School Leadership Matters

School Leadership Matters

In an interview with NAESP’s Gail Connelly, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shares his vision for pre-k-8 education.
Principal, November/December 2013
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As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan enters year two of his second term, his focus continues to be what he calls a “cradle to career” agenda. On one end of that continuum is an emphasis on early childhood edu­cation. In fact, the department’s proposed budget includes $75 billion to go toward making sure children have access to high-quality pre-K. The department’s budget request also includes $98 million—a 230 percent increase—for school leadership.

“One thing I think we haven’t done enough in the first term was to invest in principal leadership,” Duncan said during the opening General Session of NAESP’s annual confer­ence in Baltimore this past summer. “I have yet to find an amazing school that didn’t have an amazing principal. But as you all know better than anyone, leadership matters tremen­dously. Great principals make a huge difference in the culture of the school, in the ability to attract and retain great teachers, and in the ability to create a culture of high expecta­tions. ... There’s a whole set of work we need to do to better support all of you in the hard work you’re doing to support the next generation of rising principals as well.”

Duncan spoke with NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly about these and other issues facing K-8 principals.

GAIL CONNELLY: Regarding the $98 million for school leadership, what programs and resources would be available specifically for principals?

ARNE DUNCAN: I’m thinking about this at a couple of different levels. First is, how do we build the pipeline of the next gen­eration of talent? We have a Baby Boomer generation that’s moving toward retire­ment. There is going to be significant turnover in both teachers and principals over the next four, five, six, seven years. And making sure the next generation is ready to come in is hugely important.

Second, I think that being a principal can be a pretty isolating job, and you have a huge responsibility. You’re literally the only one like yourself in a building. For every principal who’s struggling, there’s another principal doing an amaz­ing, amazing job who could help that struggling principal and help get that person through the hard times. So, we will work with you and with the Associa­tion to think through the best use of resources for both supporting existing principals and helping to support the next generation of talent.

We couldn’t be more thrilled with the commitment this administration has made to early education. What do you think this move means for K-12 and principals?

First of all, we have to think about this like a birth-through-age-8 or age-9, pre-K-3 initiative. So it has to be seam­less. The proposal would focus on the 0-3 space, home visiting, early Head Start, and strengthen­ing families. Then we would focus on dramatically expand­ing access to pre-K. And it could be in schools, nonprofits, or social service agencies. We have many gover­nors, Republicans and Democrats, who are investing now.

As I travel the country, we see mas­sive waiting lists [for pre-K]. Children and families are looking for a chance to have access, and it just doesn’t exist. Across the country, less than 30 percent—less than three in 10 of our 4-year-olds—have access to high-quality pre-K. We simply want to invest in states that want to do more. We want to go from about 1.1 million children with access to pre-K to 2.2 million.

Turning now to the need for multiple measures of success and related assessments, how can we make certain that we are being fair and true to the real purpose of education?

I worry about an over-reliance on a sin­gle test score, or testing in general, and the amount of time that we’re testing kids. I see it with my own two children. And so there’s always a common-sense middle ground.

We should assess kids annually. We should have a sense of whether the kids are improving each year or not. I don’t think if kids are taking 15 or 20 days of tests that’s a good use of time. I don’t think if everyone is teaching to a test score and teaching to a fill-in-the-bubble test, that’s helping our kids be successful.

We created the waiver process and have part­nered with the vast major­ity of states around the country. I’d encourage folks to look at our website and look at the different waivers com­ing from different states. While this was clearly my plan B—my plan A was to fix [No Child Left Behind]—there is actually some amazing creativity coming from states. And you’re seeing states move way beyond a test score for accountability. [They are] looking at increases in graduation rates, looking at reductions in dropout rates, look­ing at the number of students who are going on to college.

We put out just last week some of our early school improvement baseline data: Is attendance for kids going up or down? Is truancy going up or down? Are discipline rates going up or down? We know there’s a whole host of indica­tors—test scores being one, but far from the only one that matters. And I would argue that a lot of test scores are often “lagging indicators.” A lot of these other things are what I call “leading indica­tors,” where attendance is going up, where truancy is going down, where dis­cipline issues are going down. There are many states that are starting to embrace a much more holistic set of metrics. But I think it is much more comprehensive and a much more honest picture of school, district, and state progress.

So, that is a long way of saying that if leadership is coming from the states as Congress moves to fix No Child Left Behind, my desperate hope is that they take the best ideas from the best states and put those into fixing and reauthorizing the law. There’s a level of creativity and innovation that, honestly, I’ve never seen before. That gives us a platform from which a foun­dation can be built.

How will the Department of Education help principals as they deal with tough cuts to vital programs such as IDEA and Impact Aid resulting from the sequester?

The fact that we’re doing so much less now and scaling back just makes no sense whatsoever. Many Head Start programs around the country closed this summer a week or two weeks or a month early because they ran out of money. These are children who are at risk, who need longer years, not shorter. What we desperately need to do again is put politics and ideology to the side. What we need is for all of you to speak to your members of the House and Senate and say that the sequester needs to be reversed. That’s the only way that we have the ability to try to restore those cuts. But short of congressional action, this pain is going to get tougher—and it’s hurting the kids who least deserve it. It is just absolutely unacceptable to me.

What Education Department efforts are under way related to mental health coordination of services?

The president’s job is not easy, but he’ll be the first to say that, by far, the hardest day of his tenure was going to Sandy Hook and meeting with those families. Nothing he’s done compares to that experience. The president and vice president have challenged me and [U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services] Kathleen Sebelius to lead a national conversation around mental health. There is so much we have to do.

The first thing we have to do is destigmatize mental health services for students, and we have to put these issues out there in the public. And folks who need help need to have access, need to know it’s OK to get help. They need to know where to go to get help. So there are many things we’re going to do. Whether it’s school-based health care clinics; whether it’s trying to get a couple hundred-million dollars from Congress for more school counselors, social workers, and psy­chologists; or whether it is better con­necting to community resources that are already there.

We have a lot of children who are hurting, we have a lot of family mem­bers who are hurting, and we owe it to them to get them help. And so this is one where we need to, again, just have a very open and public national con­versation, remove the stigma, bring more resources to the table, have more collaboration between schools and hospitals and clinics or wherever it might be, and facilitate that.

As all of you guys know as principals, when budgets are tough, what often gets cut are social workers and coun­selors; caseloads go up to astronomical numbers and kids fall through the cracks. We think there’s a lot we can do to make these kinds of opportunities the norm rather than the exception and the acceptable thing for children and families to seek out.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

This is an extraordinary time to be working in public education. A time of huge challenges: not enough money, rising expectations, lots going on. But I think we’re not just fighting for our kids here; we’re fighting for our country. We have a chance over the next couple of years to go to an entirely different level. The only way we get there is through great leader­ship. Leadership matters tremendously in education, in business, in govern­ment and nonprofits, and anything. And whatever we can do to be a good partner, please hold us accountable to doing that.


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