I had three conversations last week that served as valuable reminders of the impact of visionary, skilled principals. In one conversation, a group of award-winning teachers emphasized repeatedly the important role that great principals play in recruiting and retaining the best teachers in challenging school environments. One teacher, Laura Strait, shared that she moved from Massachusetts to California just to work for an outstanding principal.
I have never seen a high-performing school without a great principal. Principals are key to education change efforts, and I can’t overstate the importance of courageous leadership.
As we work together to prepare our students for success, it’s vital for me to regularly tap into the collective wisdom of our schools’ instructional leaders. In two other conversations I had with educators last week, I met with principals in Toledo, Ohio, last Tuesday and in the District of Columbia on Friday. I wanted to hear from them about what’s working, what isn’t, and what the U.S. Department of Education can do to better support them. In both cases, I asked for a candid conversation, and I got it.
At D.C. Public Schools, I spoke with a group of 200 principals and central office leaders to thank them for their commitment to their students and schools and listen to their thoughts as they head back to school. I shared Laura Strait’s story – she’s a winner of TNTP’s prestigious Fishman Prize – and challenged them to be that principal, one who is so strong that a teacher would follow them across the country to teach in their school. That’s the kind of leadership we need everywhere.
At Toledo Public Schools’ Woodward High School, I met with nine principals of northwestern Ohio schools – from urban, rural and small town environments – to hear about the impact that all the changes happening now in K-12 education are having on their students, teachers and families. I was pleased to hear that Ohio’s Race to the Top grant has funded meaningful professional development that has helped to bring teachers at many schools out of their classroom silos to more effectively collaborate with their colleagues to meet the unique needs of each child. Race to the Top funding has also made some dramatic innovation possible: For example, it’s helping to transform the middle and high school in rural Van Wert, Ohio, into a New Tech school that utilizes cutting-edge resources to enable kids to fully develop the critical thinking skills that today’s employers need and tomorrow’s jobs will demand.
However, I also heard loud and clear from Ohio principals that the quick pace of change is causing angst for them and their staffs. From the transition to college- and career-ready standards and assessments to new teacher evaluations, there’s been an unprecedented amount of change within a short span of time. All of the principals made it very clear that they’re seeing strong progress in their schools, and don’t want to stop the momentum. As Woodward Principal Jack Renz said, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”
These are not easy times in education. What I hear from you, our principals and teachers, influences what we do at ED. As we start the school year, it’s important for districts, states and the staff at ED to hear your voices.
Can we build on positive momentum to help each student reach his or her full potential? If the answer lies with educators like those that I met last week –courageous principals and the passionate teachers who want to work with them – then I have no doubt in my mind that we can.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.