My Conversation With Betsy DeVos

By JoAnn Bartoletti

Maybe it should have been enough that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos chose the 2017 NASSP Principals Institute for her first address at a major national education association event. But to maximize the opportunity, NASSP President Dan Kelley and I spoke privately with the secretary about a few top-of-mind issues for NASSP and for the school leaders we represent.

Principal development. The secretary readily latched onto the notion that the principal is the primary driver of institutional change, and we encouraged her to translate that understanding into policy that prioritizes the continuous leadership development of principals. To date, 25 states have taken advantage of the suggested 3 percent set-aside in Title II, Part A funds specifically for principal development. Yet 3 percent of zero—the proposed Title II expenditure in the Trump administration budget—will do little to advance the knowledge and skills leaders need to help each student reach their full potential. I shared my hope that the administration would keep that in mind when reviewing the FY 2018 budget.

Teacher shortage. NASSP’s recent position statement on the teacher shortage highlights the approximately 64,000 teaching positions that went unfilled in 2015–16. Indeed, some analyses show the problem improving over time; others show it intensifying. But the reality for schools is inarguable. Principals are struggling to place highly qualified teachers in every classroom. Dan was glad to redirect Secretary DeVos’ understanding that a sufficient number of applicants appeared for each teaching position. Dan highlighted the crucial distinction that we need more qualified applicants, and that the need was even greater for in-demand STEM subjects and special education—doubly so in rural and more remote parts of the country. We revisited the recommendations from NASSP’s position statement and promised to provide regular reality checks from principals in the field on how the teacher shortage continues to affect schools.

Shadowing principals. The best way for policymakers to understand the principal’s reality is to experience it for a day—the very foundation of the annual Principal Shadowing Week conducted at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) during National Principals Month in October. Each year since 2012, more than 40 high-level ED staffers have shadowed a principal from morning buses through soccer practice to get a glimpse into how their policies affect the daily reality of schools. The results have been eye-opening, highlighting both challenges and creative solutions schools have implemented. The visits actually resulted in the creation of the Principal Ambassador Fellowship at ED in 2013. We reminded the secretary that we had not yet received her commitment for ED to participate in shadowing for 2017, a suggestion she received graciously, and we promised to follow up. We will certainly keep you all apprised of progress.

We consider this event the first step in an ongoing journey toward a common understanding of the needs of students, the schools that educate them, and the principals who lead them. And we commit to constantly refine our understanding of the principal’s reality so we can best represent you to policymakers at the highest levels of government. Acting as companions to one another on this journey, I know we will continue to make progress.

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