of seeing themselves as other-directed cogs, a CBT would act on the belief that this is our house. A CBT steps up and solves problems. And as the CBT establishes herself as a strong agent of responsibility, administrators invest more trust and responsibility in her, giving her more power to influence the system.

And that's actually pretty much it. The rest is a matter of working out the details.

Contentious Issues 

Hess spends an entire chapter on "The Union Question." Hess knows his history-- he knows that teachers have suffered a variety of historical abuses such as being fired for stupid reasons, and that the union did not just spring up because a bunch of teachers wanted more beer money.

Ultimately, his position here vis-a-vis the CBT is that a CBT does not necessarily take a particular side on the question. Hess is never a fan of over-simplifying some issues: "Cage-busting teachers eschew sweeping generalizations..." So unions can be good or bad, depending on members and leadership.

But Hess's handling of difficult issues gets in the way of his cage-busting vision. He suggests, for instance, that while teachers should be vocal and intolerant when it comes to crappy colleagues, the business of how exactly to identify bad teachers is an issue that the CBT doesn't need to get all wrapped up in-- even though I would argue that it's hugely important and all his talk about getting rid of the chaff and rewarding excellence is meaningless if we have no way to identify either.

And in fact, Hess's CBT is bold and courageous and outspoken and willing to exercise her authority-- but always in a proper non-controversial way. For a while I thought that Hess was advocating his version of "It's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission," until he specifically wrote that he wasn't.

And There's Hess's Big Problem

The book is filled with dozen of examples of CBTs who identified a problem, figured out a way to address it, and worked the problem until they managed a solution. They are all great stories. And yet every single solitary CBT story ultimately rested on a cooperative administrator. Some had to be convinced at first, but not one of them actively attempted to thwart the CBT.

In Hess's universe, many teachers are not making great enough use of the power that they have at their disposal-- and on this I agree with him 100%. But in Hess's universe, the power structure, the entire system surrounding schools and government oversight thereof-- that is all just as it should be. The right people are in charge, right where they belong.

Teachers "earn" trust. The people in power "yield" some authority to teachers. And all of that earning of trust and power is done on the terms set by those in authority. He even includes big chunks of information about how to get those in authority to say yes to your cage-busting ideas (and he's not entirely wrong-- some teachers are very bad at that sort of thing). But in Hess's world, teachers never have more authority than is given to them by the people in charge. Hess looks at the public education system and sees the Catholic Church, with all power flowing down from above. He sees a feudal society where things run smoothly as long as everyone stays in their place. Teachers who behave themselves and please their rightful bosses can earn a longer leash.

Hess's universe is an inverted version of mine. In my universe, I'm the professional who knows what the hell he's doing (mostly, on most days-- I ain't Superman). If you want to come into my world and tell me what I'm supposed to do, you're going to earn the right to have me take you seriously and consider following your "suggestions" about my classroom and my school. I mean-- I'll listen to almost anything, because I'm always ready to steal be influenced by a new idea. But just because, say, you had some success selling computers or winning an election or running a thinky tank or selling a textbook, I'm not automatically going to recognize your authority in my workplace. Not until you earn it. Sure, you can get control of all or some of the government and pass laws and create some rules, and you may be able to force my compliance-- but that's not authority. It's just blunt force.

It may be that Hess is just offering practical realpolitik. And I absolutely agree that many teachers sit in cages that have lockless doors and bars made of tin foil, cages that don't even need to be busted-- just walked right out of.

But there are administrators, officials, bureaucrats, meddlers, policymakers, and other cage builders out there who are resistant problems, massive obstacles to educational progress, and a polite and proper approach to them isn't going to budge a thing. Hess's whole model depends on cooperation from the people who have positional authority, and the educational landscape is filled with people who aren't letting go of an ounce of their control, no matter how deserving and earning a CBT acts.

In fact, if we just think back, we can recall that during every wave of reformsterism, including NCLB, RTTT, Common Core and everything else that has dropped on us in the last fifteen years, there have been plenty of teachers around with plenty of professional and moral authority, and they were resoundingly ignored. Well, that's not true-- when some tried to speak up, they were belittled and dismissed.

I think Hess's book is worth reading-- there's a lot to think about, even when you're disagreeing with it. But at the end of the day, Cage-busting Teaching is about being a little bit of a rebel, just enough of a self-starter, and not-inappropriately independent. I think some of his ideas are actually useful-- but more so when taken further than he wants to take them, because ultimately, in Hess's world, outside of the cage is another, bigger cage. That is, perhaps, reality, but Hess still ends up with an oddly limited message of, "Stand up for education, as long as you, you know, get permission and don;t get too unruly."

I actually have one other big thought about the book, but I'm going to deal with that separately. In the meantime, maybe Hess will return my favor and give my book a plug.


  1. Throughout this piece I was thinking of Rafe Esquith - a teacher I think even Hess would have to acknowledge as "cage-busting". Look what happened to him. So why does Hess think that other teachers don't follow his example?

  2. The cage

    You put 5 chimpanzees in a cage together with a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling. Directly below the bananas you put a staircase. The chimps soon learn to climb the stairs and reach for the bananas. But the first time one gets ahold of a banana, the whole group is sprayed with cold water (which the chimps hate). Repeat until no chimp even tries to reach for a banana. Then replace one of the chimps with a new chimp. That chimp will, of course, try to reach for the banana. The other chimps will beat the snot out of him until he learns not to reach for the banana. Then replace another chimp. Again, that chimp will try to get the bananas. Again, the other chimps, including the other new chimp who has no idea why he's doing it, will beat the snot out of him. Continue replacing chimps until all of the chimps are new - none have been sprayed with water. Yet none of the chimps will ever reach for those bananas, nor will they ever let any other chimp reach for the bananas.

    1. You are absolutely right in using his analogy.

    2. Spot on, Dienne, which is the raison d'ĂȘtre of TFA. No newbie teacher can do this:

      "Instead of seeing themselves as other-directed cogs, a CBT would act on the belief that this is our house. A CBT steps up and solves problems. And as the CBT establishes herself as a strong agent of responsibility, administrators invest more trust and responsibility in her, giving her more power to influence the system."

      Continual churn among the teacher ranks keeps all inside their cage, no security necessary.

      Christine Langhoff

  3. I'm glad you're reading Hess' book for me, because I'm sure not going to read it. I can't stand his writing. I find his analogies totally inaccurate. Everything he says sounds like disconnected gobbledegook, devoid of any logic. Trying to follow his train of thought in a whole book would make me want to blow my brains out. But I wait with bated breath your next big thought on it.

  4. I think the cage may well be a reflection of the cage a family finds itself traditional districts, which school a student attends depends entire.h on street address. Give. The cage parents find themselves in, it is not surprising that parents want to restrict the teachers of their children.

    1. Do you ever stop to re-read anything you post? Do you even realize how ridiculous you sound?

    2. He's in his own little world, full of magical algorithmic unicorns.

    3. He has only one small window through which to look out on reality, so his view is very limited, plus the glass is distorted. It makes him not able to understand or even see the main important points in anything he reads, so he ignores them. Although what he says may sometimes be one tiny part of the truth, the rest of it he makes up and has no connection with the full reality.

    4. I do not understand why you think this is an inaccurate view of reality. Parents who are forced to send their children to a school will try to control that school through the political process, that is regulation. If you want teachers to be free to teach as they think best, you have to let students from families that disagree with the teacher have the opportunity to leave the school.

    5. I cannot follow your train of thought. I cannot tell what you want to say. How do parents restrict teachers? You have to let parents who don't like the way the teachers teach go to a different school so teachers in the traditional school can teach the way they want? So what do these parents want and where are they going to find it? Makes. No. Sense.

  5. I haven't read the book, so thank you once again for saving me from reading reforms stuff like this. As I was reading your explanation, I kept thinking that Hess is going down the "no matter what, blame the teachers" route. Do I understand his perspective? If so, I just want to say that I am tired of teachers being blamed for everything wrong with public education. And the economy. And everything else.

  6. Re-reading your post just makes me angry. To say we're in barless cages we're afraid to walk out of makes us sound like we have Stockholm syndrome. Maybe we do, but maybe we really are hostages.

    Even though most of the principals I've had were failed teachers who hadn't taught much and didn't understand much about teaching, at least a lot of them realized they didn't know anything, but trusted that we did and tried to facilitate what we told them we needed. But they could only do so much because their hands were tied by Central Administration. (My sister taught for years in a school where the principal was a sociopath. They could not get rid of him. The only good thing was that it unified the teachers in trying to do things that helped the kids in spite of him.)

    Hess says we can earn the "moral authority" of being experts in our field by being "guardians of the public good." It sounds like, to him, the way for us to "earn" that is by being vocal about getting rid of "mediocre" teachers. Then administrators will magically "trust" us and listen to everything we say.

    Before all this reformster stuff started, we were going towards student-centered learning focused on cognitive strategies, and teachers having more power over the educational process. The way things have been going, it seems like strikes are the only way we're going to be able to get back to that.