The Promise and Peril of Cage Busting

There are two kinds of people in the education reform world: those who believe the best way to improve schools is through systematic policy making aimed at changing the structure of public education itself, and those who believe that we need strong, visionary and sometimes rule-bending–or “cage-busting”– leaders to secure breakthrough results. These cage-busters are the subject of Rick Hess’s latest book, Cage-Busting Leadership.

“Remember,” Rick writes, “policy is not nimble. It’s a crude lever to force the hands of laggards. And it often creates new headaches or burdens for others … Cage-busters, by showing that schooling can be improved and refashioned by practitioners, also temper the sense that reformers need to ‘fix’ schools through policy.”

He’s not wrong about the need for outstanding leadership, of course. In a system as complex and diverse as the American public school system, leadership is a critical element of success–no matter how effective or well-written the policies are. But before we let the pendulum swing too far in the direction of leadership over policy, it’s important to understand why so many reformers see the need for change at city hall and the statehouse.

A Tale of Two Schools

Before I founded 50CAN, I served as the chief operating officer of ConnCAN, the pioneering Connecticut education policy and advocacy organization started in 2005. One of our first projects was a labor of love that involved poring over thousands of spreadsheets of student achievement data–information the state had collected but which nobody had done very much with–and visiting dozens of schools to learn more about who was beating the odds for their kids. We called these “success story schools.”

Nearly a year into the project, two schools emerged as clear models of success. They were places where kids were succeeding beyond what demographics or zip code would predict, and they were institutions that seemed to offer lessons about leadership and learning that could inform statewide policymaking. One was Dwight Elementary, a traditional district school in Hartford that had undergone a dramatic turnaround under the leadership of principal Kathy Greider. The other was Amistad Academy, a public charter school in New Haven founded by Dacia Toll, whose students consistently outperformed their peers from other schools.

It didn’t take long to see why Dwight and Amistad performed so well: both Greider and Toll were smart, confident leaders–cage-busters, really–who were singularly focused on the needs of their students. They talked about great schools the way Steve Jobs talked about great computers. They had a unique way of bringing out the genius in people around them and accomplishing things that others thought were impossible.

But while Toll and her team were working within the flexibility and autonomy of a public charter school environment, Greider’s success seemed even more remarkable because she had to overcome the constraints of a traditional public school bureaucracy: shorter school days and years, restrictive contracts and work rules, cumbersome recruiting systems and inflexible budgets. Still, Greider seemed unflappable.

She couldn’t extend the day, so she maximized every minute the kids were in her school. Union contracts made it more difficult–but not impossible–for her to build the team she needed to meet the needs of her students. She carefully “documented out” poor performers and held all teachers to high expectations. And through this work, she built a loyal team of teachers as committed to her vision as she was. In pursuit of this vision, some days started around dawn and ended after dark. Everyone at Dwight seemed to be doing whatever it took to achieve amazing results.

Greider had a way of making the obstacles that reformers complain about seem like minor inconveniences that were no match to a visionary leader and the committed team behind her.

And her results were unparalleled.

In the 2000-01 school year, only 11 percent of Dwight Elementary fourth-graders hit Connecticut’s target for grade-level reading performance, compared with 57 percent of their peers statewide. It was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in one of the lowest-performing districts in the state.

After three years of Greider’s leadership, the percentage of students reaching or surpassing grade level in reading had more than quadrupled to 45 percent, cutting the gap between the state average and Dwight student performance from 46 points to just nine. Now Dwight was among the highest-performing schools in Hartford. Its trajectory attracted recognition from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the U.S. Department of Education, in the form of the 2004 Vanguard School Award and the 2005 Blue Ribbon School Award respectively.

Amistad’s success is no less remarkable in terms of student achievement, but perhaps fits more neatly into the mold of the most common education reform success stories.

Founded in 1999, Amistad is a public charter school, free from many of the constraints facing leaders like Greider. In 2001, the first year for which we have complete data, 55 percent of Amistad eight-graders scored at or above grade-level in reading. By 2004 the number had climbed to 69 percent–more than twice the average of its host district (33 percent). Amistad’s success attracted nationwide attention, including that of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page, who told its story in a 2004 documentary for PBS.

Like many successful, cage-busting leaders, both Greider and Toll eventually stepped out of the principal’s office into district-level positions. Interestingly, this is where the story of Dwight and of Amistad veered in far different directions.

At ConnCAN, we had spent much of 2006 filming documentaries on the secrets of each school’s success. The dominant theme of these documentaries was the power of strong leaders to overcome any obstacles in their way no matter the type of school or the policies in place. This is the message we felt needed to be heard by state policymakers.

Then, two weeks before we were set to release the “success story schools” documentaries, new state assessment results were released. Amistad continued to secure big gains for its students, maintaining the same 69 percent of eight graders reading at grade level as the year before (a number that would climb to 80 percent by 2012).

But Dwight’s student achievement results dropped dramatically. In its first year under new leadership, barely 19 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above grade level in reading. Math and writing scores plummeted, too. The story was even worse next year, with only 16 percent of fourth-graders reaching the state’s reading benchmark.

By 2007, the gap in reading between Dwight and the state had crept back to 40 points. In essence, nearly all of the gains that Greider had secured for her students were erased.

Why did Amistad maintain its success as Dwight faltered? In both cases, Toll and Greider had handpicked the incoming school principal. And both Toll and Greider served as mentors to their successors, working to ease the transition of leadership.

The critical difference, it seemed, was not one of leadership, but rather of policy. Through Achievement First, Toll had the opportunity to institutionalize the policies that paved the way for excellence: a school calendar built around students’ needs, education policies designed for excellence instead of compliance, aggressive and nimble teacher recruitment and compensation efforts, and a like-minded support staff focused on building the tools and systems to support gap-closing instruction. Dwight, by contrast, needed a principal who could be perfect on Day 1, successfully navigating a strong current of stifling policies that, at a moment’s notice, could take the school off route.

Adamowski’s Flywheel

In November 2006, two months after Dwight learned of its sharp drop in scores, Steven Adamowski was brought in as superintendent to lead the struggling Hartford Public School District.

Adamowski is every bit a cage-busting reform leader. But he stands apart from some others because his experience in public education seemed to teach him that working within existing policy constraints was unlikely to make a difference in the long run. While he no doubt looked for cage-busting leaders to helm his schools, he was also determined to fundamentally change the rules in Hartford so that improvements didn’t disappear when the cage-busters left town.

To that end, Adamowski embarked on an ambitious five-year plan to transform the Hartford district from a traditional school system–where students and teachers were assigned to schools and most of the power and resources were held by a central office bureaucracy–to a system of schools where parents had real choices, and teachers and leaders had the flexibility and autonomy they needed to meet the unique needs of their kids.

Under Adamowski’s “All-Choice Plan,” Hartford embarked on an aggressive push to shift more resources down to the school level: Adamowski cut the central office staff in half, and he increased the funding controlled by principals by more than 50 percent. Over two years, every school serving Hartford students was transformed into a school of choice and each was encouraged to develop themes and unique learning environments to ensure parents had real options.

What’s more, Hartford’s lowest performing schools were closed. As were those with declining enrollment. The most successful schools were encouraged to expand or replicate. High-performing charter school operators like Achievement First were recruited into the district, and ConnCAN and its partners helped change state law so districts and charters could establish formal partnerships. Specifically, Connecticut state policy was changed to allow districts to provide traditional support, like facilities, to charter schools. In return, districts could include charter school outcomes when they filed accountability reports with the state.

Adamowski also helped build up a civic infrastructure to support this new approach to public education. At his urging, the Hartford business community created Achieve Hartford!, an independent nonprofit focused on monitoring progress, supporting reform efforts and ensuring community involvement. Parent Governing Councils were created for each new school of choice so that parent voices would be heard throughout their children’s academic careers.

In 2008, ConnCAN also teamed up with Trinity College professor Jack Dougherty to create an online tool for navigating Hartford’s new all-choice system called SmartChoices. A study by Dougherty and his colleagues found that one-third of parents changed their top-choice after using the tool, with the most common change being to select a school with higher absolute levels of student achievement, greater gains in achievement over time and greater racial balance in the student body–diverse indicators that helped parents prioritize what was most important to them.

To complement this online effort, Achieve Hartford! created the Parent Choice Advisors program, which in 2011 worked with more 1,500 families to help them make the best choices for their children and assisted more than 300 families in actually filling out the application to make sure their children didn’t miss out on the right school for them.

The results of Adamowski’s work are impressive.

The year Adamowski took over Hartford schools, only 14 percent of the city’s fourth-graders were reading at goal. Over the next five years, Hartford saw gradual but steady improvement. Parents were more engaged, school leaders and teachers had greater control over their budgets and culture and student achievement improved. By 2012, the percentage of fourth-grade students reading at goal had more than doubled to 33 points, cutting the gap with the state average by 28 percent. Similar gains were seen in elementary math and writing, and across all three subjects in middle school and high school. During the same time period, Hartford’s four-year cohort high school graduation rate more than doubled, from 29 percent in 2007 to 60 percent in 2011.

Here is where Adamowski’s story is fundamentally different from the story of Dwight Elementary School: When he stepped down in June 2011, he left a completely remade system of schools in place. What’s more, the system he helped create–with a sturdy foundation of statues, policies, rules and regulations–has continued to yield better public schooling for Hartford students, even under new leadership.

These results may not have earned the headlines of many cage-busting leaders, but they have staying power because of Adamowski’s focus on systemic reform and policy changes. That’s better than any headline.

Cage Busting in the Service of Policy Change

As Rick notes in “Cage-Busting Leadership,” we should draw inspiration from people who have the uncommon ability to bend systems to their will. The team at ConnCAN has continued to do this each year through the “success story schools” project.

But we should not let their success fool us into thinking our systems aren’t truly broken. What education needs most are leaders who think not just about the obstacles they can overcome during their terms, but how they can alter their school systems–in terms of rules, regulations or laws–so that future leaders can continue to secure amazing results for their students.

Reforming policy isn’t easy. But it’s the only path that will ensure lasting change.

-Marc Porter Magee

Marc Porter Magee is President and Founder of 50CAN, an education reform advocacy group that identifies and supports local leaders building reform movements within their states to make sure that every child has access to a great school.

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