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Miguel Cardona: There’s No ‘Magic Strategy’ to Help Students Get Back on Track

Student achievement in math and reading has hit its lowest point in decades. Students’ mental health has continued a long decline. And many schools are still dealing with teacher and staff shortages.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says the Biden administration’s major accomplishment in response to those challenges has been the distribution of tens of billions of dollars in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in the administration’s first few months in 2021.

In an interview with Education Week, the secretary spoke about the Biden administration’s K-12 track record so far and its goals for the future. And he made clear that he doesn’t think there’s a “silver bullet” solution to those challenges that the Biden administration will push from Washington.

In the interview, Cardona highlighted the department’s Raise the Bar: Lead the World initiative, a set of strategies the federal government would like to see schools use to raise academic achievement, create positive learning environments, and expand students’ pathways to careers and higher education.

But the secretary said he “chose intentionally not to create a magic strategy that’s going to be something totally different.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the successes that you would highlight in the Biden administration’s work with K-12 schools so far?

In the last 2 1/2 years, we have provided and executed in the distribution and implementation, support, guidance, and oversight of $130 billion in emergency dollars, which have provided opportunities for students to have access to additional school supports, literacy and numeracy supports, afterschool programs. We, with those dollars, provided the biggest investment for school infrastructure in at least the last 25 years that I’ve been in education.

We’ve also been very bullish to fight for additional education dollars to increase funding for our schools for literacy and numeracy, support for mental health, for ensuring that we have a highly qualified workforce, investing in our educators, promoting multilingual education. [We’ve been] very transformative around college and career pathways, given the investment this administration made in the CHIPS in Science Act, the Infrastructure Plan, and the climate provisions under the Inflation Reduction Act. We have millions of jobs coming in. We are really pushing to transform our schools to make sure our students are prepared with options when they graduate.

While we’re preparing students in K-12 to be successful, we’re also opening up doors to higher education in a way that is really turning the whole system on its head and fixing a very broken system. We’ve improved public service loan forgiveness. If you think about that, that helps teachers in our classrooms. We are providing relief to those teachers. It takes one of the burdens and stressors away so they can focus on being good educators. So, the work that we’re doing in higher ed. connects to the work we’re doing in K-12 as well.

Polling has shown that most voters haven’t seen improvement in their schools despite the influx of federal funding. Do you think [the federal relief funds] have done their job so far?

Absolutely. I was in Philadelphia the day before yesterday. The superintendent shared with me how they’re seeing improvements in student achievement as a result of the American Rescue Plan dollars. I know Connecticut—the state where I’m from—has seen an improvement in their chronic absenteeism, meaning the supports that they put in place with the American Rescue Plan dollars have students coming to school more now than they did during the pandemic.

Imagine the headlines if the money didn’t go to schools. How many teachers would have been eliminated? What would the class sizes be? How many students would not have [returned to classrooms] because they didn’t have the adequate staffing? When I think about colleges, how many colleges would have closed down if it weren’t for the American Rescue Plan dollars?

I would welcome the opportunity to share more examples of how in every state students benefited from the American Rescue Plan. Then I would offer: imagine if we didn’t have a president that pushed for that, what districts would be facing. Ask any school superintendent across the country if they needed that additional support—these are people who are highly qualified and trained to lead districts—and they’re going to tell you the benefits that their students face.

Why do you think there’s a disconnect between the examples you listed and the public’s perception of the impact the funds are having?

There’s still work to be done. The impacts of the pandemic are still being felt. Earlier this year, the surgeon general communicated that we have a youth mental health crisis where 1 in 3 girls in high school have considered suicide in the last three years. We are still grappling with the impact of the disruption in our schools. Not to mention the fact that even before the pandemic our students were not achieving at the level they should achieve.

The President gets the importance of education. I would challenge, there hasn’t been another president in our lifetime that has spoken so much on providing dollars for education but also having education be central to the growth of this country.

When the Obama administration received $97 billion to help schools respond to the 2008 recession, it came out with Race to the Top. Why hasn’t the Biden administration released its own agenda for how American Rescue Plan dollars should be used?

I was a school principal during the No Child Left Behind era, and I was a district leader during the Race to the Top funding. No Child Left Behind created labeling of schools and created a system where we were blaming underfunded schools for lack of student growth. While it was heavy on assessments, it was very weak on additional dollars to support schools. Race to the Top, while the goals were very specific, it didn’t hit the whole country. The last thing people in classrooms in schools need is somebody in D.C. telling them what we already know to be the truth, that if we’re going to get our students to continue to grow we don’t need a silver bullet. What we need is support and funding in areas that we know work.

Look carefully at the Raise the Bar: Lead the World strategy. I chose intentionally not to create a magic strategy that’s going to be something totally different. What I’m doing is putting investments in academic excellence, conditions for learning, and global competitiveness. I’m an educator, these are the things we need to focus on. We need to focus on good literacy and numeracy programs. Meanwhile, our friends on the right side of the aisle are looking to cut Title I by 80 percent.

School principals don’t need another, ‘Here, do it this way because we know better than you.’ What they do need is guidance on how to make sure they get additional funding to hire that social worker, which is why, again, the president pushed for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and we have over $2 billion directed toward increasing the number of social workers and making sure schools have what they need to be safe.

We have a teacher shortage area so instead of a shiny magic answer, what I’m doing is trying to show respect and lift the profession, and encourage states to put more funding into education. As a result of that, we’ve worked with these 25 states now and we have internships, apprenticeships for teaching. We didn’t have that before.

In this country, we’ve had historically a four-year college-or-bust mentality. Oftentimes what that does is lead to students getting a degree in something that they don’t end up using, owing the government $100,000 in debt, and not using their degree and getting a job that doesn’t pay enough to pay the bills. What we’re doing now is recognizing that if we expose students earlier to careers and trades in college that they have more options when they graduate. Options that could lead to a $75,000-$80,000-a-year job right out of school where they can continue in higher ed.

What more could the department be doing to address the historic learning loss and what stands in the way?

The Republicans stand in the way. The Republicans in the House, they can’t even pick their own leader. They’re more worried about banning books than they are about banning assault weapons. They’re more interested in picking on marginalized groups of students than they are focusing on literacy. They’re not interested in working toward solutions. That’s one obstacle.

Another obstacle is the statewide effort to privatize our schools. Public education is under attack. Many states, what they’re trying to do is take public dollars for education and turn it into a voucher program in the name of choice. Now, I’m a big fan of choice. I didn’t take a traditional route myself. I had choice in high school. I went to a technical school. I’m not in favor of taking public dollars and putting them in private school vouchers for the wealthiest kids to have their schools paid for while the neighborhood schools have their money siphoned away from them for these vouchers.

With our Raise the Bar: Lead the World strategies and our focus on making sure we’re giving students more opportunities, I am confident in our future. I do believe our educators and our leaders in education are going to continue to grow. They need support, though. If you compare the numbers, they’re getting more support from this administration than in the past. We’re going to continue to do that.

What do you see as the Biden administration’s legacy in K-12 schools?

Look, we have the Raise the Bar: Lead the World strategy that has a very heavy emphasis on improving mental health access and support, improving pathways to college and career, improving access to higher education in an affordable and inclusive way, and supporting our families and our educators, something that has been missing especially in the last administration.

Keep in mind, when I came to town in D.C., only 46 percent of our schools were open [from pandemic closures]. Within nine months we got to over 97 percent. Within nine months, we distributed $130 billion. We now have the Raise the Bar: Lead the World strategies that are very clear, academic excellence conditions for learning and pathways to global competitiveness.

We know what works in education.

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