A Cage-Busting Curriculum for Teachers


Last week, new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stirred up a kerfuffle when, after a visit to Washington DC’s Jefferson Middle School Academy, she said that the teachers seemed to be in “receive mode.” DeVos told a columnist for Townhall, “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.” DeVos has since clarified that she meant to say it’s a problem that so many teachers feel hamstrung by rules, regulations, and bureaucracy. And you know what? That is exactly right. DeVos’s phrasing was unhelpful, and it’s a problem that she framed the remark as the product of a single school visit, but the contretemps shouldn’t obscure the larger point.

As I began The Cage-Busting Teacher a couple of years ago:

Over the years, I’ve seen accomplished teachers take pride in doing things the hard way. They talk of working late, planning intricate trips, and writing a slew of micro-grants. They’re changing lives, there’s no doubt about that. But they’re doing it on their own, because most see their schools and systems as, at best, harmless, and, at worst, as obstacles that drain their time and energy.

Teachers have responded by taking refuge in their classrooms. They seek to excel despite the schools and systems they inhabit. The best do it on their own time and their own dime, seemingly accepting that as their lot in life. I don’t think they should and I don’t think they need to. This is a book for those who agree.

Since Cage-Busting came out, loads of teachers have shared similar frustrations. Bitter fights over things like teacher evaluation reform and testing have only worsened divides between practitioners and policymakers. But I’ve also met scores of practitioners who have learned to navigate bureaucracy and the shoals of policy in order to make schools and systems more supportive of their work. And there’s been a steady proliferation of teacher groups that strive to help educators figure all this out.

A big challenge on this score is that there just isn’t much material or training out there on how to make schools and systems work for teachers. As I discuss in Cage-Busting, the most popular authors, books, and articles focus on classroom skills. Even when they’re useful, teacher preparation and professional development are mostly about instructional strategies, pedagogical techniques, instructor attitudes, and how to use data. Meanwhile, teachers only spend a few hours a week around other adults. When exactly do we expect teachers to learn the ins and outs of organizational behavior or how to change them? Because teacher training and PD don’t focus on dealing with system frustrations, neither does most of what gets written and created to support teacher training.

That was what prompted me to write The Cage-Busting Teacher in the first place. And it’s been nice to see that so many folks have found it useful. But it’s also true that most teacher preparation programs don’t have courses in how teachers enhance their authority or manage up. Most PD doesn’t address how teachers should talk to their principal, identify frustrating school routines, propose workable solutions, or build relationships with policymakers. And not every teacher has access to a network like those offered by the Hope Street Group, TeachPlus, Educators for Excellence, NNSTOY, or the rest.

So, hoping to make it easier for isolated practitioners or instructional coaches to tackle all of this, this Thursday I’m publishing the “Cage-Busting Curriculum”—a free online resource that’s intended to help educators master the ideas and tools presented in The Cage-Busting Teacher. The curriculum is organized in seven modules that walk readers through the key concepts in the book and offer opportunities to apply them. If you’re interested in learning more, join us at 4:00 pm this Thursday, February 23, virtually or at AEI.

As a guy who mostly writes about “policy” and “leadership,” I’m the first to admit that this stuff can feel pretty far removed from the critical work that happens every day in classrooms. That’s a problem. It causes policymakers and system leaders to underestimate the distance between ambitious plans and their practical impact. And it can make educators feel powerless and like nobody cares what they think. The insight behind cage-busting is that we’re all much, much better off when there is a healthy partnership between talkers and doers. My hope is that this curriculum can help narrow the divide, if only a bit.

—Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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