The future for students, educators and institutions that U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona outlined in a speech delivered on January 27 didn’t sound especially … futuristic. He made no mention of technology, virtual learning, internet access or any of the digital tools or practices that so many learners, instructors and families have had to rely on during the past two years of pandemic-era education.
Cardona did mention “bandwidth” problems, but only as a metaphor, arguing that children who are hungry, lack stable housing or live in unhealthy conditions face diminished “bandwidth” for learning.
So when the secretary employed a video game metaphor to declare, “It’s time to level up education in this country,” he had IRL—in real life—priorities in mind. More mental health support for students. More engagement with families and parents. More resources to make teaching jobs attractive and sustainable.
And most pressing, according to Cardona: more effort to fix the inequities that have plagued education since long before the coronavirus health crisis.
“It is our moment to finally make education the great equalizer, the force that can help every student thrive, no matter their background,” Cardona said. “We’re either closing educational opportunity gaps or making them worse with the decisions we make in the coming months and years.”
Referencing his personal experience as a classroom teacher, school administrator and district leader throughout the half-hour speech, Cardona made several detailed recommendations for how schools might put federal pandemic-relief dollars to use to ensure that more students can thrive—especially as many children struggle to adjust to the social-emotional and academic challenges the pandemic either created or worsened. He challenged district leaders to provide students who are falling behind with 30 minutes of tutoring, three times a week, with well-trained instructors. He recommended that every high school student participate in at least one co-curricular activity, such as sports, art, or theater, to help them “be seen” and feel connected.
Asserting that “we cannot expect classroom teachers to do it all themselves,” the secretary called for schools to double the number of counselors, social workers and other mental health workers they employ, so that every child has access to a mental health professional. He added that every high school in the country should have at least one career counselor.
Cardona took a moment to express gratitude to educators—“my colleagues in the field”—who he said are tired and feeling stretched thin.
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“I see you and understand what you are going through,” he said. “It will get better.”
To make that happen, however, Cardona argued that leaders must do more than simply “talk about honoring educators,” by making changes that treat teachers with “the respect and the dignity they deserve.” That includes, he explained, paying them a living wage, offering them professional development, providing supportive working conditions and listening to what they have to say.
“It’s on us to make sure education jobs are the ones educators don’t want to leave and that people from all backgrounds want to pursue,” Cardona said.
Immediately following the speech, the National Association of Secondary School Principals picked up that theme by releasing a statement saying that “our school leaders continue to burn the candle at both ends, and without immediate action to address their staffing shortages and concerns about teacher and student wellness and well-being, it will be extremely challenging to make sure these proposals actually provide the real support our communities need and deserve.”
The secretary addressed several education policy issues that the Biden administration has prioritized—some without much evident success so far in terms of actually advancing legislation. The U.S. ought to have free universal preschool and affordable child care, Cardona said, a goal for which he has been advocating. He gave the administration credit for canceling some student loan debt and for overhauling the public service loan forgiveness system that aims to benefit workers, including teachers, who work in certain sectors. And he warned colleges that the government aims to hold them accountable for ensuring graduates can find gainful employment.
Cardona asserted that higher education should not only be accessible for young adults, but for anyone of any age or at any point of their career.
“It’s never too late for any American to go back to school,” he said.
The pandemic has been a crisis, the secretary acknowledged, but he argued that it could become an opportunity for students, teachers, families, and the country. It’s a moment, Cardona said at the conclusion of his address, to “truly reimagine education.”