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What Keeps Principals Up at Night?

Reflecting on the legacy of No Child Left Behind — and honoring its insistence on inclusivity

December 8, 2015
Deborah Jewell-Sherman

A little-known fact to many outside the K–12 education space is how often America's public school principals have their sleep interrupted by the day's burning issues, unresolved challenges, and persistent worries about the needs of their students and school communities. Over the past two decades, the responsibilities placed upon principals have grown, and yet their role has never been more vital to our students' future and that of our nation. One of the questions that nag all school leaders is whether our nation and its schools can meet the current national challenge of providing all students with the skills they will need to thrive in our rapidly changing economy and society. Principals know the proverbial buck stops in large measure at their school doors.

The good news is that there’s been a seismic shift away from the federal mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act to a more local push for deeper learning. College, career, and civic readiness have replaced traditional reading and math instruction as the focal point of classroom learning in many schools. That’s good news.

From my vantage point, NCLB did one good thing, if nothing else: It reminded us that all students means all. If we salvage nothing else from that well-meaning and ill-executed piece of legislation, it is that principals have an educational and moral responsibility to reach, teach, support, promote, and believe in the potential of every child under their collective and individual watch.

We have engaged over the last four decades in a war of words and actions depicting deeply held beliefs, wide chasms in practice, and a great deal of finger-pointing coupled with blaming and shaming. Are more-rigorous standards the answer? Are charters the panacea? Should we ratchet up accountability, provide vouchers, change school structures and school levels, or should we change governance? Should we accept that America's public education is the Titanic, and we need to save all that we can, while accepting that this will leave out many, most especially our low-income students, English-language learners, and students of color?

There's an African proverb that reads, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” Guess who the elephants are?

Today's principals know all too well that to continue the education wars while holding fast to ideological perspectives, without acknowledging the strengths and limitations of each one, will keep us trampling on the hopes and dreams of children and families — all of whom are praying that we will do what is necessary to secure their future.

Our nation's principals are called upon to stand in the breach to make meaning of unaligned research, policies, and practices. Using wisdom, demonstrating compassion, and acting courageously on behalf of marginalized students and communities are the hallmarks of the best of our school leaders.

While we focus on ensuring that our students are ready to embrace the challenges of this century, let's also remember what No Child Left Behind demanded: We must make sure that all students are prepared. Together, we must support school leadership to help them move their schools and communities to a place of inclusivity and respect for every child.

Additional Resources

  • Listen to an EdCast with Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discussing the legislation that will replace significant elements of No Child Left Behind. 

About the Author

Deborah Jewell- Sherman
Deborah Jewell-Sherman is a professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former classroom teacher and principal, she was the 2009 Virginia Superintendent of the Year.
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K-12 School Leadership