What Can 90,000 Principals Help Policy Makers Do?

“I don’t need to engage policy makers, I just need to figure out how to work around their policies.”

As I reflect on the robust experiences I have had as a U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow (PAF) and continue to have as a PAF alum, I think of how many lost opportunities I had over the years because of my incomplete analysis and thinking.

Why Should I Engage Policymakers?

As a teacher (and principal), I have always deeply believed that school-based leadership is the lever for schools and student achievement. What I did not originally understand was how or even why I, as a leader, should find opportunities to engage policymakers.

During my fellowship with America Achieves (2012-2015), I learned how to share my unique experiences as a principal with policy makers. This came in handy after I was selected to become a PAF in November 2013. I was slightly taken aback during my first meeting with then US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, when he told us, “Don’t come here and just agree with me.” He asked that we push him and tell him how it really is. Secretary Duncan charged us with the task of sharing our personal experiences while simultaneously collecting the narratives of our colleagues and contemporaries from around the country. Secretary Duncan (and his senior staff) sought our honest opinions and he was brave enough to ask for and hear our authentic experiences – in essence, he wanted to learn of the good, the bad, and the ugly!

Policy makers need practitioners to best understand complexity and nuance

I deeply appreciated the policy makers at the Department of Education who demonstrated their belief that practitioners were fundamental in understanding the complexity of the role of principals. We were not just asked to sit in on meetings; rather-my fellow PAFs- Jill Levine, Rachel Skerritt, and I were frequently sought out to inform decisions, provide feedback, and weigh in on past policies. We supported Secretary Duncan’s outreach efforts through writing blogs, facilitating roundtables, and conducting debriefing sessions with principals. We participated in the Secretary’s yearly bus tour, as well as in the Department of Education’s senior staff professional development series. We gave feedback about speeches, and provided additional context about research on the principalship -our work constituted outreach and “inreach.”  We received feedback from more than 1000 principals from around the country and shared their thoughts and ideas with Secretary Duncan and his senior staff.

Two of my favorite experiences during the program include traveling as a part of the United States delegation to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in Banff, Canada. The focus of the summit was teacher leadership – a topic I am deeply passionate about. A part of that experience was supporting the Department of Education (and other national organizations that were a part of the delegation) in its commitments-one being to create a national summit on the teaching profession here in the United States.

Another life-impacting experience was traveling with Secretary Duncan to Birmingham, AL where I absorbed the historic role the city played in the national landscape for educational equality and justice. While there, we learned from University of Alabama-Birmingham’s professors and city’s teachers and administrators about how they were supporting student achievement through their robust and successful partnerships. We also met with educators who provided feedback about everything from testing to raising standards to flexibility in spending and autonomy in schools.

90,000 Public School Principals Can All Fit Into a Football Stadium

The role of principal leaders in amplifying the voices and experiences of their colleagues cannot be overstated. There are 90,000 public school principals around the country. We could all fit into a stadium. Our collective voices are crucial to the continued imagination and transformation of all schools in order to accelerate the achievement levels of our nation’s students. As one of my America Achieves colleagues said, “We don’t just sit at the table, we often need to make the table.”

I strongly encourage my principal colleagues around the country to engage with policy makers early and often. We must take responsibility for championing our role in accelerating our students’ achievement levels and own the space for our voices to be heard. We must speak up readily and sit up eagerly such that our presence is known and felt. The policies that shape the direction of our classrooms and schools, the direction of our communities and the trajectory of our children must be informed by practitioners. This is not something nice to have. Rather, it is an essential imperative without which jeopardizes the progress that has been made in our nation’s schools and threatens the authentic and sustained success of our students.

*Originally was published in NASSP’s magazine (1/16/16). Minor edits. Views remain the same.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


  1. Wouldn’t it be awesome if public schools had ambassadors/senators/advocates who could represent their schools’ needs to city, state, and local leaders separate from their local elected officials?

    • YES! That would be awesome! We need all hands on deck. Too many people are passing the buck. It would be a great leadership opportunity for a way to elevate voices.


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