‘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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