My Top Advisers: Principals and Teachers

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.


  1. I think it is great that the Secretary meets with educators. Unfortunately, listening to them is not causing him to ease the restrictions on special education students and ELLs who are forced into punitive testing situations that are not developmentally appropriate.

  2. From this viewpoint it will take decades to catchup to where our schools should be! We need action, probably starting at the district level on over to the schools??!!

    Yess, from an uneducated parents view, we totally agree that in every school …”It ALL Starts at the TOP.”

    But we do have a few questions:
    1- Why don’t our teachers have a mandatory requirement of minimum Masters Degrees– to be THE most important people in our children’s educational development?!
    When will that become a reality, it’s been 40 years since I can remember even way over there in California when it had some of world’s top schools, we are tired of waiting… we are paying more and getting less,.. pay the teacher more with relation to requiring Master Degrees stressing curriculum development and foolproof bullying control to have them teach in our schools. We pay for what we get!

    2- Are we shooting for our teachers to be from the upper 10% of their college graduation class and paid like the upper 10% of college grad professionals, rather than the lower 25% as they are, NOW?!

    3- Whether on the playground, hallway, Vacation Station, cafeteria or other times like during school bus travel, what is noticed in our schools?? Bullying is still not only Not being handled, much less Quickly, by school staff they are very, very far from aggressively having bullying in check!

    In the world’s top school system bullying is not only not tolerated it is handled immediately and students can turn to and feel protected by ANYONE on that school staff. Truly a dynamic education environment.
    Schools here today are mor of a prison-like (oops) school setting. (it may handle a no-tolerance educator mindset, but this idea is far from the relaxed, real world skillfully controlled school such as in the world’s top system, …’just sayin’).
    As best as i can explain it from what we’ve seen in videos of the world’s top successful school system are the benefits of … There’s a big difference in having a control and that of not knowing how to have productive control of kids in a learning setting and there’s operating from a standpoint of weakness in having that fear of not having control…the resulting product being an un-relaxed setting not conducive to discovery of learning for our kids, but one of mor or less privately loathing their school environment.

    Wouldn’t you say Students who feel less relaxed and vulnerable to bullying and harassment are subject to poorer classroom learning and performance and have less desire to want to be there?!

    We believe this to be paramount on the information transfer highway. Why don’t teachers here have autonomy and a larger role in establishing curriculum? We believe, probably because they are not “skilled” and trained for a long enough period in their college education. By the same token while curriculum such as Common Core may or may not BE important, if students
    are harassed, they will have much less desire or look forward to being there since not an optimum discovery of learning in that particular cacoon of learning setting.

    claude leBlanc

  3. I am in agreement with the comments that I read on you blog that strong leadership is pertinent to moving our schools forward. And nothing is more important than to have passionate teachers that are willing to support administration and the students for overall academic success. I am a passionate teacher who has seven years experience, but I am currently unemployed because my principal did not renew my contract when I was so close to my tenure year. I feel discriminated against since I was a model teacher and employee. I was told that “I didn’t fit in so my contract will not be renewed.” Now I am filling out applications diligently trying to find a position in a nearby county before the start of school the 2014-2015 school year. I feel like I had no support from my union or administration going through such a silent and traumatic situation. I think something should be done but no no one is there to help me. I requested a reason in writing from my superintendent (which my contract states I am entitled to but no response). Please respond to me and assist me on what I can do about this.

    Kimberly Jones home 856-728-5851

  4. Certified experienced principals or TFA etc. folks who will say what Duncan wants to hear? How about principals from his OWN CPS district whose schools have been shut down to make room for “his” TFA non teacher trained administrators and educators? Trust me the New Orleans Charter “Project” is a disaster for Black students with untrained and culturally lacking staff!!

  5. Thank you for writing about how you learn what is important in Education across the country. As a teacher it is a wonderful opportunity to write to you and let you know what is my experience as an Educator. I second you comments about wonderful Principals, who I would travel to work for. After 30 years of working in schools and long terms of being settled at the same school site, I have benefited from several Principals, who cared very much about their teaching staff and helped them turn low income schools into a places where students love being at school and grades increased. I felt valued by those Principals who valued what teachers can do when they see the leadership was not tapped from their own staff. It changed attitudes, value of work, and brought forward the care school staff has towards very difficult circumstances. From those Principals I learned to look for the same types of experiences in other places, and to apply what I could where ever I went. After 30 years of teaching, I now travel from school to school as a Substitute Teacher, and I compliment where I can to help raise that bar of valued teacher and staff. When supported by a interesting Administrator that doesn’t mind being in a difficult place, the school can take on a shine of it’s own. And the Substitutes love to return to that Administrator’s school over and over again no matter what income the school sits in. The Subs just enjoy the staff! Thank you for taking value in all your teachers who represent the work force of the USA Education Dept. in every State of the Union. We need to hear from you that you want to hear our voice, and thank you for listening to mine as a Long Time Teacher, now a Substitute, and more recently have joined the ranks of the National PFLAG organization and Safe School Coalition to value all who work in and take part in free and public Education. Respectfully, your work force!
    Carol A. Godshall

  6. Those teachers on stage with you could not discuss the real problems we have which is poverty and lack of community support for schools. One teacher should not be held accountable for the test scores of a student who is homeless, hungry and possibly abused. We need strong communities to support schools. Until you and your lobbyist friends who value privatization over REALLY listening to education and child development experts, quit blaming teachers for socio/economic problems that our “leaders” in DC are failing to address – we will not see children thriving or learning.

    Their parents need help: living-wage jobs, safe neighborhoods for their children to walk to and from school safely, local clinics with affordable health care and other community supports (good after school programs) to insure their children can attend school well-fed and ready-to-learn.

    Instead of bashing teachers and vilifying their unions, how about demanding legislators do their jobs to provide the safe, properly funded neighborhoods these communities deserve and beg for.

    But it’s easier to put the blame teachers as opposed to looking in the mirror.

    This article explains the obvious: “But the community was convinced that it had great schools. In reality, the schools had a great community.”

    It does take a village…and the will of our leadership to fully fund education instead of farming it out to private, corporate interests who could care less about our children.

  7. Not only has change come quickly, but it is unorganized and rolled out in a haphazard manner. Professional development to meet the changes is not available, even now. Mr. Duncan, please include TEACHERS in your conversation. This article points out that you spoke with principals, but they are one step removed from the front line: It’s pretty clear that teachers – the real delivery level of education – are left out of your talks. You haven’t spoken with any teachers I know if you think we are all in “classroom silos.”

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