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Cage-Busting Leadership 

by Frederick M. Hess, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 256 pp. , $49.95 hardcover, $29.95 softcover

I like Cage-Busting Leadership. In it, Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, comes out swinging at those of us who have said, “Oh, we can’t do that. It’s against _____.” (You fill in the blank: policy, rules, regulations, the collective bargaining agreement, etc.)

The cage he is talking about is real. There are formidable laws and restrictions that limit our actions. But Hess’ premise is that principals and superintendents have supersized them by being unduly cautious and by failing to take advantage of the leeway that we do have to hire and fire teachers, prioritize funding (even from seemingly restrictive federal and state grants), seek waivers and exemptions, reward successful staff and cut loose long-standing programs no longer delivering acceptable student results.

Being instructional leaders is still crucial, but the transformative work of increasing student learning can be made easier or harder by the way leaders deal with unproven assumptions; inherited practices from past administrations; school schedules seemingly frozen in time; and silence and ambiguity in laws, contracts and regulations.

His model is not that of the reckless tough guy, wasting valuable time and energy on unwinnable fights, but rather the smart poker player, bluffing and working every angle, but also willing to fold when needed, only to return another day.

The book is practical and entertaining. There are tons of real-life examples of leaders working around unnecessary and counterproductive constraints.

The next time you are tempted to say, “Sorry, we can’t do that. My hands are tied,” attack “the culture of can’t” in your district by grabbing this book and using the strategies Hess describes to bust open the cage, assist more kids, and impact teacher and student learning more deeply.

Reviewed by Ronald S. Thomas, associate director, Center for Leadership in Education, Towson University, Baltimore, Md.

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