Four Tips for Cage-Busting Authorizers

Four Tips for Cage-Busting Authorizers

Rick Hess’s new book, Cage-Busting Leadership is out. Quality charter school authorizing often involves a lot of cage-busting. The vast majority of authorizers work in school districts–systems that are set up in ways that make charter schools a real threat. To do their jobs well, authorizers often have to challenge long standing myths that have calcified into rules because they benefit the operators of the system. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by a district or state department administrator that something cannot be done because it is not allowed due to rule XY&Z, only to learn soon thereafter that no such rule existed at all or didn’t actually prohibit what I had been told it prohibited.

Fortunately, Hess has four tips for authorizers looking to bust out of the cages of others’ design.

Four Tips for Cage-Busting Authorizers


• Authorizers need to look in the mirror, diligently and frequently. They need to ask what they’re doing that imposes unnecessary or distracting burdens on charter operators or those seeking to open high quality schools. They need to scour their forms, their applications, and their processes accordingly. For instance, to take a district example, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson notes that she was able to reduce the reporting burden on principals from four binders to about four pages when she took the position–giving principals more time to focus on the job, while tightening the attention on how kids are doing.

• Authorizers need to get much more assertive about proactively fighting to preserve autonomy for good schools. For instance, the authorizer community has largely been missing in action during the NCLB “waiver” discussions, even as states have signed onto Obama administration teacher evaluation systems that impose one-size-fits-all definitions (how many categories, frameworks for evaluation) on district and charter schools alike.

• Authorizers ought to support and encourage schools to get much more imaginative about how to make smart use of talent, tools, time, and resources. Today, for instance, most charter schools hire, evaluate, pay, and use their staff much like traditional district schools. As I argue in Cage-Busting, this is a dubious way to maximize the value of talented professionals, and leaves me wondering how or why anyone ought to expect charters to do much better than district schools.

• Authorizers ought to think about doing more to encourage schools to engage in formative self-monitoring, especially around questions like the use of student and teacher time. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about baking such requirements into authorization processes or about demanding more paper. Instead, I’m suggesting the value of being something more like a “critical friend” and pushing charter boards and leaders to think hard about what they’re doing, and not doing. For instance, Boston’s outstanding Match school recently took a hard look at student reading. Examining the research, the leadership figured kids ought to be reading two hours a day–but that they were only reading maybe 20 minutes a day in school. That kind of attention can get schools focused on identifying opportunities to improve, and recognizing sensible solutions.


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