The Biden administration wants states and school districts to increase student attendance, adopt high-dosage tutoring, and expand summer and after-school learning as part of a new agenda for reversing declines in student achievement.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden announced on Wednesday the administration’s new “Improving Student Achievement Agenda” at a White House event with governors and state education leaders.
The announcement comes at the start of an election year in which President Joe Biden will likely face former President Donald Trump.
“These three strategies have one central goal: giving students more time and more support to succeed,” Cardona said.
The Biden administration hasn’t had an aggressive K-12 policy agenda in its first three years, as national tests have shown student achievement declining during the pandemic. Cardona told Education Week in October 2023 that the administration “chose intentionally not to create a magic strategy” on K-12 education in favor of promoting state- and district-level solutions.
That approach has differed from the more aggressive and specific Race to the Top grant competitions of the Obama years and the No Child Left Behind Act from George W. Bush’s presidency. For his part, Trump has said in his campaign that he would penalize districts that teach about critical race theory and gender identity—a common policy plank for conservative politicians—and give parents the power to elect principals.
The student achievement agenda announced Wednesday doesn’t veer from the Biden administration’s previous direction on K-12 policy.
Rather than creating a large competitive grant program or pursuing a comprehensive law, the agenda will use accountability measures established in the Every Student Succeeds Act, reporting requirements, smaller grants, and technical assistance to encourage states to adopt strategies proven to help student achievement.
“There must be equal parts support and accountability to get the best for our children,” Cardona said. “We must get back to pre-pandemic levels quickly, but also let’s be clear: The bare minimum that we aspire to is to get back to what it was in 2019. 2019 wasn’t anything to write home about. Our kids deserve better.”
Efforts to improve student achievement
In a fact sheet published Wednesday, the White House outlined actions it plans to take to encourage high-dosage tutoring and increase summer and after-school learning.
The Education Department plans to expand its monitoring of states using its existing authority under federal law as they implement strategies included in the Improving Student Achievement Agenda. For example, the department will examine whether states with high-dosage tutoring programs are implementing them effectively and provide guidance on improving programs when needed.
The department will also encourage states to identify local school districts with the greatest pandemic achievement gaps and direct additional school improvement resources to those districts for high-dosage tutoring and summer and after-school programs.
It will highlight states with strong programs by publishing statistics on students receiving tutoring over the spring and into next fall; participation in summer learning and enrichment; and how much time students have spent in extended school day and after-school programs.
By publishing the data on states with successful programs, the department hopes to encourage more states to adopt those strategies.
The department also plans to create new grant programs in 2024, depending on the availability of federal funding, that would prioritize efforts to increase student attendance, engagement, and academic achievement. The grant money could be used to fund high-dosage tutoring, after-school and extended learning, math and literacy coaching for educators, more rigorous coursework, expanded community resources and partnerships to meet student and family needs, and strategies for re-engaging students.
The administration also advised states to use federal Title I and Title IV funding to support tutoring, after-school, and summer programs. Title I supports schools with low-income student populations, while Title IV supports after-school programs.
Combating chronic absenteeism
The White House used the student achievement agenda announcement to shine a light on chronic absenteeism, which has emerged as a major challenge for schools following the pandemic.
Chronic absenteeism has spiked nationally since schools reopened from pandemic closures, and a significant portion of students’ decline in reading and math achievement can be attributed to the absences, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors.
“We simply cannot accept chronic absenteeism as the new normal,” Tanden said at Wednesday’s event. “Fortunately, we know what works: engaging parents and families as partners in their children’s education.”
The department is calling on states to adopt chronic absenteeism as an indicator in their statewide accountability and improvement systems, which are required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. In doing so, states can gather more data on student attendance and engagement.
The department is also encouraging states to adopt strong, consistent definitions of chronic absenteeism, such as missing 10 percent of school days in a year, so that they can better compare rates across districts and schools. States should also tailor support to meet the needs of student groups with higher rates of chronic absenteeism, such as ensuring that outreach from schools is happening in the native languages of families of English learners.
Tanden said the agenda should act as “a detailed roadmap” for states.
“We all need to send a clear and consistent message: students have to be present if they’re going to learn,” she said.