Rick Hess has a new book out and it is worth reading. To no surprise, if you know Rick, the title is as entertaining and confident as the writing: "Cage Busting Leadership.” It's an informative and entertaining read about the actual and perceived (largely perceived) barriers that prevent many education leaders from doing their work.
When I read Rick’s book, one theme echoed my own experience with districts and schools — that most barriers to reform are fictional constructs. They exist in the minds of leaders and their staffs because they have to manage so many big issues that they do not have the time to investigate the reality of the purported barriers. They have to rely on others, who have relied on others … who have relied on others. Over time, the tangle of misconceptions becomes a point of leverage for someone who stands to benefit from the confusion. It happens all the time. Education is a political business.
Unfortunately, the confusion is not the sole prerogative of local schools and districts. Just last week, for example, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event addressing the deployment of the Common Core State Standards and the implications for our schools. At one point in the conversation, Rick asked Joanne Weiss, the US Department of Education Chief of Staff, whether the fiscal requirements around Title I, their largest financial lever, were a hindrance to the coming changes. Joanne laid out the basic role of the provisions (to protect federal funds from misuse or misappropriation, etc.) but when pushed on the details, she deferred.
At that moment, my highly distracted, multi-tasking mind lifted from my iPad (The Lance Armstrong hubris opera goes on).Did the Chief of Staff just punt a question on what may be the most critical fiscal requirements for federal funds? In her defense, the matter is very fact specific and it’s nearly impossible to answer a question out of context. Still, if a top ED official is uncertain about the policy impact of the department’s own fiscal rules, it’s certain that the message will get mangled downstream, allowing a rule to become (wait for it) a cage.
All this is great for an education attorney like me, to be honest; untangling fiscal barriers is what we do. Business has been good over the years. But there is always “business” to be done, and I hate to see time spent untangling confusion at the expense of developing and implementing good ideas and programs.
Rick’s book and the discussion at the event clarified my 2013 New Year resolution. This needs to be the year of simplicity. I will spend my time working with states and districts to simplify fiscal reporting and program accountability. I resolve to move beyond the puzzles and confusion that has kept me so busy over the last years. I also, however, resolved to get up at 5:15 to get more training in. I’m still working on that.
David DeSchryveris vice president of education policy at Whiteboard Advisors.