WASHINGTON – Education leaders can’t improve school systems because of rules, laws and union contracts, a leading conservative expert said Tuesday.

Through a series of anecdotes, Frederick Hess, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Cage-Busting Leadership,” argued that policy change has not and will not elevate schools to the level at which they need to be.

“Policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do it well,” Hess said.

Hess highlighted his concerns with educators trying to fix problems through policy.

“One solution to the problem (of ineffective teachers) is policies, but that’s a suboptimal solution,” Hess said. “A better solution is having leaders who are actually responsible for making sure that they are taking whether or not employees are good at their work into account when deciding who to lay off.”

Besides placing the failure of schools on the restrictive contracts and laws, Hess also argued school system leaders have the responsibility to take advantage of readily available opportunities.

“There is a dramatic and profound need for a new breed of leadership,” Hess said.

Three reasons today’s leaders—superintendents, school principals and school board members—aren’t as effective as they can be are poor training, homogeneity in background and experience, and incentives that tend to punish people who are actually trying to innovate, Hess said.

“For a while, we thought what we need were admirals, generals, CEOs to come in and save education, and that’s ludicrous,” Hess said. “But I think that it’s equally ludicrous to think that people who have never worked outside of K-12, who have never been trained outside of K-12, who have never been exposed of other ways of managing people..are going to be able to rethink the fundamental ways a system that is centuries or decades old.”

Hess proposed cooperating with pro-bono and public defender lawyers to help administrators understand the rules and laws in order to create change,and introducing a new mix of people—financial experts, technology leaders, human resource workers—to schools .

Among more than 70 people in the audience, Jonathan Rausch, a contributing editor of the National Journal and The Atlantic, said Hess’ proposal to foucs on leadership was intriguing.

“I hope he succeeds at changing the conversation away from policies toward leadership,” Rausch said. “It’s not a very well-balanced conversation right now.”