U.S. Secretary of Education pushes to reopen schools with a focus on equity

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wants kids back in classrooms. But he doesn’t want education to return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

As America’s schools reopen for children, Cardona says they should work to address historical inequities that stifle the academic success of children of color, low-income children and other underserved demographic groups. 

“We have a tremendous opportunity to hit the reset button on things that we know needed fixing before the pandemic,” Cardona said, Monday, speaking to journalists virtually at an annual Education Writers Association conference.

“…My biggest fear is that we go back to practices that were comfortable before the pandemic, but led to the disparities in outcomes that we are experiencing as a country.”

Cardona, former Commissioner of Education in Connecticut, took over as the federal schools chief in March, and could oversee substantial shifts in federal K-12 policy from his predecessor, republican appointee Betsy DeVos. Just last week President Joe Biden released details of a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan,  which would offer free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds and two free years of community college for American students. 

That plan has not been approved by Congress, and could also face resistance in states. Pre-K and community college costs would be shared by federal and state governments, writes Matt Barnum, of Chalkbeat.

Cardona says his education department will “be on the offense,” pushing the importance of early learning and continuing education, which he calls “bookends” to the K-12 system. But those are far from his only goals. 

Cardona told reporters on Monday that he also plans to “unapologetically address achievement disparities,” and push for more social emotional learning in schools. He highlighted the need for representation of diverse voices in K-12 education and consistent engagement with families.

As of February, 80 percent of American schools were offering an in-person education option, Cardona said, and he expects that number to be higher in a report that will come out next week. Almost all of Idaho’s districts and charter schools are open for in-person instruction.

Cardona wants students in school buildings this spring, and says he expects in-person learning by the start of the 2021-22 school year. Pandemic-related learning disruptions have further exacerbated academic achievement gaps for low-income, minority and rural students, Cardona said. Across the country, students of color were less likely to learn in-person, even in districts where that is an option, Chalkbeat reports.

Cardona said schools need to address the reasons that students might not feel safe at school, offer curriculum that showcases diverse voices so students of color can see themselves in their schoolwork, and engage families in the learning process.

“We need to do better. We need to make sure all students prefer to learn in the schoolhouse because it’s a warm place for them, it’s a welcoming place, they see people that look like them, that honor them and respect them. They see curriculum where they see their stories in the curriculum,” Cardona said. “All schools should be inviting places for not only students, but families. That’s the goal.”

Read our series focused on the educational outcomes of Latino students in Idaho, and the challenges that low-income students face in the Gem State. 

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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