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Arne Duncan Unveils Plans for Principal Ambassador Program

Acknowledging the need to get more input from school leaders on education policy, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced plans to create a principal ambassador fellowship in a speech at the National Association of Secondary School Principals conference Feb. 28.

The department now has a Teaching Ambassador Fellowship that employs fellows for a year to provide classroom expertise to federal staff members about education initiatives. Duncan said policymakers need to hear the voices of principals more and asked senior staff to find ways to launch a similar fellowship program for building leaders this fall.

"To have great principals working with us can only make us better," he told the gathering of 1,500 principals at the National Harbor, just outside of Washington.

In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Duncan said officials were still thinking through the details of a new ambassador program and were open to suggestions. Some fellows may be employed for a full year by the federal government, while others could be paid a stipend to offer consultation from their home schools. The goal would be to hire a diverse set of "extraordinary" principals from urban, suburban, and rural districts to give officials thoughtful advice on what is and isn't working and offer their perspective on how to move forward to improve education, said Duncan.

Duncan acknowledging that the administration didn't do enough in the first term with and for principals and pledged to strengthen those efforts in the next four years. "School leadership is one of our top priorities moving forward," he said.

Duncan said the current model to recruit, train, and retain principals is largely broken, noting that principals themselves are telling the department that preparation programs are not adequately equipping them for their jobs. Also, the evaluation of school leaders is "spotty," with professional development often based on "whims and fads," he said. (See more on study showing states lack data on school leaders' training and evaluation.)

"The school leader's impact is huge," Duncan told the principals conference. "You help shape the school culture. You are instructional leaders and ... great principals empower great teachers."

In his remarks, Duncan also mentioned the administration's new plan to support the redesign of America's high schools to better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. He offered no additional details on the initiative.

In his State of the Union Address Feb. 12, President Barack Obama challenged the education community to redesign America's high schools. While many educators welcome the idea of a Race to the Top-style competitive grant program for secondary education, details of the plan still need to be worked out, and funding could face long odds in Congress.

Touching on the issue of school safety, Duncan said the time has come to move forward in a thoughtful and comprehensive way to protect children from violence and ensure that they grow up in a life without fear. He said he would be working with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to launch a national conversation on mental health and school safety, working with NASSP to have every school hold an assembly on mental health issues before end of 2013.

Thursday night, Duncan opened his remarks staying on message about the hurtful impact that the automatic federal spending cuts due to take effect Friday would have on education. He called the inability of lawmakers to make a deal "economically foolish and morally indefensible." The secretary noted that what's known as sequestration could mean $725 million less for the Title I program serving low-income schools, impacting 1.2 million students and putting 10,000 jobs of teachers and aides at risk. Another $600 million would be cut from special education programs, and 70,000 children would be dropped from Head Start.

"This is a prime example of what I call dumb government," said Duncan. "It's mind-boggling to me that Washington has manufactured a crisis." He added that the situation could be fixed if lawmakers act courageously. "This is not rocket science. It is not intellectually difficult," he said.

Duncan told principals that he is optimistic that in the long run the country can produce real progress for youth, and underscored the vital role of principals in that process.

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