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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

The New Education Secretary Should Partner with Schools on These 15 Critical Issues

By Peter DeWitt — November 08, 2020 10 min read
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This post was updated on 12/23/20 only to reflect President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of Miguel Cardona as his nominee for US Secretary of Education, and not the actual list of 15 issues.

After it set in that we have a new president and the first female—and one of color— vice president in history, we also figured out something else that was monumental. It quickly dawned on us today that we will have a new education secretary who is a former teacher, principal and public school advocate with two decades of experience. Educators could not be happier. If there is one thing that can unite Democrats and many Republicans, it is that we needed a new secretary of education. After all, Betsy Devos has been as divisive as Trump given her decisions. Whether it was her reduced protections of females, as well as students in the LGBTQ community, the over $24 million taxpayers spent on her security over four years, or her wish to defund the Special Olympics, very few will miss her (Read this Article in Bloomberg).

Biden, whose wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is an educator, said he would choose an education secretary who supports educators, and he certainly did that with Cardona as their nominee. The new secretary seems to be a person who will actually include educators, parents and students in the conversation (Read more here about that in this NEA article). We have an opportunity with Cardona because his two decades of public school experience makes him poised to help schools around the country address their issues. Cardona is someone who can inspire and support schools to be more innovative, equitable and inclusive, even during this very difficult time (View his speech here).

As we celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we need to remember that we need, and now possibly have, an education secretary who will live up to the same promise. After all, public education is not just important, it has been coined as the great equalizer, and we know it has not always functioned that way and not always through the fault of those who work in it. Besides policy changes, Cardona looks to offer guidance and show understanding of some of our biggest issues.

In an effort to highlight the issues, not just for the incoming secretary of education but for those on the outside of school, too, I thought I would provide a list that may be a good place to begin. As with all lists that I write about from time to time, these issues are not written in order of importance. Additionally, if you have something to add, please feel free to use the comment section to do that.

The issues I believe Miguel Cardona could provide guidance on are:

Anti-racism education - We have had a spring, summer, and fall that calls for racial reckoning, but we know that this is an issue we should have been doing something about for decades and decades. We no longer need to just talk about it, but we need to guide schools on how to address it. This is an area that is often uncomfortable for educators because they do not know where to begin, and it is also an issue that many people believe needs to take place in highly diverse schools. Not so. We need to take action in predominantly white schools as well, because that is often where racism can begin. It is time for more people to understand white privilege.

Equitable funding - Schools are not funded equally, which is an understatement, and research shows that schools with a high percentage of Black and Brown students (read this article by Andre Perry) are the schools that get the least amount of funding (think Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol). We also know there are issues between funding for public schools and charter schools. Equitable funding needs to be addressed through policies and action.

School choice - This has been an ongoing debate for decades, and many people are debating it without even truly knowing the multitude of ways in which it is done. There are pros and cons, which you can read more about here, and there have been successful and unsuccessful attempts at creating school choice options for families. It is a topic that has been supported by Democrats and Republicans, so it is no doubt a topic for the new secretary of education to explore.

Less politics, more pedagogy - Perhaps this is impossible, but can we please take time to not just focus on politics but also talk about pedagogy? I’m not concerned whether the secretary can be political, because, quite frankly, in D.C. that is needed. However, we also need someone with the credibility to speak to pedagogy as well. How students learn within school, as well as, outside of school. We desperately need to foster conversations around how learning environments must match what the research actually says about how students learn and we need to involve students in that conversation.

Student empowerment - Speaking of including students in the conversation, we need to focus on student empowerment. They have so many creative ideas and deserve a voice in their education. There is a lot of value in what they have to say. Students around the country are engaged in deep and important work in their communities, and they are done waiting for us to give them a seat at the table. We need to give them one and hear how they would like to see schools evolve.

Educational leadership - Educational leadership needs to focus on practice, skills, and mindset, but for too long, skills were the only piece that leadership programs focused on. Back in 2006, Elmore referred to school leadership preparatory programs as a “cartel” and spoke to how obsessed the programs were when it came to “List logic.” At the same time, and probably due to the lack of preparation, we know that 42 percent of leaders are considering leaving their positions. We need to establish better school leadership practices and create communities of practice approaches so school leaders can connect with one another like they do through social media. And we need to foster leadership programs that will include more diversity in leadership. Additionally, we need to focus on those school leadership programs that have great credibility because of the way they prepare future leaders and model those methods for other programs so they can effectively prepare leaders in the same way.

Teacher turnover - If we work on equitable funding and the preparation of leaders, it will probably help alleviate some of this issue. After all, one well-known quotation is that “teachers don’t quit schools, they quit principals.” However, we know that teachers are leaving the profession for a variety of other reasons and we should discuss why. Then we need to work on how to do something about it. Teaching is, and always should be seen as, more than just a noble profession but a vital one.

High-stakes Testing - We need to assess students to understand how well they learn and where their learning needs might be, but high-stakes testing should be a thing of the past. If we want schools to be more innovative, then we need to be more innovative in the old methods of high-stakes testing that require a few weeks of testing and inspire a few months of test prep. It has been destructive, and no matter how many ways it may have been changed, it has not resulted in better learning opportunities for students.

Inclusivity for all students - Representation matters, and having a female of color as the vice president and a gay man (Mayor Pete) who ran for president matters. More schools need to hear from the education secretary about the importance of being inclusive for minoritized populations. Additionally, when speaking to inclusivity, it also means that we need to address the needs of our special education population. For too long, special education students and their teachers have been treated like second-class citizens. What’s more, we remember when Devos wanted to cut funding to the Special Olympics, so this issue of inclusivity and what it looks like is not only important, but it’s also human.

Women in leadership - This is an inspirational and important time. Many friends have posted images about shattering the glass ceiling due to the election of Kamala Harris as the first female vice president in U.S. history. Five years ago, I wrote this blog asking where are all the women in educational leadership because school leadership has long been dominated by men. Perhaps now, and maybe due to the fact that the education secretary could be female, more women will enter into the field of educational leadership.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) for students - More and more people began to see the need for creating trauma-sensitive schools and creating communities of care when COVID-19 became a pandemic. Language around developing a school climate that helps meet the social-emotional needs of students would be helpful, especially during COVID. Our students are experiencing trauma, and there are so many that have mental-health issues as well, but what we know is that these students have the potential to be more than their trauma and mental-health issues, and SEL programs can help foster that.

Family engagement - Part of how we work through SEL is to also create better family partnerships. Schools typically communicate with families in three ways. The first is by providing inportant dates and things families need to know. The second is through dialogue, which typically happens at open house and parent-teacher conferences. The third is a focus on learning, such as math-, maker- space- or science-fair events. Unfortunately, due to the stress that schools are often under, they usually focus on the first line of communication and have little time for the second and third. A secretary that can speak to the importance of family engagement would go a long way to create better relationships between schools and families.

Career and technical education (CTE) - This has often been viewed as a track for those students who do not want to go to college, and there is often an air of judgment that goes toward students who choose that path. This needs to stop, because what we know is that jobs in the CTE field deserve the same respect as those that require a university degree, and they are often highly paid positions.

Educator mental health - Teachers, leaders, and staff are under a great deal of stress. 94 percent of school leaders say that COVID has created stress unlike anything they have ever seen, and close to the same percentage of teachers are in agreement. However, many of the issues on this list are interrelated, and this issue of stress is what usually leads to teacher turnover, and the lack of preparation from some higher education programs can lead principals to leaving their jobs. We need to not just talk about self-care and community care, but we need an education secretary who will talk about what it looks like for the adults who give so much of themselves in school.

How schools move forward during COVID - Educators are on the verge of collapse with how hard they have worked to engage students given the impossible circumstances of COVID. Taking time to understand the concerns of school staff and students, as well as offering guidance on how schools can move forward, would help leaders and teachers understand that the secretary cares about the job those educators and leaders are doing day in and day out.

In the EndPressure is on. Education secretaries have a tough job because our schools and our states are complex. However, over the last four years, we have been left scratching our heads wondering how and why we had an education secretary who lacked an ounce of educational experience.

If public education is as important as everyone says (and for those of us who teach or have taught already know), then we need Cardona to bring us all together, unify us as a nation of schools, and help guide us toward strengthening the learning opportunities for all students.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is an independent consultant and the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel. He is the moderator of Education Week’s A Seat At the Table.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.