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Principals and Teachers Collaborate for Student Success

NAESP’s Gail Connelly sat down with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss early learning (pre-K-3), teacher leaders, and the importance of principal leadership.
Principal November/December 2014
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Like students and educators around the country, Arne Duncan headed back to school this fall. In October, the U.S. Secretary of Education spent a day in the shoes of a school leader for the third annual Principal Shadowing Day. His shadowing visit came on the heels of a September bus tour that brought Duncan to schools in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, giving him a snapshot of educators’ daily realities.

As the 2014-2015 school year presses into full swing, NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly caught up with Duncan to discuss aligning pre-K-3, teacher leadership, and the secretary’s vision for connecting with educators throughout the year.

Connelly: The Department of Education recently selected Jill Levine, principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be the 2014- 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow. How is her voice, along with that of Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle (who is also a strong supporter of principals), reflected in the Department’s work?

Duncan: We talk about all the very tough policy issues. This is a huge year, with many states moving towards higher standards and new assessments, and thinking differently about teacher and principal support and evaluations. We can have what we think might be wonderful theories sitting on our desks here in Washington, but if they don’t make sense for real principals, real schools, and real children across the country, then we are really kidding ourselves. Having Jill and others to say, “This makes sense,” or “This doesn’t,” and getting that very candid feedback [is important].

The literally thousands of relationships our ambassadors are developing with teachers and principals around the country are key. It just spreads our ability [to work together].

So, I always say—and I mean it from the bottom of my heart—the best ideas in education do not come from me or anyone else in Washington. They come from great local educators. The more we’re gathering those ideas, the more we’re bringing them here and figuring out how we scale what works—hopefully it makes us smarter, better, and more thoughtful.

Connelly: Tell us about the new Teach to Lead initiative and what you hope this program can ultimately achieve.

Duncan: At the end of the day, so much of what we spend time on is trying to think about how to elevate and strengthen the profession. One of the things that I have heard forever—I am sure you have, as well—is that far too many teachers feel that for them to advance in their career, take on more leadership, and increase their compensation, they have to leave the classroom.

I saw a stunning, pretty tough study that said many administrators, had they had the chance to make more money, would have stayed in the classroom but they weren’t allowed to make that choice. While we absolutely need great administrators—we need great principals and great superintendents— it shouldn’t be because you don’t have another option. If we want to keep more great talent in the classroom, we have to figure out different rungs on the career ladder. We have to think about how master teachers, mentor teachers, and extraordinary veteran teachers can support young teachers.

We know our teacher turnover is too high. We know we lose far too many of our good, young teachers. [What] if we did a better job of providing support, whether it’s a day a week or half a day each week? There are lots of different ways to structure this.

The other big benefit here is that in many places (and I hear this all the time), the principals’ job is overwhelming. The idea that a principal in a school with 100 to 200 teachers is somehow supposed to evaluate every teacher is impossible. You literally can’t do it. No one works harder than principals. I can’t ask principals to put in more hours, but we can try to help them work smarter, more effectively, and more efficiently. If you have department chairs, teachers who can take on some of those administrative and leadership roles in partnership and in tandem with principals, then that principal’s job becomes more manageable. We want to keep good principals and not burn them out.

If we want to keep good teachers, we think increasing opportunities to provide them with real leadership from the classroom is the right thing to do. There are a number of places that are doing some really interesting work on these “hybrid roles.”

Our question is, can we capture these best practices, go back out and figure out what’s working and what’s not, and see if we can make this the norm in many more districts? Hopefully, we can facilitate a national conversation that, again, at the end of the day, will really strengthen the profession of teaching.

Connelly: Strengthening the profession is also a high priority for NAESP, particularly building the capacity of principals as reflected in our recent release of Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities: Competencies for Effective Principal Practice. We know early childhood learning continues to be a priority for you and President Obama and that significant new funds are now available to states for early childhood education. Can you share your thinking about the role of principals in collaborating with teachers to create a continuum of learning from age 3 to grade 3?

Duncan: Again, your leadership and partnership on this is huge. First of all, we have to stop talking about K through twelve. It’s [gotta] be pre-K through third or through 12th [grade]. It’s key that principals understand that linkage, that importance, what kids can do, how to support those teachers, and how to make this central to what they are doing either in their buildings or in their communities. That’s a critical, critical part of elementary school principals’ jobs.

We are thrilled, as you mentioned, to have $250 million dollars that we’re going to invest in states looking to increase access to early childhood education to make sure it is high quality. I keep saying this is the best investment we can make. We’ve invested more than a billion dollars. I am so proud of that.

What keeps me up at night is just how much unmet need continues to be out there. Coming off the bus tour in the state of Tennessee, [although] many states are just starting to work on this, about 30,000 kids in Tennessee (just one state), don’t have access [to pre-K]. These are kids who come to school in kindergarten a year to 14 or 16 months behind. It is not fair to those children. It is not fair to their families. It is not fair to their teachers.

But training principals is key: having them see these linkages not as some add-on but as an absolutely critical, essential part of building students’ foundations. Talk to any fantastic kindergarten teacher and they will tell you which children came from pre-K programs that are effective and which children came from either ineffective programs or didn’t have any access. I keep saying we have to stop “playing catch up” in education. The best thing we can do is to make this, again, the norm rather than the exception: a pre-K through third continuum, age 4 or 5 to age 9 or 10. We know if kids are on grade level in third grade, they are in pretty good shape, frankly, probably for the rest of their lives. If they are behind there, its tough, and we don’t always do a good job of catching them up. So, if we can work very hard on training principals, if we can build linkages between schools and community-based centers as well as school-based centers, and if we can build the political will to make sure many more kids have access, I honestly believe this is the best gift we can give to the country.

Connelly: Your agenda this year— including supporting and developing teacher leaders, expanding preschool, monitoring ESEA waiver implementation, arts integration, and emphasizing student mental health and school climate issues— is ambitious. Given those priorities, what are your goals for the year ahead?

Duncan: We have a lot of pieces— from cradle to career—that we’re working on over this calendar year. To support instructional leadership, just to give one quick example, we just put out $20 million dollars in grants for principals who want to help turn around the nation’s underperforming schools.

[Also], again, we’re thrilled that by the end of the year, hopefully, we’ll put out about $250 million to states looking to expand access to high-quality early learning. I already know that we will have many more great state applications than we will have dollars available. That’s why we have to continue to challenge Congress to invest here.

I’m also really proud of the fact that our nation’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80 percent. That’s a huge deal. The increases in high school graduation rates mean there are about a million more black and Latino kids in college now in 2012 compared to 2008. So, that’s huge progress—[which is why] getting principals the skills they need is extraordinarily important.

Executing against that very ambitious change agenda is something that we have to do. Execution against higher standards, (the next generation of assessments coming in), and thinking differently about teacher and principal support and evaluation. As you also said on the pre-K to 12 side, I always talk about a well-rounded, world-class education. So we have to think through what we’re doing to make sure our children are first healthy, safe, and fit.

PE, recess, arts—all these things are not extracurricular, they are just essential. Not just at the high school level, but for first, second, third graders, and all the way up. [We’re] trying to get people away from narrowing the curriculum and [instead] help students find their passion, focus on their interests, and build their self-esteem. Lots of people try to pit these goals versus higher standards, and to me, that’s always the wrong fight. It’s not either/or, it’s integration. It’s both/ and. You want to do better in math, try some music. If you want kids to concentrate more, let them run around a little bit and burn off some steam. Getting people to see the bigger picture, how you can integrate this stuff, is exactly the right thing to do.

Connelly: You are speaking to the heart of what principals are really all about— educating the whole child. I’d like to close by thanking you for your tireless leadership on behalf of our nation’s schools and students. And we thank you for allowing principals’ voices to be heard.

Duncan: The least we can do is listen. I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of schools. Some are absolutely amazing. Some are pretty tough, but we’ve yet to visit a great school that didn’t have a great principal. I keep looking for one and I don’t think I am ever going to find it. Great principals transform great learning opportunities for kids; they keep great teachers; they build networks with the community and bring resources to school systems to transform not just children’s lives, but entire communities. Nothing is more important.


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