‘Culture of Can’t’ weakens school leaders

School superintendents can lead, despite rules, regulations and union contracts, argue Rick Hess and Whitney Downs in Combating the ‘Culture of Can’t’ in Education Next. It’s not easy, but “school officials have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed,” they write.

Contracts, rules, regulations, statutes, and policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them—with enough persistence, knowledge, or ingenuity.

The problem is . . .  the “culture of can’t,” in which even surmountable impediments or ankle-high obstacles are treated as absolute prohibitions.

Reformers fight for new policies on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds or school choice, but don’t  provide the support school leaders “need to tackle rules, regulations, and contracts in new ways,” write Hess and Downs.

Thus, reformers struggle to narrow the scope of collective bargaining, only to see administrators fumble the hard-won opportunities. They enact teacher evaluation and turnaround policies whose efficacy and impact rest entirely on the ability of officials to execute them competently and aggressively in the face of contracts, embedded routines, and recalcitrant cultures.

Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute has a new book, Cage-Busting Leadership.

“In selecting, training, socializing, and mentoring leaders, we have unwittingly encouraged ‘caged’ leadership,” he writes in Ed Week.  “Cage-dwellers spend most of their energy stamping out fires or getting permission to lead, and most of their time wooing recalcitrant staff, remediating ineffective team members, or begging for resources. Cage-busters wake up every morning focused on identifying big challenges, dreaming up solutions, and blasting their way forward.”

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  1. I see the Culture of CAN as a problem. Everything can be fixed –immediately! This attitude is just as pernicious as the Culture of Can’t –because it frequently overlooks the inherent and intractible difficulties, and causes workers to waste their energies in doomed enterprises. What we need is the Culture of Wisdom –first, understand a situation in depth, and then perform FEASIBLE fixes. The ed reformers are scapegoating obstinate unionized teachers and bureaucracy. The real challenges are far more complicated.

  2. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    The ed world (and politicians of course) are unwilling to admit that academic ability and motivation, like all other human characteristics, are distributed unequally; therefore mandating equal outcomes, at any meaningful level, is asking for the impossible. That refusal has resulted in the one-size-fits-all approach to school and unhappiness and lack of success for many.

  3. Because you live in the part of town populated by people who draw their livelihood from the horse-drawn carriage?

    Fordham’s definition of “reform” with regard to public education seems to be drawn to greater levels of centralization rather then the opposite and doesn’t even address the issue of whether government involvement in education’s inherently worthwhile. As iconoclasts go Foredham’s pretty weak tea.

    This just looks like more of the same.

    Too bad.