School & District Management

A Principal’s Reflection on a Year at the Education Department

By Denisa R. Superville — July 09, 2015 12 min read
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Until last month, Jill Levine, the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga, Tenn., was the full-time campus principal ambassador fellow at the Department of Education. In that role, she harnessed the “thoughts, opinions, and stories of principals” to help inform and shape education policies at the department.

As principal ambassador, Levine often traveled with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; helped to organize face-to-face meetings between Duncan, education department staffers, and principals; and worked to ensure that the perspectives of principals and school leaders—some of whom had long lamented that they were overlooked in policymaking decisions—remained relevant and at the forefront of major deliberations.

Levine also worked with school leadership organizations such as the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and New Leaders to bring together principals and policymakers.

“Principals play a critically important role in instructional leadership and improving student achievement,” Mr. Duncan said in a statement ahead of Levine’s departure. “As one of our first Principal Ambassador Fellows at the department, Jill has worked tirelessly to help us understand the challenges principals face daily in their schools, while also helping school leaders learn about federal education policy and how their voices can be heard by policymakers.”

Levine spoke to Education Week before returning to Tennessee. Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of our interview.

When this opportunity was offered to you, you were the principal of a very successful magnet school. Why did you jump at it?

This is a brand-new program, and it was a chance to jump in at the start of something and to help shape the department’s thinking about the importance of principals and ... what more we can do to support them.

From the start of my career in the New Orleans public schools in 1992, I remember being in a really, really challenging school environment and watching the presidential debate at the time—they were talking about education—and wondering ‘Does anybody in Washington, D.C. understand how challenging these circumstances are and how, honestly, wrong they were for kids at the time, how little the kids who most needed the best education ... were actually getting?’

So I really felt that this was a chance to come to Washington and share an educator’s perspective, [from] someone who has been in schools for a long time and doing this work for a long time...with people at the Department of Education.

One of the really exciting things that I’ve gotten to do this year is to serve on the policy committee. I’m actually a voting member on the policy committee. This is the first year that there’s actually been an educator on the policy committee, helping to create policy at the federal level. There have been many times in those policy discussions where I have been able to share the principal’s perspective or reach out to other principals to get their perspectives on challenging issues.

Can you provide an example of how you were able to better the department’s understanding of how a specific policy would affect the field?

Several examples, and I can’t get too specific on this. There are lots of questions about reducing suspension rates in schools, particularly suspensions for kids in special education. There is always that thinking that ‘OK, if we create a new policy or a new regulation, that might help to move the needle.’ But from an educator’s perspective, sometimes those regulations actually make things more difficult instead of less difficult. Whereas, other times they help to shine the light on an issue when people really need to focus on it. So I think just bringing that perspective of what a possible regulation would actually mean for educators in schools, and how it might help or hinder a principal, that was one.

Another one recently was the discussion on how we can help to ensure that more kids are able to take AP tests. There was thinking there about what’s more important—allowing more kids to take tests or providing teachers with more training so that more kids can actually practice the test.

The thing that has jumped out at me [every day] in this administration and in this building is the focus on equity. It’s been such a refreshing thing to hear in this building, day in, day out. In those policy committee meetings, every discussion comes back to equity and making sure that [for] the kids who are in the most challenging circumstances that we find ways to bring opportunities to that group of kids. It’s probably the greatest lesson that I’ve learned here. It’s sort of strengthened my focus on equity. It’s so encouraging that at every level in this building that’s the question that comes up over and over again. It’s absolutely a driving force here.

What did you learn about principals or about the job that you didn’t know before?

Well, the job is incredibly challenging. What I learned from principals—one was that the challenges are great, but most of them wouldn’t trade the job for anything. They love being principals, even though they are stressed out and they often times feel quite isolated in their role. They also really love what they do and feel the impact that they are making for kids.

With that said, if I can say the three things that they most want: They would say that they want more autonomy. I guess the line I heard the most is ‘If you are going to hold me accountable, give me the freedom to make the decisions that I need to make in order to move my school in the right direction.’ The principals who had a residency or a strong pipeline program or principal-prep program felt more prepared for the job; so they often talked about the importance of that. I think the third thing was that when I gathered principals together, I honestly think one of their biggest takeaways was that they needed to spend more time with principals or like-minded principals. They really valued being in a room with other really successful principals and the networking and the support that came from those conversations. They really pointed to the isolation of the role, and [that] many of them don’t have colleagues to reach out to or partner with.

Do you think the [meetings at the Education Department such as Principals at ED] had any impact on policy in the past year?

I definitely think so. The principals got to meet with the people at the highest level of the federal government. The secretary spent an hour with each group of principals, the under secretaries, the deputy secretaries, and all really in the context of learning from them. For example, [Undersecretary] Ted Mitchell spent a significant amount of time with the group talking about teacher-prep and their ideas for how to strengthen teacher-prep programs.

In the most recent roundtable with Arne [Duncan], the principals talked a lot about what happens when a school or a community is in crisis and some of the things they do to help to address those crises as they come up: so how do they support kids, what do schools most need in those times. That was a pretty emotional conversation.

We actually had a principal there who had lost a student to a shooting the night before she arrived. Every principal in the room had stories of when their community was in crisis and the things that they did to try to move the community forward in a positive way. That was a really great conversation and something that I think has definitely been on the secretary’s mind this year with the visits that he’s had to communities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

How do you think your presence at the Department of Education helped amplify the staff’s understanding of what principals do and shape policies around how principals do their jobs?

I think definitely starting out with the principal-shadowing and getting 60 people out of this building and getting them into schools to walk alongside with principals for a day was really powerful. I think the fact that Arne took a morning off and spent a morning shadowing a principal really set the tone for everybody else, and I really admired and respected the fact that he did that.

We created a principal’s working group. Deb Delisle [the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who recently left the department] formed this group. We had people from every department here sitting on that group, and they then helped us to think about how to structure our “Principals at ED” days to get the most out of principals in terms of input while they were here. I think that helped a lot.

I worked with people on the communications team a lot as well, looking at speeches or talking points of the secretary or other senior leaders [and] making sure there were conversations about the importance of principals, the importance of leadership in those speeches ... It definitely helps to have someone here full-time who is pushing that agenda. Maybe that was something that was missing from the department before, but having a whole working group that was focused on that, and then, of course, [having] the support of Deb Delisle to do that work was a huge key to the success.

I can imagine people saying that this is a great photo op for the department. I really want to get at some of the practical things that have come of this and the benefits for the principals.

It’s so much more than a photo op. You probably spend about five minutes of the day and a half taking pictures. You can certainly talk to some of the principals who attended the events as well. But what I found from them is: One, they learned about the work of the department, but they also connected with people here and found that they were really heard, and felt that they were able to give input into lots of things. Sometimes a concrete result can’t be traced back to a specific conversation. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint okay this person said this, and so this policy changed. It’s just not that simple. The lines aren’t that clear; but what I can tell you is that I don’t think any of these principals will say ‘Oh this was just a photo op for the secretary.’ They had really rich conversations with him.

I remember after the first roundtable, he spent an hour—maybe a little longer—he came and he rolled up his sleeves, he sat down with us and really engaged in the conversation, really showed that he knew and understood. And then they had conversations with [senior adviser] John King, who was principal and a teacher, so he really truly understands that work; the same as Deb Delisle.

I think, definitely, principals have weighed in on testing this year in a significant way and helped to shape some of our thinking here at the department on testing; on the importance of principals; on innovation; and what principals need in order to lead really innovative schools. [There was also] the recognition that it takes three to five years to turn around a school. You can’t expect that from a principal in one year; so districts sometimes have to be a little bit more patient with the turnaround work. All those messages that principals have carried here, I think have been heard and kind of resonated throughout the building.

How would this year’s experience impact your work as you go back Normal Park? How do think you’d use what you’ve learned here at the DOE when you return to Tennessee?

Several ways. I’ve learned a lot about communications this year for one thing. I have a much better perspective of what the federal government does and doesn’t do. When I go back to my school, and if I’m unhappy with certain things or frustrated by certain things, I really don’t think I’ll blame Arne Duncan anymore for the majority of them because most of them are actually a state issue or a local issue, not a federal issue. I think that understanding has been really, really informative.

I’ve just gotten to see great practices, great teaching [and] innovative programs all over the country. A lot of those things I’ll either be able to share with my district or be able to use in my school. One specific example is that I’ve worked pretty closely with the Teach to Lead initiative this year and really learned about the importance of teacher-leadership ... I’m planning to go back and create some hybrid roles in my school in order to allow more teachers to have leadership roles. I’ve also asked my PTA to provide some funding to offer stipends to teachers who take on leadership projects in my school. I told my PTA that I think they’ll be the first PTA in the nation to do this, to join the Teach to Lead Initiative. Hopefully they’ll sign on and we’ll have another first at our school.”

Is there possibility that we will see you back here in Washington working at the Department of Education or in a policymaking role?

Maybe someday. I would love to come back to Washington at some point, but I really wanted to go back to my school this year and land as principal again. After talking about principals for the last year, I think it’s really important to go back and do the work with this new perspective.

Any parting advice for the secretary and the rest of the education team?

I have a list of things. Some of the things I think he already knows. I want to say ‘Remember this: That leadership really, really matters, and leaders, principals are key to so many of the challenges that we have here—with teacher retention, teacher recruitment, school climate and culture, instructional shifts, even the moral direction of a school.’ Principals provide the leadership in so many of those areas, really in all of those areas. You’ve probably heard me say this this year: If we find 100,000 amazing principals, we’ll fix America’s education system, because we’ll have a really truly great leader in every school.

I think the other reminder is just that we at [the Department of Education] must continue to listen to educators and just make a concerted effort to do that all the time. Arne does that all the time; he’s in schools every week and in front of educators all the time and listening to them. But I think all of us here in the Department of Ed. need to find a way to routinely connect with educators to listen to them.

For principals who might be considering taking on a role like yours at the Department of Education, what do you say to them?

Oh, they absolutely should. It really has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I felt like the messages here have been well-received. I felt really embraced by the department. They want to meet the principals, they want to hear what principals have to say, and they want the principal’s perspective. I’ve also just had incredible opportunities to travel and learn from other people; so I’ll highly recommend this job to any principal who is interested.

Photo: Jill Levine, center, talks with principals at the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. Source: U.S. Department of Education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.