In the second term of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary Arne Duncan, has trained its efforts on principals by rolling out a series of initiatives that build on the growing body of research underscoring the role they play in schools’ success.
That heavy focus on principals is a departure from that of previous administrations and marks a shift even from Secretary Duncan’s first four years. It coincides not only with the research, but also with sweeping changes in other federal and state K-12 policies—ranging from federal waivers of some provisions of the No Child Behind Act to the implementation of college- and career-readiness standards—that put principals in the driver’s seat for making such initiatives work in schools.
“This effort might be a way to pinpoint the key agent of change, which in many cases is the school—the school as the unit of change and the principal as the key agent of that change,” said David A. Gamson, a professor of educational theory and policy at the Pennsylvania State University College of Education.
The federal initiatives focus primarily on school improvement and professional development and training for selected principals. They include the School Leadership Program, which awards competitive grants to districts to recruit, train, and mentor principals and aspiring principals; the, a partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that promotes teacher-leadership opportunities in schools; and the Turnaround School Leaders Program, which disburses grants to train principals to lead low-performing schools slated for turnaround under the department’s School Improvement Grant program.
Those initiatives, among others, are seen as signs of progress by principals’ groups and some school leaders who have long lamented that principals are often absent from the policymaking process or included as an afterthought.
Some of the efforts, such as a “principal shadowing week,” in which Education Department staff members spend, appear to be photo-ready opportunities. However, both administration officials and principals’ groups say the shadowing program can have impact—by putting department aides who make policy in direct contact with principals who are tasked with putting those policies into practice.
Another effort, known as the Principal Ambassador Fellowship, installs in the department working principals who bring real-world experience and expertise into the policymaking process. Three ambassadors—two part-time and one full-time—play an important role in ensuring that principals’ voices remain part of the discussion, and they provide insight on how the policies are likely to play out in school buildings.
“I think it’s easy for people to dream up big ideas and to go with what a textbook would say, in terms of what might work, but when it actually trickles down to the school level, we have to have people in the room who can say, ‘Yes, this is practical; this is something that can actually happen in a school and can actually work,’ ” said.
The fellowship program was revived two years ago—it first appeared when Richard W. Riley served as education secretary for President Bill Clinton—as a direct result of the principal-shadowing program.
The federal focus on principals is not coming just from the administration. Those who work in leadership say they are also seeing an intentional inclusion of principals by congressional leaders while crafting legislation.
The two largest principal associations say the new focus is heartening, but more action is needed.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have asked for more funding for the School Leadership Program, which received $25.8 million in fiscal 2014. Increasing funds would expand professional-development opportunities that address critical areas of the job, the associations argue, including conducting effective teacher evaluations and improving school climate.
The groups also want a specific designation for principal-professional-development programs in Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.
While districts can use Title II money for principals’ professional development, most use the bulk of that aid for teacher-centered training programs.
“With the implementation of college- and career-ready standards, [and] the new evaluation systems that are in place, [principals] definitely need additional training,” said Amanda Karhuse, the director of government relations at the NASSP, based in Reston, Va.
More Action, Less Talk
Kelly Pollitt, the associate executive director of policy, public affairs, and special projects at the Alexandria, Va.-based NAESP, praised the department for emphasizing the importance of principals, but said that federal education officials’ talk about principals hasn’t translated into policy initiatives that support the vast majority of the workforce.
“They have talked a lot more about principals, ... but it’s somewhat within the context of other initiatives,” Ms. Pollitt said. “It’s not about truly building the capacity of this particular role in education directly.”
Ms. Pollitt argued for more robust research-based professional-development and mentoring opportunities for principals. She also called on the department to redirect some of its discretionary funds to the School Leadership Program.
Some point to Deborah S. Delisle’s appointment in 2012 as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education as the pivotal moment for the department’s emphasis on principals.
“She was a teacher, she was a principal, she was a superintendent, she was a state chief, and that definitely brought a different perspective because most of the policy staff at the department came from [congressional offices]. They didn’t come from education,” said Ms. Karhuse.
Ms. Delisle doesn’t take credit for the shift, but said she’s purposeful about including principals in serious policymaking discussions. (Mr. Duncan is fond of saying that he has yet to see a great school without a great principal.)
“I am very aware that while a school or a school district may adopt higher standards, for example, that unless there is a school culture in which the principal and teachers share a common vision that all students can succeed, then the standards won’t really mean anything at all,” Ms. Delisle said. “It’s not just to have an awesome staff, but it’s certainly to have a visionary, courageous leader at the helm.”
Ms. Delisle and Ms. Levine are convening a working group of Education Department staff members who will continue to work closely with principals. They will invite principals to the department to talk with Mr. Duncan about specific topics and pair them to work with staff members who are crafting policies. Future initiatives may arise from that group, Ms. Delisle said.
She said the department’s new, whose 12 winners will share $20 million, emerged directly from feedback with school leaders in the field. Superintendents and principals had complained about the dearth of school leaders who were trained or had the sophisticated skill set to lead the turnaround schools, Ms. Delisle said.
“I think that just really points to a great opportunity that we had to listen to principals and superintendents on a program that’s very important to this administration, and then figure out how we can strengthen that program based on what they were sharing with us,” she said.
Ms. Delisle said she understands why the principal associations want a specific set-aside for Title II aid, but she’s reluctant to support something that would add requirements for districts. With more money, a lot more could be done, she said.
“There is no question that we would love to do a variety of very strategic initiatives,” Ms. Delisle said. “But it’s a matter of the budget.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Principals’ Central Role Gets New Attention at Ed. Dept.