Supporting and Strengthening School Leadership

By:  Arne Duncan
Date: Feb. 28, 2013
Location: Unknown

It's a pleasure to speak again to principals, and to be back before the NASSP.

I'm going to keep my remarks relatively brief. I want to speak first to the impact that sequestration could have on educating our children and youth. And then I want to talk about three elements of our second term agenda that will especially impact principals.

Those three elements are: First, strengthening school safety, including better treatment for students with mental health issues; second, President Obama's initiative to transform high schools, so that they do a better job of building both college- and career readiness; and finally, the need to dramatically improve preparation and ongoing professional development for principals. We must do a better job of supporting all of you, who do the real work every day of improving your students' life chances.

Let me start with sequestration. I know the threat of these indiscriminate budget cuts are on the minds of many of you, as you try to plan your budget and staffing for the next school year.

That's the real world, which you deal with every day. You are on the front lines, not far removed from the children, families, and communities that you serve.

But unfortunately, too many members of Congress are frankly out-of-touch with the reality that parents, students, teachers, and principals face.

Here are some real-life examples of what this inflexible, across-the-board cuts approach to budgeting could produce. Sequestration would cut Title I, which serves our nation's poorest students, by $725 million. That blanket cut could affect 1.2 million children--and would require states and districts to cover the costs of about 10,000 teachers and aides.

If that budget cut was translated into furloughs, it would be equivalent to furloughing 541,000 teachers and other staff for five days--a whole week of work.

Other cuts include $600 million in special education. That would require states and districts to cover the cost of approximately 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff--and we all know that IDEA is already underfunded. In Head Start, some 70,000 children from low-income families could be kicked out.

Cutting programs for our nation's most vulnerable students is economically foolish and morally indefensible.

In his State of the Union, President Obama called for "smarter government." Sequestration--with its automatic, indiscriminate approach to slashing the budget--is an example of dumb government.

I don't blame you for being frustrated and upset with Washington--you should be, and I am, too. It is mind boggling to me that Washington has manufactured a crisis, when educators and school leaders are facing so many real challenges every day.

As all of you know, these across-the-board budget cuts were not caused by a hurricane or natural disaster. They are a foreseeable mess, made by man.

And they can be fixed today by men and women in Congress if they act with courage, commitment, and a willingness to compromise. They can be fixed by lawmakers who come to the table to do both the right thing for children and to keep growing the middle class. This is not rocket science, this is not an intellectually difficult challenge.

Now despite the sequestration battles in Washington, I'm optimistic that, in the long-run, President Obama's second term will produce some real progress for children, youth, educators, and parents.

Three days ago, I spoke to the Grad Nation Summit. They released a report at the Summit that documents some remarkable progress in our nation's high schools in the last four years. For the first time in 40 years, the nation is now seeing significant increases in high school graduation rates.

In real numbers, that jump in graduation rates means that 200,000 additional students received diplomas in 2010 than in 2006. Those 200,000 new graduates have life-changing opportunities available to them that they never would have had without a diploma. We all know how many good jobs are out there for high school dropouts today--zero.

If that progress continues, the nation's students--for the first time--will be on track to a 90 percent graduation rate for the Class of 2020.

Education should be the ultimate bipartisan issue--and the 90 percent graduation goal has been embraced by both Democratic and Republic presidents, going back to George H.W. Bush. But up until now, it never seemed attainable.

It is encouraging that the on-time graduation rate in 2010 is up substantially from four years earlier. And it's doubly promising that high school graduation rates are not only up for all ethnic groups, but have increased the fastest for students of color. Since 2006, the graduation rate of Hispanic students has jumped almost 10 points.

The credit for this turnaround should be widely shared. It belongs to courageous, committed state and local leaders, non-profits and corporate leaders who invested in what works, and importantly, to our students themselves.

But most of the credit belongs to our nation's principals and teachers--so please give yourselves a round of applause.

It is worth remembering that graduation rates went up in the last decade, even though graduation requirements increased at the same time. That means this improvement you have led in outcomes is real, and is not an artifact of lower graduation requirements or lowering the bar.

The pattern is the same when it comes to so-called high school "dropout factories"--schools where less than 60 percent of ninth graders graduate four years later.

Since 2008 alone, the number of high school dropout factories has dropped by almost 20 percent, from about 1,750 high schools to roughly 1,425 high schools. Nearly 700,000 fewer teenagers--700,000--are trapped in those high schools today than in 2008. That is a big deal, a big advance.

The progress that high schools are making today belies the idea that somehow poverty must be destiny in the classroom. Real changes, dramatic changes are taking place in high school dropout factories and among Latino and black students.

At the same time, we all know that poverty still matters--and that our graduation gaps for students of color, ELL students, and students with disabilities are still unacceptably wide. Our work is far from done--and this is no time to rest on our laurels.

The improvement in graduation rates and the decline in high school dropout factories underscore the vital role that principals play in educational progress. And to be frank, school leadership is an area where I don't think we did enough in the first term.

School leadership is one of our priorities moving forward, and we are looking to strengthen our investments in school leadership in the second term, starting with the next budget.

I've visited hundreds of schools, and I have yet to find a high-performing school that didn't have a visionary principal at its helm. But despite the obvious importance of school leadership, we know that the current model for recruiting, preparing, developing, and retaining effective school leaders is largely broken.

With some notable exceptions, our current principal preparation programs are mediocre. Independent research has portrayed too many of them as having low admission standards, undemanding coursework, and inadequate clinical training.

It is telling that principals themselves are not happy with the training they received for their job. One poll found that nearly 70 percent of principals--seven out of ten--report that traditional school leadership programs are "out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today's schools."

To make matters worse, evaluation of school leaders is notoriously spotty. Professional development is often based on whims and fads and underfunded. And districts do little to keep their best principals or remove their weakest ones.

Many principals say that becoming a school leader today is a sink-or-swim experience. For work that is so difficult, and so important, that is unacceptable.

Now, we also know that schools designed for success are schools that have a culture in which the adults believe--and act upon the belief--that all children can succeed.

So, the school leader's impact is huge. They help shape that school culture. They are, first and foremost, instructional leaders. They create an environment in which students and teachers are excited about coming to school each day.

Great principals nurture, retain, and empower great teachers. Poor principals run them off.

Evaluations of principals and of principal preparation programs should always use multiple measures. But growth, gain, and improvement in student achievement data should be a significant factor in assessing school leaders. To entirely divorce student achievement and improvements in outcomes like graduation rates from assessments of school leadership makes no sense to me. A recent study of more than 7,000 principals in Texas found that "highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year. Ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount." Those are big impacts.

Now, for all of the importance of school leaders, we know that the demands placed on you are growing exponentially.

I don't have to tell you, but it is tough being a principal today. Principals face increased demands for accountability, at the same time that they often have decreased resources and less authority and autonomy than they deserve.

You are asked to change instructional practices to implement college- and career-ready standards. You are asked to use data in new ways to improve schools and propel data-driven instruction.

You are asked to recruit, develop, evaluate, and support effective teachers. And now many courageous school leaders are being asked to turn around the lowest-performing schools, by driving change in school culture and staffing.

Even with all these challenges, I am actually optimistic that states, districts, and school leaders can help transform preparation and professional support for principals. In fact, a number of states and districts are already tackling this demanding work.

To cite one example, Tennessee has centralized professional development for principals in the state. It will be developing report cards for principal preparation programs that include measures of their graduates' impact on student learning and the retention rate of principals on the job.

Kentucky sunset its approval of all of its principal preparation programs. It then required previously approved programs to meet more demanding standards that included stronger admission requirements and scaled-up clinical pre-service programs.

And in my home state of Illinois, a 2010 law required all principal preparation programs to reapply for state approval under new, more rigorous standards, which include using student academic growth as one component of evaluation.

States are stepping up--and we need to be a better partner as well. We need to hear the voice of principals more in our department.

Last October, with the help of the secondary and elementary principals' associations, dozens of our senior staff spent part of a day shadowing principals around the Washington DC region.

At the debrief afterwards, one of the principals pointed out that our department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program was a great addition to the department and our TAFs have been instrumental in helping us shape policy. But, he challenged me, why didn't we have a Principal Fellowship?

It was a great question. I took that comment and idea to heart. And so I have asked my senior staff to find a way, even in a time of tight budgets, to create a Principal Fellowship that would bring several principals into our department each year to provide input on policy from a principal's perspective. Having great, current principals working with us on an ongoing basis will only make us better.

The other second-term initiative that I think will be of great interest to secondary school principals is President Obama's plan to support a redesign of America's high schools, so that they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.

We want to see many more high schools develop both real partnerships with colleges and employers, and expand STEM education that builds the skills employers are looking for now and in the future.

In the State of the Union, the President said we have to make sure that a high school diploma puts our students on a path to a good job. We know what that takes in a globally-competitive economy.

The long-running debate that educators have had about whether to prepare students for college or careers is, in my mind, a false choice. The conversation needs to shift to how we prepare all students for college and careers and a life of citizenship.

Many of you are already leading the way in redesigning and integrating college and career-ready skills in your high schools. And I had a chance last Friday to visit a phenomenal school that is doing just that in New York, called the Harbor School.

At the Harbor School they have created a very different vision for the future of American high schools. The school is on Governors Island, just across from Manhattan, and you have to take a ferry to get there. It was the first time I've ever gone to school by boat!

The school is designed with one goal: preparing students for college and careers in local marine restoration.

All of the school's students enroll both in college prep courses and select one of six CTE programs. They take CTE classes and training in areas like Aquaculture, Marine Biology Research, Ocean Engineering, or Scientific Diving.

And the students are engaged in an incredible array of school-based, work-based, and harbor-based, hands-on learning activities.

To say they are "engaged" in their own learning is really an understatement. The students build and operate boats. They spawn and harvest millions of oysters. They design submersible remotely-operated vehicles. In fact, the captain of our ferry over to the island was a recent Harbor School graduate--and he is earning a good wage straight out of high school.

When students graduate from the Harbor School, they have earned industry-recognized certifications and licenses, and postsecondary credits that will give them a leg up in whatever they plan to do after high school.

Just imagine how much more we could drive up graduation rates and reduce dropout rates if we had more high schools where every student graduated with an industry-recognized certification and postsecondary credits? That is the direction we need to go, and the vision that the President and I want to support.

The final, second- term issue I want to touch on today is school safety. I'm happy to take questions about the President's plan to improve school safety and reduce gun violence in a minute.

But first let me just say that this issue is very personal to me. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I lost friends and mentors to gun violence. And when I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, we lost a child every two weeks to gun violence. It was, and continues to be, a staggering rate of death.

In Chicago, we did things that no public school system should ever have to do. We created burial funds for families that couldn't afford to bury their children. We raised money to reward tipsters who would help identify shooters.

Just last Thursday, the Vice President and I were in Danbury, Connecticut to talk about reducing gun violence. The Vice President spent time with many of the families from Newtown who lost their six- and seven-year olds in the Sandy Hook massacre. No parent--no parent--should ever have to go through what they will face for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes you pick the time, and sometimes the time picks you. Sadly, after Sandy Hook, the time has picked us. I'm convinced that, as a country, if we don't move forward in a thoughtful way to do more now to protect our children, it will never happen.

I have two simple goals here that I hope we can all agree on: Many fewer of our nation's children should die from gun violence, and many more children can grow up free from a life of fear.

As President Obama has said, reducing gun violence and maintaining schools as safe havens will require some soul-searching on everyone's part. No one gets a pass. This problem can only be met with comprehensive, community-driven solutions. There is no solution here that fails to deal with the problem of easy access to semi-automatic weapons and making background checks the norm. But the problem is not just easy access to weapons of war--it is more complicated than that.

President Obama has also asked my friend, Secretary Sebelius, and me to help launch a national conversation on mental health and school safety issues. Thankfully, the NASSP is helping lead the way in that national dialogue by encouraging schools to commit to holding an assembly on mental health issues before the end of 2013.

We need students, teachers, counselors, parents, and principals to candidly examine negative attitudes toward people with mental illness. And we need schools to emphasize the importance of reaching out to a responsible adult when needed.

Stay tuned, because in coming weeks the Department of Health and Human Service will be launching a new website featuring tips on how to talk about mental health, and a guide to resources to connect individuals to the mental health services they need and deserve.

In closing, I want to thank all of you for your extraordinary commitment to educating our nation's adolescents.

The rewards of your work can be great and often life-transforming. Yet every day, you face real challenges to educating students. Every day, you try to make an imperfect world better.

Working together, with your collective courage, commitment, and conviction, we can provide a world-class education to students in all of our nation's secondary schools. And we will reaffirm the promise that in America, education is, and must be, the great equalizer.