#Cagebusting 101

Everything that’s wrong with the contemporary education reform movement—wrapped up in a single, noxious term.

If you have managed to live your life so far without once uttering the expression “cage busting,” alas your luck has run out. The first rule of cage busting is that you have to talk about cage busting—a lot. But what does this mysterious term mean, and from whence did it come? Reader: I give you Dr. Rick Hess, the designated intellectual of the education reform movement, and expert on all things cage busting.

#cagebusting 101
Just as unions stifle our public schools and prevent them from being excellent and innovative, the dreaded education bureaucracy keeps many of our best leaders from becoming the great leaders their paychecks indicate that they should be. In other words, the most excellent leaders don’t just wallow in the ‘culture of can’t,’ their cages of ‘good enough’ lined with hundreds of pages taken directly from the bloated union contract. They bust out of, blast through and blow up the cage, thus demonstrating their cage-busting leadership and entitling them to earn excellent salaries, and, when they tire of the cage-busting life, hefty speaking fees about, what else? Cage busting.

Cage free
But who are these fearless cage busters, and how can we purchase their memoirs? Fortunately they are gathered at the American Enterprise Institute at this very moment to discuss the importance of cage busting leadership (or #cagebusting as an army of young AEI staffers is tweeting enthusiastically) in education. Alas, you will recognize plenty of familiar faces, although I’m not sure that “cage busting” is how I would describe their particular leadership styles. Let’s take a look shall we?

Michelle Rhee: Page hustling
Michelle Rhee is the original cage buster, if by “cage busting” you mean a take-no-prisoners-approach to leadership that leaves nothing but eraser bits in its wake. Which means that we can all learn a lot from her inspiring style, and from her new advertorial, which is so concerned with putting students first that they are literally right in the title. Alas, these days Rhee is hustling pages sans some of her favorite adjectives. A free copy of Dr. Hess’ book to the eagle-eyed reader who can ID what’s missing from this Rhee bio.

Cage buster and big earner Chris Barbic.

Christopher Barbic: Wage boosting
When last we encountered Mr. Barbic, this excellent Teach for America alum was earning a hefty salary, pulling down $18K a month to head up the Achievement School District in Memphis, more than the governor of Tennessee. Good news: he’s still earning mad rephorm cheddar. Which turns out to be another cage-busting lesson. You see, cage-busting leaders excel at getting paid…

Deborah Gist: Cage rattling
One sign that you are an outstanding cage buster is the degree to which people resist your dictatorial dictates. To witness first class cage rattling cage busting in action, we need travel no further than Rhode Island, where Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has just challenged superintendents to an old-fashioned cage wrestling match:

In a harshly worded letter, Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist has alerted Rhode Island’s school superintendents that she will take severe action against any district that is using seniority, job fairs or bumping to assign, keep or lay off teachers. Gist threatens to impose sanctions “up to and including loss of certification;” taking districts to court; or withholding state education aid unless they comply with her interpretation of a key education regulation called the Basic Education Program.

OK then—there’s some cage busting for you. I’m guessing that Ms. Gist gets paid really well, and that’s she’s got a memoir in the works. Or that she will, just as soon as she gets done bustin’ out of that cage.

Kaya Henderson: Cage closing
The great thing about cage busting is that just because the original cage buster is forced to step down, her designated replacement cage bustress can continue to implement the exact same cage-busting policies with equally excellent results. Or she could just close one in ten of the public schools that she is in charge of overseeing. While in some fields this might count as “giving up,” that is apparently not the case in education reform where it is hailed as bold, cage-busting leadership. 

Adrian Manuel: Stage dressing
The principal of Kingston High School, in Kingston, NY, Manuel stands out on this panel as actually knowing something about how to lead a school. Also, he is unique in that the letters TFA appear nowhere in his bio, and that he once attended the poor, minority school that he now oversees. Which, when you think about it, is the total opposite of the imported excellence that is TFA. But who cares about a few irrelevant biographical details—how is Principal Manuel at cage busting? Reader: I couldn’t tell you. I still have no idea what it means.

Send tips, comments or cage-busting definitions to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.


  1. What’s missing from the Rhee bio?
    The Baltimore Miracle (13th percentile to 90% at the 90th), as well as the positive press from Good Morning America, the Home Show, the Wall Street Journal and the Hartford Courant.

    I love that her hard times in Baltimore NOW have instilled in her respect for the hard work of teachers.

  2. Rhee left off the story of her magic that she preformed while teaching and improving 90% of her students scores to the 90th percentile.

    1. Close…You get half of a gold star for effort and permission to use the word “cage busting” in casual conversation throughout the day.

    1. Keep in mind that it’s an official bio so it’s probably not a surprise that this is missing… Try again!

  3. Well, I wouldn’t want to give away what’s missing from Rhee’s bio, but it starts with ch. And ends with eating.

  4. We suffered through a “professional development day” with Rick Hess’s wife on the Common Core last fall. We all remarked afterward how antagonistic she was to the district’s teachers. Apparently the cage door has flown open and the idea of treating others with professional courtesy has flown away.

  5. Dear M. Night SHYSTER-lam,

    I love all your films- er, I mean posts, but you really missed the boat on this one. How could you write a post on busting cages and not mention these guys: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5kbBxv9XPo

    Talk about wicked- how dare they try and cage the elephant in the room: the clear romantic tension building between myself and “Lady in the Water” (wait, that was a terrible movie…).

    Anyway, where was I? Cages…Elephants…In the Room….oh yeah- Cage-Busting for Wage Hustling:



    Too big to fail? Both charters and district schools pay the piper at the end of the day.

    1. The true cage busters are the teachers and students opting out of the testing cage. These posers are nothing more than union busters and YOU are their water boy or gal. Students last employee? TFA PR drone? Arne’s helper? Bill’s buddy? Coleman’s mama?

  6. But what about testing company (ahem, let’s pretend there’s more than one: “companies”) and big ed curriculum/textbook money and their influence on ed policy at the state/district level? No? Nothing?

    In the spirit of modeling, I’m now going to practice CCSS Literacy Anchor Standard CCRA.R2- Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

    Tell me if I’m summarizing you correctly: (ignores everything I wrote) You’re a crony because you didn’t immediately point to the root of all evil from which all other evil things spawn- TFA. No, wait, I mean TFA! Wait, I mean THE DOE! Wait again, I mean anyone who thinks anything good can come from tests, TFA, charters, TFA, and tests! And charters!

    If I remember correctly (admittedly, my memory is terrible), you’ve commented on some of my other comments as well, and each time you do your absolute best to avoid my actual point in favor of simply reading for extremism and disagreement. I’ve actually got no problem with that- if we can’t stick or thumbs in our ears and scream “La la la!” here on the interwebs, then where CAN we??? Am I right?

    My only real problem with your responses is that they aren’t funny! Throw me a bone, here- just throw a wink face or a double entendre or SOMETHING! If this is the taste of my own medicine, it’s awful!

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