Cage-busting leadership in K–12
About This Event

Listen to Audio

Download Audio as MP3



Join the conversation at #cagebusting

Event Summary

"Gone are the days of cage dwelling" was the resounding consensus at an AEI event on Tuesday, where education icons joined AEI's own Rick Hess for the launch of his book "Cage-Busting Leadership." As Hess explained, American school leaders can often feel caged by rules, regulations, statutes, and contracts. Though the American K–12 education system has done a poor job of equipping leaders to overcome these challenges, squeeze the most value out of scarce funds, or make the fullest use of 21st-century resources, panelists demonstrated how much education stakeholders can accomplish by breaking from convention.

Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst urged school and system leaders to surround themselves with people who think like they do. Moreover, she emphasized the importance of a general counsel who is more interested in doing what is best for students than in "playing it safe in the cage." Adrian Manuel of Kingston High School then urged leaders to empower teachers. In his own school, Manuel implemented a school-wide competitive grant program for his teachers, who proposed new ways to invest dollars. Deborah Gist of the Rhode Island Department of Education stressed the importance of finding state leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit, creating the right policy conditions that allow for their autonomy, and supporting the leaders when the heat is on. Only then, Gist concluded, can leaders, teachers, reformers, and policymakers successfully bust out of the K–12 education cage.

--Lauren Aronson

Many of today’s education reform debates revolve around what leaders cannot do because of the rules, regulations, statutes, and contracts that inhibit their ability to improve schools and systems. AEI’s Rick Hess agrees: these constraints make it hard for education leaders to lead, trapping them in a “cage.”

But Hess sees a way out. “Leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed,” he says in his new book “Cage-Busting Leadership” (Harvard Education Press, 2013). Rife with stories of cage dwellers and cage busters, “Cage-Busting Leadership” aims to help current and aspiring leaders understand what the cage looks like, how to bust out of it, and how to help cultivate and sustain powerful cultures of teaching and learning that are equal to their ambitions. Join us for an all-star lineup to discuss the frustrations and the successes of real cage busters.

If you are unable to attend, we welcome you to watch the event live on this page. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.


12:00 PM
Registration and Lunch

1:00 PM
Christopher Barbic, Tennessee Achievement School District
Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Department of Education
Kaya Henderson, DC Public Schools
Adrian Manuel, Kingston High School
Michelle Rhee
, StudentsFirst

Frederick M. Hess, AEI

2:45 PM

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Lauren Aronson at [email protected], 202.862.5904

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected], 202.862.4871.

Speaker Biographies

Christopher Barbic is the founding superintendent of the Achievement School District. In this role, Barbic leads the development and operations of a statewide school district designed to move schools currently in the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent over the next five years. Before this, Barbic founded and led YES Prep Public Schools for 13 years. YES Prep is a Houston-based charter management organization (CMO) that exists to increase the number of low-income Houstonians who graduate from four-year colleges. YES Prep is often recognized as one of the highest-performing CMOs in the country and recently won the inaugural Broad Foundation Prize for the best CMO in the country. Barbic joined Teach For America in 1992 and taught middle school for six years in the Houston Independent School District. 

Deborah Gist is the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Under her leadership, Rhode Island won both a Race to the Top and a Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge grant to help transform education across the state. Gist has spearheaded a number of education initiatives in Rhode Island, including the first annual evaluations for all teachers and principals, accountability for schools based on student growth and closing achievement gaps, a statewide funding formula for education based on district capacity and student need, data systems to provide teachers with information at the student level and to provide the public with detailed information on school performance and education finance, and innovation powered by technology to transform education at the classroom level. Before coming to Rhode Island, Gist served as the first state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia. She began her career in education 25 years ago as an elementary school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, and continued her teaching career in Tampa, where she conceived, designed, and initiated a literacy program serving families in 108 elementary schools in Hillsborough County. In 2008, Gist was a Broad Superintendents Academy fellow. She serves on the executive committee of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and she is a founding member of Chiefs for Change. In 2010, Gist was one of the Time 100 “people who most affect our world,” and one of the Atlantic Brave Thinkers who the magazine recognizes for “the year’s most intrepid and original thinking.” Last year, she won a Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award from Democrats for Education Reform.

Kaya Henderson has two decades of experience in public-school education and currently serves as the chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS).  She began her career as a middle school Spanish teacher, and then went on to work at Teach For America, where she served as recruiter, national director of admissions, and executive director of Teach For America—DC.  Henderson has extensive experience in human capital work in school districts as a result of her work as vice president for strategic partnerships at The New Teacher Project. At DCPS, she was the lead negotiator for a groundbreaking contract between DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union, and led the creation of IMPACT, an innovative professional development and assessment system designed to ensure that an effective teacher leads every classroom. Since becoming chancellor of DCPS in 2010, Henderson has lead the district through its early adoption of Common Core State Standards, has implemented innovative blended learning models, and has continued to improve the quality of the workforce across the district.

Adrian Manuel currently serves as the principal of Kingston High School, located in Kingston, New York. The school serves approximately 2,200 students in grades 9–12. He was previously a middle school principal at ACCION Academy in the South Bronx, NY, where he led the transformation of a low-performing school into a high-achieving and innovative model of school design. Before his leadership experiences, Manuel was a middle-school social studies teacher and teacher’s assistant in the Bronx. As a teacher, he founded a college preparatory academy at his school to serve the lowest third performing students at his school. He came into teaching through the NYC Teaching Fellows program, and also was a graduate of the NYC Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principal’s Program.

Michelle Rhee, the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, began her career as a Teach For America corps member in Baltimore. Through her own trial and error in the classroom, she gained a tremendous respect for the hard work that teachers do every day. In 1997, Rhee founded and led The New Teacher Project, which recruits and trains teachers to work in urban schools. From 2007 to 2010, Rhee served as chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools. Under her stewardship, DC schools experienced increases in student achievement, a rise in graduation rates, and an upswing — for the first time in decades — in enrollment. In 2010, Rhee formed StudentsFirst, a grassroots organization which is designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level. In her new book, “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” Rhee draws on her own life story and delivers her plan for better American schools.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI Participants


Frederick M.
AEI on Facebook