Leading from the Superintendent's Office: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the American Association of School Administrators Conference

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Thank you. During the seven-and-a-half years I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I sometimes got the question: "Why in the world would you ever want to be a school superintendent?"

It's not a bad question—and maybe it's a question that many of you have been asked from time to time. But in retrospect, I realize now why I got asked that question. People judge by appearances.

They read the stories in the newspaper, and they saw only that the superintendent's job can be a lightning rod for controversy. Big-city superintendents came in with big plans—only to be given their walking papers a year or two later.

They saw, too, that the superintendent has formidable responsibilities. You provide more meals than any restaurant in your community, provide more public transportation than almost any transit agency, and manage more building space than most real estate companies in your communities.

And yet you are supposed to also educate children. You are supposed to implement dozens of federal and state programs, manage relations with the school board, parents, community groups, and teachers—and all while adopting a slew of reforms. It ain't easy.

But I'll tell you what is easy—and that is answering the question of why we become superintendents. The simple answer I gave to the skeptics is that the superintendent's job provides an incredible opportunity to work on behalf of children.

It is hard to think of any other vocation where one has the chance to shape the future of society and impact a generation of young people. It is a remarkable act of faith—and a great honor—that parents entrust their children to your keeping 180 days a year.

Thelma Melendez, our extraordinary Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, put it well in AASA's magazine, The School Administrator, when she was the superintendent in Pomona, California.

"Imagine a job," Thelma wrote, "where you wake up each morning knowing today you might forever change someone's life for the better." That is the power of education—and that is why I, Thelma, and so many of you relish being a superintendent.

Now, I want to suggest to you that leadership in the superintendent's office matters more today than ever before. More is demanded of you, and with fewer resources. That is the stark reality everywhere today. It's tough out there, and you are dealing with it every day.

In the era of the global economy, students can no longer drop out of high school and find decent jobs, yet we know that three out of ten students drop out of high school.

Nearly 60 percent of our students at community colleges take one or more remedial course, and far too many students who do graduate from high school are simply not ready for colleges and careers. If we are serious about giving our students the skills necessary to compete successfully and pursue the American Dream, we must do better.

As Martin Luther King said, we cannot just wait for equal opportunity to happen—our children get only one chance at an education. As a nation, we have no choice but to educate our way to a better economy.

And that's why President Obama has set the goal that, by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest college graduation rate in the world.

At the same time that a quality education has become more essential in the information age, state and local budget shortfalls are going to make this a brutal year in many districts. There is no tip-toeing around that fact. Despite unprecedented federal support for education, many of you in coming months face tough decisions about personnel and programs for the upcoming school year.

Yet, it is at times like this, when I remember a point that Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, famously made: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

In obstacles also lie opportunities. Now is the moment to rethink policies that are not serving the best interests of students and teachers in the classroom.

If your distance learning programs are not what they should be, think about what you can do to improve them.

If your data collection is not providing the information you need to drive continuous improvement in the classroom, see which best practices you can beg, borrow, and copy from districts that are forerunners in data management.

If your teacher recruitment and retention are lagging, build partnerships with area colleges and effective teacher preparation programs. Create a better teacher pipeline—and strengthen your recruitment of STEM instructors.

If you have a persistently low-performing school in your district, make turning around that school the capstone of your career, not the cross you have to bear.

In so many districts, programs and policies have grown like rings on an oak tree, without any real attention paid to the return on investment on student achievement.

If educators and superintendents don't address these issues now, they are likely to get worse—and at a time when we probably will have less funding available overall, and a potential funding cliff as Recovery Act funds run out.

An opportunity like this—the chance to make far-reaching changes to boost student achievement and truly get students college- and career-ready—may not come along again in our lifetime. What you do in your communities over the next several years could have an impact on education for decades to come.

So how can the superintendent lead today? I think of what might be called the four C's of leadership—courage, collaboration, capacity, and commitment.

It takes courage to do the right thing for children, even in the face of attacks from stakeholders and the media. I'm not talking about foolhardy courage, about getting carried out on your shield. But I don't agree that superintendents are trapped today, without good options or the ability to exercise independence. A superintendent who leads also finds ways to successfully consult and collaborate to bring out the best in others in support of students. That includes working with teachers and local unions to revisit provisions of code and collective bargaining agreements in ways that are fair to teachers and better serve the interests of children. Dan Domenech of AASA, a star superintendent himself for many years, has been a great partner in our efforts to improve education.

But even courage, and the ability to successfully collaborate, are not sufficient.

You have to expand the capacity of the system to support reform, while redirecting it to accelerate student learning. You have to be smart about pursuing best practices to advance student learning, to adapt when policies don't work, and recruit and retain great principals and teachers.

And finally, you need a sustained, relentless commitment to getting better, rather than hopscotch reform. Commitment provides that single-minded focus to working on behalf of students in the long-term, despite the inevitable ups and downs of the job.

Now, I'm not telling you anything you haven't thought through on your own. But I do want to say that I've had an education of sorts myself about the job of the superintendent since becoming the Secretary of Education.

I knew the world of big-city superintendents well when I arrived in Washington but wasn't that familiar with the world of rural and small town superintendents.

During a listening and learning tour last year that took me to about 35 states, I visited rural schools in Alaska, Wyoming, the Appalachian region in West Virginia, Vermont, Arizona, and a school on an Indian reservation in Montana. More than 11,000 of the 13,000 plus school superintendents in the nation are in districts with less than 2,000 students. One in five children now attends a rural school.

You spoke, you taught me, and I've worked hard to learn. I learned on those visits that smaller districts are both unique and yet have much in common with their urban counterparts. Rural and small-town districts are uniquely challenged by shrinking tax bases and difficulty in recruiting and retaining great teachers, especially in shortage areas like special education, ELL, and STEM.

You have limited access to AP and IB courses to help get students college-ready. The superintendent is sometimes the principal, bus driver, and maintenance man, all rolled into one.

Yet I also learned that small districts have unique strengths. The close-knit nature of the community enabled rural schools to adopt changes quicker than in most urban districts. You could pull all the stakeholders together in a meeting at the school, or the volunteer fire hall, and get a speedy approval to expand or replicate a successful program. Rural schools also tended to have lower student-to-teacher ratios, making it easier to deliver personalized instruction.

For all the uniqueness of rural and small-town districts, they share a lot of the challenges of urban districts.

Surveys suggest that rural high school students are more likely to use methamphetamines, cocaine, and abuse alcohol than their urban peers. Teen birthrates are higher in rural areas than urban ones. More than a fifth of the nation's poorest performing high schools, the so-called dropout factories, are located in rural areas.

In short, rural schools today aren't the pastoral institutions of a simpler yesteryear that many Americans imagine.

We're going to be making new resources available to superintendents to turn those troubling youth indicators around and support your role in improving teaching and learning in every district.

I want the federal government to be a partner in encouraging and supporting reforms, but not a boss. The best ideas for school reform always come from states and districts, not from Washington. I thought that was true before I got to Washington, and I am convinced of that fact now that I am in Washington.

What can you expect from the federal role? It is worth remembering that just one year ago today, the nation was facing the prospect of an education catastrophe.

The economy was then in the worst shape since the Great Depression. States and districts faced unprecedented budget shortfalls. The country was losing 700,000 jobs a month—and one estimate suggested that 600,000 education jobs were at risk.

We avoided that education catastrophe by providing unprecedented resources to support schools and higher education in the Recovery Act. States have reported that the Recovery Act funded over 300,000 education jobs last year.

President Obama is deeply committed to education as the road to economic recovery and equal opportunity. At a time when overall domestic discretionary spending is frozen, the president has proposed a three billion dollar increase for ESEA programs this year, the biggest proposed increase in history. And he has set aside an extra billion dollars if ESEA reauthorization passes this year.

The Higher Education bill passed by the House last year, now awaiting action in the Senate, would fund a new Early Learning Challenge Grant program with one billion dollars every year for eight years. And the President has requested an additional $989 million for Head Start.

The President also proposed increases in IDEA, ELL programs, and literacy programs. Our aim, and the President's aim, is to provide a well-rounded education for children from cradle-to-career.

So, yes, help is on the way to the states, but I know it is not going to make the challenges you face in your districts disappear.

I am also not going to kid you. When I was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome a phone call from the nice man or woman in Washington at the U.S. Department of Education.

That's because the department was a compliance machine, not an engine of innovation. I want to flip that. You are the educators who now have to apply to 50 programs. Our budget seeks to reduce duplicative or ineffective programs by consolidating 38 programs down to 11 programs.

It will give you more flexibility, and reduce paperwork and administrative burdens. And unlike previous consolidation proposals, this budget does not consolidate by robbing Peter to pay Paul.

We've identified six core areas of reform and in each area funding goes up. Just to review for you, those six core areas of reform in the new budget are:

  • First, College and Career-Ready Students is the new proposed name for the Title I formula grant program;
  • Second, students need a well-rounded education so we are providing extra funding to ensure learning goes beyond tested subjects like reading, writing, math and science to include technology, the arts, languages, history, and other subjects.
  • Third, Students Supports are needed to insure the proper learning environment by improving school climate, student health, and student safety.
  • Fourth, Diverse Learners will support students with special needs, including English Learners and migrant and homeless youth.
  • Fifth, the Teachers and Leaders program is designed to elevate the teaching profession and get effective teachers and leaders to the schools and communities that need them the most.
  • And lastly, the Innovation program will support new approaches to learning and expand proven models of success. Instead of being a compliance-driven bureaucracy, we want to become an engine of innovation that supports your efforts to take best practices to scale.

Now, most money will stay in formula programs under the budget—Title I and IDEA are untouched—and we want them to remain formula-driven. About half of the $22 billion increase in Title I and IDEA funding in the Recovery Act will be available this fall. But it is also true we are shifting toward more competitive grants in some areas.

However, we are going to administer competitions in ways that ensure a level-playing field for rural districts.

For example, in programs like i3, the Invest in Innovation program, rural districts will have a competitive advantage. We will create a competitive priority for rural LEAs and innovations that target the unique needs of rural students.

We will also be working with private funders so that matching requirements for competitive grants will not be a problem in rural areas.

In some programs we will be looking at set-asides for rural areas and providing technical assistance to ensure small districts can successfully compete. Geographic location should not dictate results.

Now, I think it is hard to talk about the superintendent as a leader without also acknowledging that states and districts, with support from Washington, need to do much more to improve preparation programs and professional development for superintendents.

The vast majority of superintendents start as teachers, go on to become principals, and eventually—after taking courses at an ed school to earn a master's degree or PhD—become superintendents.

Under our proposed new Teacher and Leader Pathways programs, $170 million would be dedicated to principals and other school leaders—more than five times the funding available last year for leadership programs. We want to reward excellence, and compensate principals and teachers who are boosting student achievement in struggling schools and hard-to-serve subjects.

This program would support partnerships between LEAs and SEAs and institutions of higher education or non-profits to prepare and recruit principals and school leadership teams to work in low-performing schools. Historically, our department has under-invested in leadership, and that is about to change.

But more broadly I think we need to ask if the certification requirements in preparation programs reflect what we know about effective leadership. Successful superintendents don't just need the PhD in educational administration.

Even more than educational theory, superintendents need hands-on vocational training. Superintendents require business skills, expertise in dealing with the media, the ability to negotiate with a variety of stakeholders, and a command of budgeting. First and foremost, they must be relentless in driving educational improvement. That set of skills can be hard to acquire in the classroom alone.

Tom Payzant, the former superintendent in Boston, served as superintendent in five different states. Each time, he had to take a new course to be certified as a superintendent.

Once, he took a course in special education, a subject he could have taught better than the instructor. In another state he took a textbook-based course in how to teach elementary reading where he filled in bubbles on multiple choice quizzes. Those courses were a waste of his time.

Of course, everyone in a leadership position in schools should be a continuous learner. But preparation programs and professional development for superintendents should be more outcome-based, and grounded in the evidence of what really works in the classroom—whether you are talking about overseeing turnaround schools or the development of effective teachers.

The truth is that few superintendent preparation programs track their graduates to see how many actually become superintendents.

No preparation programs we have found—with the exception of the Broad Academy for Urban Superintendents—tracks the impact of superintendents on student achievement. That has got to change. District-driven change is the only way to get improvement at scale—we must do better at supporting you, as you strive to change students' lives.

Now, I don't think any discussion of leading from the superintendent's chair would be complete without pointing out that great opportunities lie ahead for superintendents in the reauthorization of ESEA.

I'll always give credit to NCLB for exposing achievement gaps and advancing standards-based reform. But better than anyone, you know NCLB's shortcomings.

NCLB allows, even encourages states to lower their standards. In too many classrooms, it encourages teachers to narrow the curriculum. Everywhere I travelled, I heard that complaint from students, parents, and teachers.

It relies too much on bubble tests in a couple of subjects. It mislabels schools, even when they are showing meaningful progress on important measures.

NCLB required you to intervene in schools in a prescribed way, and the accountability system didn't measure growth. It didn't differentiate between a school in a little bit of trouble with a handful of students and a school that was in educational meltdown.

Too often, it was a blunt instrument—a hammer, simply used to label failure. That can, and must, change. We can begin to identify success—and learn from what is working to drive student achievement.

When we reauthorize ESEA, superintendents are going to be asked to lead. We do not think that you need us to specify what every school should do in year one, two, three, four, and five of missing AYP.

What are our guiding principles for reauthorization? First, the President and I believe that we should be tight on standards, on setting a high bar, but loose about how to get there. All children need to aim to reach high standards and be career or college-ready, without the need for remediation. We must stop dummying-down standards due to political pressure, and stop lying to children and families by giving them a low bar, and telling them that they will be okay when we know they are not adequately prepared.

I'm so pleased that 48 governors and 48 state school chiefs are now working toward that goal together—not because of a federal mandate but because of a shared belief that high expectations lead to higher student achievement. Both of the major unions, the business community, and national non-profits are all rallying behind this effort.

Second, we want to reward excellence to encourage state and local educators to challenge themselves and hold themselves accountable. To compete in the global economy, we are going to have to fund what works, challenge conventional wisdom, and move outside our comfort zones.

Finally, we want to redefine the federal role so local educators have maximum flexibility where it makes the most sense, and parents and taxpayers have maximum accountability where that is most needed. The federal government needs to help strike the right balance between flexibility and accountability—offering support, not prescriptions.

For example, chronically under-performing schools, in the bottom five percent of all schools, have been ignored and allowed to stagnate for too long. Enough is enough. If you have 20 schools in your district, think about that one school at the very bottom, and what has to happen to give those children a better chance in life.

We are going to ask for rigorous change in those schools, and the federal government is going to provide generous incentives to implement those changes.

But in most schools, the majority of schools in the middle of the performance spectrum, we want local districts to have much more flexibility than under NCLB to improve educational outcomes.

And the top performing schools—which have also been largely ignored—would receive incentives, additional flexibility, and help lead the way to replicating academic excellence.

I am optimistic that the three principles I have outlined for ESEA reauthorization—high standards, rewarding excellence, and a smarter, less prescriptive federal role—have widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans. We very much look forward to working on ESEA reauthorization in a bipartisan manner. Education must be the one issue when we put politics and ideology to the side, and simply do what is best for children.

Now, it is no secret that to make this ambitious vision a reality, we have got to prepare, recruit, and retain great principals and teachers.

I've often said that talent matters tremendously in schools. You have all seen firsthand how a great principal or teacher can transform a school and its students—and many you were those extraordinary principals and teachers.

We're moving forward on several fronts to support teachers and principals and boost the quality of instruction. But that agenda starts with better data to measure effectiveness and learning in the classroom.

I have said repeatedly—and will repeat here—that we need to use multiple measures of student achievement and never just a single test score, and that better data must inform classroom instruction.

I'm much more interested in student growth and gain than absolute test scores. I want every child being challenged, not just the small percent around that proficiency cut score.

How much are students improving each year—and which teachers, schools, school districts, and states are doing the most to both close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all students?

It's important as well for superintendents to gather data on school climate and culture. Tony Bryk has written about the importance of trust in schools as a leading indicator of a high-performing school. So, survey teachers, students, and parents—see what they think about how their school is performing. Ask them what their school is doing to foster a college-going culture?

Now, I recognize that change doesn't come easily. But it can be done. At the district level, many rural and small-town districts are also moving forward to build the college-going culture and a cycle of continuous improvement that our schools need to improve dramatically. Look at the example of Betty Morgan, the superintendent in Washington County, Maryland, who AASA just named the 2010 National Superintendent of the Year. She has been on the job nine years, in a district with 20,000 students. She added an IB program along with an AP program, had ongoing increases in test scores, and now sports a district graduation rate of 92 percent.

The longest serving superintendent in Maryland, Jon Andes, has been in Worcester County for 14 years. He has a 95 percent graduation rate—in a district of 6,700 students where 40 percent of the students receive free and reduced price lunches.

The district's high-performing schools reflect not only the district's innovative after-school instruction programs that extend the learning day in local churches, but an award-winning arts immersion program, the provision of AP classes, and college and career prep courses in engineering and other STEM subjects.

In Plano, Texas, a district with 54,000 students, Doug Otto helped pioneer the idea of continuous improvement—and he has 23 schools in his district that have won the National Blue Ribbon award.

In northeastern Washington State, the Panorama Rural Education Partnerships has pooled the resources of rural schools to offer AP classes and provide better college counseling. In the Mary Walker School District there, more than half of high school students take an AP class prior to graduation—way above the national average—and about 70 percent of students go on to a postsecondary institution.

At present, about one in five schools in small towns and rural areas offers distance-learning courses through satellite, television, or the Internet. But the tremendous potential for high-quality distance learning has yet to be really tapped.

Maine, a largely rural state, now provides a laptop for every high school student. And in Wilson County, Tennessee, teachers are offering math classes by videoconference—both in their own high school, and in the high school down the road.

Other rural states and small districts are successfully developing grow-your-own teacher preparation pipelines through partnerships with community colleges and schools of education in order to recruit and retain teachers.

In North Carolina, where low-performing schools participate in a grow-your-own teacher preparation program, local districts have retained almost 90 percent of teachers that have become fully licensed and certified. As all of you know, teachers from the community tend to stay in the community, because they are committed and have roots there.

Arizona State University and MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas are also using innovative strategies to prepare students to return to their rural communities for teaching careers.

Purdue University has established a "STEM goes rural" program that trains math and science teachers to serve a minimum of three years in a rural community. And the list goes on, and on.

I recognize that one of the toughest challenges of all for superintendents is transforming persistently low-performing schools, especially in rural areas. But I have seen firsthand that it can be done—and that children can be saved from being cheated out of a quality education.

Mississippi State University has now opened The Turnaround Leadership Academy to assist underperforming schools in the state. In Chamberlain, South Dakota, superintendent Tim Mitchell has had success implementing a small school turnaround on the area's tribal reservation.

And last fall I had the privilege of visiting Highland Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the Washington suburbs. By 2004, Highland had failed to make AYP three years in a row and was sanctioned by the Maryland Department of Education for failing to meet minimum standards. It was in danger of being taken over by the state.

But the Montgomery County superintendent, Jerry Weast, didn't want to turn the school over to the state. Instead, he went out and recruited one of his best principals to come out of retirement and take over the school.

Today, Highland Elementary, with essentially the same group of students—80 percent of whom speak a second language—is among the top ten percent of schools in Maryland. Last September I was pleased to be on hand to announce that Highland had won a National Blue Ribbon Award.

None of this is easy. But with courage, collaboration, capacity, and commitment, great leadership is possible—and we can no longer maintain a status quo that fails to serve so many of our children.

For all the challenges we face, I couldn't be more hopeful, because I see the difference we can make in children's lives. I thank you for your years of dedicated service to our students and for your tireless leadership.

Let us always remember our True North, the answer to why we signed up for the superintendent's job: To change our students' lives for the better. The job of the superintendent entails not just a sacred obligation, but an extraordinary opportunity. I thank you for seizing that opportunity—and for committing your lives to being the life-changers our nation's children desperately need and deserve.