When I began my career in administration, my principal gave me a crucial piece of advice: “If you want to be an outstanding principal, there is no better organization than NASSP.”
That advice proved to be transformative. Throughout my 17-year journey as an administrator, NASSP has been there to connect me, engage me, support me, encourage me, teach me, and challenge me—as it has for generations of principals before me. I can’t quite describe how great an honor it is to serve as NASSP president as the organization marks its 100th anniversary. What I can do, however, is share one principal’s view of how NASSP continues to evolve to meet our contemporary needs, and how it positions itself to thrive into the next era.
An Eye for Advocacy
Nowhere has NASSP’s evolution been more pronounced than in the organization’s advocacy efforts. As a still-new administrator in 2001, I recall NASSP’s efforts to alert members of the need to contact elected officials about this new, highly prescriptive federal bill that would turn our schools upside down if passed. But principals didn’t reach out to members of Congress. We let other voices tell our story—the story of public education. The bill passed, later named No Child Left Behind, and we have been living with its effects ever since.
During this time, we have raised our voices and placed our NASSP Board members, advocacy staff, principals of the year, assistant principals of the year, and state leaders into the offices of congressmen and the Department of Education on every occasion possible to share the authentic stories of how this legislation has impacted principals, schools, communities, and most importantly, students. We’ve shared the good and the bad of NCLB, and we learned a lot of lessons from those experiences. Most significantly, we took to heart the need for principals to participate in grassroots advocacy.Throughout my tenure as a principal and as an officer for both NASSP and the Pennsylvania Principals Association, I have paid numerous visits to congressional offices and submitted countless letters and emails in support of NASSP’s legislative agenda. And I am not alone. With NASSP’s leadership and empowerment—formalized in NASSP’s Federal Grassroots Network—principals across the country have embraced their advocacy role and advanced the nation toward more sensible education policy.
It is appropriate that the passage of NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), coincides with our 100th anniversary. It rolls back the test-and-punish provisions that enchanted policymakers in 2001 and identifies principals specifically and prominently as essential contributors to student achievement. That success is inseparable from NASSP members’ efforts to tell their stories to policymakers and other stakeholders and to share what those provisions look like when applied to real students in real schools.
Building Upon Innovation
I became an administrator at a time when NASSP had recently released Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution in the mid-1990s. This treatise on the necessary evolution of the American high school provided a platform for the next decade of work.
The subsequent Breaking Ranks volumes would guide schools to persevere beyond the almighty standardized test scores to create personalized environments that value the talents and abilities of each student; break literacy outside the domains of English and social studies and make it pervasive throughout the curriculum—now a hallmark of the Common Core State Standards; and focus on the professional needs of teachers to connect with one another in communities where they can discuss not just the data, but student work, more holistically. Many of these ideas were ahead of their time, and they affirmed a moral obligation for school leaders to see students as more than data points—an affirmation that was desperately needed during the NCLB era.
Now that NCLB is behind us, NASSP continues to innovate at the 100-year mark by introducing principals to new models of professional development. Our annual conference, now called Ignite, has shifted its focus to empower principals to create their own value by connecting with colleagues in purposeful ways. NASSP was the first national organization to formally incorporate into its conference an Edcamp, the popular education brand of the unconference model. Later this month, Ignite will host the first NASSP “hackathons,” which will turn principals loose on the biggest problems facing public education in an effort to produce actionable ways to address them.
These ideas are influenced in no small way by NASSP Digital Principals. Recognizing the need for principals to accelerate their adoption of digital and social media throughout the school program, NASSP launched this new awards program in 2012. Since then, we have identified and harnessed the experiences of 15 outstanding principals whose successes have been inseparable from their technology leadership. Our Digital Principals have introduced countless colleagues to the growing community of “connected leaders,” who continue to learn from one another across the boundaries of time and location. That connectedness is essential to effective 21st-century school leadership, and I am proud NASSP is a catalyst for that leadership.
Standing on Student Voice
As principals, all that we do is for the benefit of students. We filter every decision through an assessment of how that decision affects climate, instruction, and ultimately learning. It is both appropriate and a source of pride, then, that NASSP boasts a strong connection to students through its highly regarded student programs. Student voice has become an area of focus for educators in the past few decades, but NASSP has been a leader in this area since the founding of the National Honor Society in 1921—later to be joined by the National Junior Honor Society, the National Association of Student Councils, and the National Elementary Honor Society.
For generations, NASSP has helped students develop as leaders, contribute millions of hours of service annually to their communities, and amplify their voices in school decisions that affect them. As we continue to sharpen the focus of public schools on educating each student to high standards, NASSP’s student programs gain a new level of importance. Recent Gallup data reveals that only 55 percent of students describe themselves as “engaged” in their education—and it gets worse as students get older. Nearly half of students, then, perceive education as something that “happens to them.”
To engage all students in the life of the school, NASSP has leveraged its extensive experience to launch the Raising Student Voice and Participation (RSVP) program. Schools across the country have adopted RSVP as a framework for student-led discussions to identify needs in the school and local community. Students then brainstorm ways to address those needs and assess the options. The activity is valuable on its own merits, but the schoolwide nature of the conversation bespeaks NASSP’s belief that each student can be a leader, can engage in civic discourse, and has a valuable voice that deserves to be developed and amplified.
Many organizations use anniversaries as occasions to look back on all they have accomplished. NASSP does not lack for accomplishments during the past 100 years, and we are proud that principals have relied on us through social and civil unrest, misguided legislation, and digital revolutions. But more important than our past accomplishments is the fact that NASSP is using its 100th anniversary to identify ways it can improve its service today and position itself to thrive in the 100 years to come.
After seven months of traveling the nation as NASSP president to share and learn with principals, I have seen that our nation’s schools are in the hands of knowledgeable, competent, and caring professionals who put students first. These principals and assistant principals value the support, advocacy, and programs NASSP has developed, and they will continue to look to us as we refine and develop future initiatives to advance the principalship and our support of student learning and principal leaders.
NASSP, you look great at 100. I’m confident your best days are still ahead of you!
Sidebar: Highlights of NASSP’s 100-Year History
1916 Seventy-eight principals from seven Midwestern states meet in the Statler Hotel in Detroit “to form a national association to study the problem of the high school administrator; to voice an effective declaration of independence on the part of principals; [and] to create among them a better spirit of cooperation.”
1926 NASSP issues the first Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
1928 The association becomes a department of the National Education Association (NEA), even though it was headquartered in Chicago. The affiliation with NEA was seen as a way to increase the professional status of the fledgling association.
1942 NASSP publishes a series of articles in the Bulletin to help secondary schools do their part in the war effort, called “Secondary Education in War Time.” NASSP also announces a wartime policy for all secondary schools called “War Policy for American Schools,” which contains a checklist of wartime curriculum activities.
1949 NASSP begins holding its conventions independent of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
1953 The NASSP News Letter is published to identify current issues and problems facing secondary school principals.
1956 NASSP celebrated its 40th Anniversary Convention in Chicago. There were many special college dinners and 84 discussion group topics during the three-day meeting. These topics included: “What Is the Present Status of Racial Integration in the Public Schools,” “What Is the Role of the Principal in Curriculum Work,” and the ladies discussed “What Is the Role of the Principal’s Wife in the School Community.”
1968 NASSP announces its Big City High School Project, which NASSP Executive Director Owen Kiernan describes this way: “It probably is impossible to talk about education or anything else relating to our cities without some reference to the desperately serious conditions that exist in these cities; every effort is being made to focus in this instance on possible solutions to problems rather than a reiteration of these problems.”
1969 NASSP was the first of the national associations to offer a professional liability insurance program to members.
1971 NASSP staff is directed to assemble and present at Congressional hearings pertinent evidence of discrimination in the reassignment and/or dismissal of black principals; work with mass media to focus public and professional attention to the problems of black principals undergoing discrimination; file amicus curiae briefs and take other measures in court cases; and appoint an advisory committee of black principals to serve with the Status and Welfare Committee.
1978 NASSP creates an in-house governmental relations office and communications network to establish more direct ties to Capitol Hill; inform members of federal activities affecting schools nationwide; and strengthen efforts to be the collective voice of principals and assist them in expressing their views and concerns to Congress.
1995 NASSP becomes an active member of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration in order to influence the development of national standards for preparing principals and to oversee the accreditation of colleges’ and universities’ leadership preparation programs.
2012 NASSP publishes Breaking Ranks: A Field Guide for Leading Change, to unify middle level and high school improvement efforts.
2015 NASSP leads the development of the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders—a new set of progressive standards to inform principal preparation and principal evaluation systems.
Sidebar: Social Media Challenge: Why Are You Proud to Be a Principal
That’s the question we want you to answer for our 100th anniversary selfie contest! Take a photo of yourself with your answer to that question and upload it to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram using #NASSP100 to share with NASSP (and the world!) what being a principal means to you. At the end of the challenge, all photos will be uploaded to a Facebook album where the public will vote for their favorite submissions. The principals with the three most “liked” photos in the album will receive a $250 gift card.
You already know the importance of the principal role in our schools—join principals around the country in sharing what that role means to you in honor of NASSP’s 100th anniversary celebration. Visit www.nassp.org/nassp100 for contest rules and details. Entries must be submitted via social media by March 31, 2016. Voting for photos on Facebook will take place for two weeks at the beginning of April.
Michael E. Allison is NASSP president and principal of Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA. Follow him on Twitter @tallprincipal.