School & District Management

Arne Duncan, Ed. Dept. Team Experience a Day on the Job With Principals

By Denisa R. Superville — November 10, 2014 9 min read
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It’s not very often that those who make policies get down in the trenches with the people whose lives are directly impacted by those decisions. But that’s exactly what staffers at the U.S. Department of Education did recently when about 50 of them fanned out in schools across the country as part of “Principal Shadowing Week” to observe school leaders in action.

Of course, there are limits to what one sees when following a principal for a single day, as both principals and education department staffers attested in a debriefing session with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In that recent forum, the school leaders and the staffers who followed them around discussed what they had learned, hurdles principals face, and ways to encourage more educators to aspire to the principalship.

They also discussed the tasks that impact student learning that are not easily observable by following a principal for a few hours: the coaching sessions with teachers; debriefing meetings after particular lessons are taught; collaborative planning time before instruction; the review of data on students’ progress; and meetings with parents.

Still, “shadowing” provided valuable learning experiences for education policy makers, and Duncan urged his staffers to visit schools more often—whether it is to volunteer, tutor, mentor or just hang out.

“I am lucky enough to be in schools all the time,” he said in an interview. “That’s not true for everybody here, and just to have that exposure— to see what’s working, to see the real challenges, to see the day-to-day reality—is just unbelievably inspiring to our team.”

Duncan also made clear to his team that principals, teachers, and students are the central players in the education enterprise. He urged principals to be guardians of their own narrative—to actively promote the good works of their staff and students by using social media, blogging or other platforms.

“We should just never forget that we are really in the supporting role,” he told his team. “The stars of this show are always going to be the teachers, they’re always going to be the principals, they are always going to be the kids, and if we are helping them be more successful, then we are doing a really good job. If we somehow think we are the stars...then we are part of the problem, not a part of the solution.”

Duncan at Eastern Senior High School

On his day of shadowing, Duncan arrived bright and early at Eastern Senior High School in the District of Columbia to follow principal Rachel Skerritt.

After sitting back in the school’s gymnasium to observe a half-hour or so staff meeting—during which teachers discussed “Power Hour,” an after school program that offers extra help to students, the logistics of an enrollment audit, and the use of technology during the PARCC assessments—the secretary got to try his hand at the school’s morning ritual: collecting cell phones from the more than 1,000 students before they head off to classes.

“He admitted that was not his best strength,” said Skerritt, a principal ambassador fellow at the Education Department. Skerritt is in her third year as principal at Eastern, a comprehensive high school that was re-launched under a federal turnaround model in 2011.

Cell phones aside, the secretary got a front row seat to the myriad activities that Skerritt juggles on a daily basis. He accompanied Skerritt on observation rounds to four classrooms, where he saw both new and experienced teachers in practice. He saw 11th and 12th grade students in the International Baccalaureate program discussing the methodology and reliability of research in human sciences, according to Skerritt.

He talked to students as well, including three seniors about their college plans and fields of interest. He recommended an option to one student who was interested in architecture, Skerritt said.

“All of his questions were incredibly thoughtful, and it was just really a good dialogue,” she said.

But a scene that stuck with the secretary—that he repeated at the debriefing—was the enrollment auditing process to ensure that students at the school actually lived in the District of Columbia. It is a time consuming process that involves verifying parents’ addresses, students’ attendance records, and ensuring that all the information provided is accurate. The documents used by the registrar were stacked in 10 binders, she said.

“He was just really struck at the amount of time that that took from one of our staff members and how that time used towards something that could be focused on student achievement,” Skerritt said.

(“Those binders really bother me,” the secretary confessed later, as he asked him team to try to devise a way to make the process less cumbersome and less onerous for administrators, who could then use the time to focus on student achievement. “Could we help figure out how to move binders to laptops, or iPads or something?”)

Skerritt said she believed the experience of spending a few hours in her school confirmed to the secretary what he already knew: “that leadership matters greatly at a school.”

She said she hopes the shadowing program, along with the ambassador program, will help the department work with principals, who hold the key to any reform initiative it rolls out.

“It really is the group with whom to engage if we want to move forward any initiative about teacher leadership, college and career readiness,” she said. “When we go back to our school buildings, it falls on the principals to determine if they want to run with these initiatives or not.”

Duncan said the experience was educational for him as well.

“I love it,” he said of his frequent school visits. “That’s where I get so many good ideas and honest feedback, but not enough of our team is out there enough...That’s how I learn; that’s how I want my team to continue to learn.”

He said he was impressed by the hard work that Skerritt and her team put into the school day.

“To see from some of her extraordinary teachers, to see the depth of the learning, and the way they are challenging students and stretching them, that was really good stuff,” he said.

Lessons Learned

One of the tangible results of the shadowing program has been the creation of the principal ambassador fellowship program within the Department of Education.

Jill Levine, an elementary school principal from Chattanooga who is serving as this year’s full-time Principal Ambassador Fellow and who organized this year’s shadowing program, said the ambassadors play a vital role in helping to maintain principals’ voices in the department.

She said she is hoping staffers will use the “shadowing as a vehicle to get lots of people into schools and to really start to think more about the importance of supporting principals.”

The team will meet this month to compare notes in a kind of “What’s Next” session, Levine said, to decide how to put all the lessons into practice.

But principals and staffers started to take a step in that direction as they deconstructed their experiences during the debriefing session.

On some of the challenges/hurdles principals face: paperwork; red tape in both fulfilling mandates and coordinating with agencies that provide services to schools; loneliness; layers of accountability; the need for increased autonomy; and engaging with families who, because of cultural experiences, are disengaged from the schools.

On what the visitors didn’t see that greatly impacts student learning: professional development planning time; principal engagement with families; home visits to the most challenging families; intense one-and-one discussions and feedback sessions with teachers and other staff members; coaching with the instructional team; data teams in action; and crisis management.

On getting more educators interested in becoming principals: teacher-leadership opportunities came up quite often as a way to distribute leadership responsibilities and to introduce teachers to the job; reducing the workload on the principal; increasing mentoring relationships; and extolling the virtues and the value of the profession.

When Sharif El-Mekki, the principal at Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, asked one of the principals what he would with three additional central office employees, the answer was quick and unequivocal: a front office staffer, an assistant principal, and a special education coordinator.

While pay came up as an issue, the general consensus was that principals took the job and stayed in it because they loved it.

“We know that we have to have a passion for this job,” said one principal. “It is not something that we take lightly—it is something that we love, it is something that we sacrifice for every single day... No amount of money could pay us for the work that we do, and if we did not get paid we would still do the job. But we do want a check.”

Duncan agreed that, yes, principals “should get a bigger check.”

Field experience

Seth Andrew, a senior advisor on educational technology and a superintendent-in-residence at the Department of Education, visited 10 different classrooms, including Hebrew immersion classes, during his shadowing experience at Sela Public Charter School in the District of Columbia.

A former charter school principal, Andrew said it was a nostalgic trip for him, but it was also crucial reminder of how important principals were to the students in the building.

Always on the lookout for ways that data systems can be improved, he provided principal Natalie Arthurs with suggestions of available software—some of which are free and open—that teachers could use to better visualize school data, including behavioral data. (Teachers were doing so on paper and by email, he said.)

Improved data systems can help principals use their time better, he said. With enhanced data systems, principals do not have to wait for the students with behavioral problems to come to their offices. They can use data to track trouble spots and deploy resources to the areas where they are most needed based on data, not on a hunch or a crisis.

“That frees up time to deal with the instructional and cultural aspects of the job,” he said.

Carol O’Donnell, who works in teacher quality programs at the Department, shadowed Julia Burton, principal of Hyattsville Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Md.

“I was totally impressed by what a strong instructional leader Julia is,” O’Donnell said.

Burton seemed to know what was being taught in every classroom, at every grade level, by every teacher—including the classes that were taught that day by substitutes, O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said she was also struck by the teachers’ responses—or rather lack of—when Burton entered their classrooms.

“No teacher looked nervous, and that says worlds,” she said to Burton, “because you are their colleague and mentor, but they are also very used to you being there.”

Press Secretary Dorie Turner Nolt spent a few hours with Michelle Schultze, the principal at John Gildner Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, a partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools and the state of Maryland’s department of health and mental hygiene. The school serves students with severe behavioral and emotional needs.

She said she was struck by the immense amount of juggling that is a part of the job, after seeing Schultze alternating between her office, classrooms, and hallway patrol, all the while communicating with others on a walkie-talkie. She was also surprised that Schultze knew the name of every student they encountered in the halls.

Schultze, who has been at the school for the last 10 years, six of them as principal, said the visit from the department meant a lot, particularly for a school with a unique arrangement and set of challenges.

“I think it’s really good thing for the department of education to be able to get to know the programs they represent and to experience it first-hand,” she said.

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