Secretary Cardona Celebrates Leaders of National Blue Ribbon Schools

Secretary Cardona Celebrates Leaders of National Blue Ribbon Schools

December 1, 2023

Thank you, John Wood, for that kind introduction.

John is a senior in high school. He's going to be studying music, economics, and public relations.

If anyone has any questions about whether our public schools are hitting it out of the park, I'd like to introduce you to John Wood.

I'm honored to have been introduced by a student who happens to be not only a leader in his school and community, but an incredible jazz musician.

John plays the upright bass in school orchestra and stage band, and he joined the choir. And as if that weren't enough, he also founded his school's jazz club and collaborates with jazz combos all over this area. He has a bright future ahead of him.

It's appropriate that we're talking about jazz because in many ways, amazing school leadership is like playing jazz.

Like any jazz musician has a deep grounding in rhythm and harmony so that they know what works, great school leaders start with the fundamentals of what they know works in education. And where jazz musicians build on their musical foundation to push the creative boundaries of what's possible through improvisation and collaboration, the best school leaders and the best schools are building on the fundamentals of quality education to pioneer amazing new initiatives in their classrooms, or build innovative partnerships with their communities to support students.

Basically, in jazz and in leadership, you have to step away from the status quo. If your school is a National Blue Ribbon School, you've not only gotten the fundamentals right, but you've gone far above and beyond.  You've raised the bar. You've shown us what happens when we focus on the instructional core, ensuring that every child in America receives an excellent education that enables them to achieve their dreams.

You've shown us what's possible when we listen to and support the people who know what they're doing, and lift up good pedagogy in classrooms and best practices in schools.

You've shown us what it takes for schools to be successful, and make it possible for students like John to make the most of their amazing gifts and potential, whether it's music, art, science, or something else.

We all know this. Schools that raise the bar don't happen without school leaders who raise the bar.

As someone who's been a school principal, I know how tough that job can be. But there's nothing like the joy of having an impact as a school principal, whether it's lifting up your teachers and staff or helping students embrace their learning and potential, or building an amazing sense of community that helps students feel like they really belong.

The nine school leaders we're honoring today, as recent recipients of the Terrel Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership, demonstrate that sense of purpose day in and day out.

This is about YOU. It's tough to lead. It's really tough to lead now.

When I was a superintendent, I supervised a school principal who was just amazing. She goes, "you know, Miguel – there are a lot of mouths to feed." "We have to take care of our students. We have to take care of the stakeholders in the community. We have to take care of the central office. That's a lot!"

It is the most rewarding job.  That's your community.  That's your family.  You create the culture.

I was a fourth-grade teacher. I loved it.

I was an assistant superintendent.  Loved it.

I was a state commissioner. I'm Secretary of Education.  Loved them all. But being the school principal: that was the best job.

You create a culture. And you learn by making mistakes.

One thing about the principalship is, there's no hiding. You can't close the door and act like there's nothing happening outside.  You're dealing with it.

You could manage all day, and not lead. Exceptional principals know how to manage and lead. And what we're celebrating today are leaders.

At this time when public education is under attack, where while we're defending public education, people are working hard to defund public education . . . at a time where you're put in the middle of culture wars, where people are questioning whether public schools should even exist . . . you're leading.  You are my answer to the nonsense.

We need to speak up. We need to be the defenders of public education. We need to be on offense and let people know that public education, good schools, good leaders, good educators are the great equalizer for this country.

Our country's success depends on how we as educators can collectively shift to raise the bar to make sure that this country is globally competitive, to make sure that our students are well and that they're achieving at high levels. This is the best time to be a leader, at a time where the country needs us the most.

So to the recipients, I just want to acknowledge you and say: this is about YOU today. And to the Blue Ribbon School recipients: you are what we lift up when we say we have confidence in public education.

I also want to give a special shout out to Aba Kumi, Kathrina Bridges, Adam Honeysett, and the team at the Department of Education running the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program. Thank you.

I also want to thank our great partners in administering the Bell Awards: the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the Association for Middle Level Education, and the National Association for Secondary School Principals.

A lot of people out there are looking for a shiny new thing from the federal Department of Education, a big initiative with a catchy name from the federal government, like the ones we've seen in past administrations. That's not what we're about. I was recently asked, "hey, where's your No Child Left Behind?"  Well, you're not going to find it! 

I was a principal in 2003. My school was doing so well.  We were building a sense of community. I had students in a bilingual education program who were learning English. I remember the impact that had on my students and my teachers who felt like, "oh we're a failing school now. Why? Because we serve these students."

The last thing you need is a top-down strategy telling you what to do in education. You know what to do!  We need to support you, make sure you're funded, and lift up great examples. That's what we need to do.

As a teacher and school principal, and many of the folks on our team here have had experience teaching in school districts, we recognize lasting change in education comes when we support and empower states and districts and schools as they build on what they know works, and raise the bar for education in ways that make sense for their schools.

Here's one lesson I learned the hard way when I was a school principal.  I was the one that got trained in data teams (PLCs). So I got this three-day training.  I got a certificate and everything.

So now I'm going to run these meetings. You don't have a lot of time. So we made it so that we had substitutes covering classes, and then the first-grade team would come down for one hour, and then those subs would go to the second-grade teams' classrooms, and then the second grade teams come.  And I'm sitting there like a broken record, going through the data process. Everybody just nodding me to death, waiting for their hour to be done.

Then I realized: the power lies with them. So instead I shared a problem of practice and I said, "I'll make some time for you. This is what we're trying to solve. Look at the data. What are you seeing?"

And I sat back, and I learned.

I learned a lot about leadership that year. 

So in the second year, I said: I need your fingerprints on this. I need your approach. I learned the commitment of our educators, but also that there are better ways of doing things. And we were able to make some major gains that we didn't make the year that I was running these meetings.

So like these award winners today, you all know that sometimes the best form of leadership is a leadership that supports and gets out of the way -- that values and respects the skillset that the professionals bring with them.

The many different forms of excellence we've seen from National Blue Ribbon Schools and Bell award winners over the years demonstrates that you understand the power of that approach.

So as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of National Blue Ribbon schools this year, and we look to the next 40 years, my hope is we can normalize what these schools have accomplished.  That we turn your examples of excellence in your communities into systems of success across our nation. You don't need something shiny from DC.  We need to lift up what you're doing.

This is why celebrations matter. I ask you to celebrate today and tomorrow, and take stock in what you're doing. Celebrate one another. Let's make sure we have a culture of celebrating successes in our districts. Your voices and your leadership have a special credibility now. And I hope you speak up about what works in your schools, and what you need to keep raising the bar.

To the recipients today: celebrate, but also embrace this opportunity to be the expert in the room on leadership.

Who better than you to talk about what good leadership looks like in schools?  Oftentimes in education, we're pretty passive. We don't want to make waves. No: we need to stand up for our schools for our and for our profession.

At the Department of Education, we stand ready to partner with you and support you. Our outreach team is at  Feel free to shoot them a test email today.

And let's inspire every school to aspire to be a National Blue Ribbon School. I can tell you, when I was a school principal, and when I was a state commissioner of education, one of the first things superintendents would say is: "we have this many Blue Ribbon Schools." It's a national standard for educational excellence.

That gives you the authority to speak on behalf of public education.  Who better than you? You're actually doing something great. You're doing something that we need to lift.

Let's continue to invest time and energy in transforming education for the better. Let's give our schools and teachers the resources, the professional development, and the recognition they need to continue to raise the bar.

I'm extremely proud of our National Blue Ribbon Schools, and our Bell Award winners, and all you've done and will continue to do to raise the bar for education.

You are the gold standard. When people want to tear down public education, we lift you up. You lift US up. Keep shining!

Congratulations to the award winners – and thank you for being here.