Will Biden’s choice for the post of education secretary focus on what is needed to finally close the stubborn “achievement gaps”? His written record includes encouraging signs and a few caveats.
President-elect Joe Biden chose Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s education commissioner, as his candidate for secretary of education. Cardona, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and started school speaking only spanish, does not need anyone to tell him that too many students are struggling needlessly in our current education system. Bridging the gap between students who are still learning English and their peers has been a major goal of his career.
But decades of federal efforts to help English-language learners and other disadvantaged students – and improve educational outcomes overall – have had little effect. What is needed is a radically new approach, focusing on what is taught in classrooms. It is not clear that Cardona is fully committed to this approach, but there are indications that he could be convinced.
Cardona’s rise has been swift, which means he hasn’t left much evidence of what he might do as secretary. Before becoming Connecticut’s top education official just over a year ago, he was deputy superintendent in Meriden, a district of less than 8,000 students, where he previously served as a primary school teacher and principal. But even in relatively low-key positions, he apparently shone: he became the youngest state director at 28 and was named director of the year in 2012.
Despite opposition from some teachers’ unions, Cardona received high marks for its efforts to physically reopen schools in the state during the pandemic. His approach implied understanding that conditions vary according to the locality, as well as encourage neighborhoods to reopen without giving it a mandate.
But what about his priorities beyond the pandemic and his perspective on what is needed to achieve equity in education? Perhaps the most revealing document on this subject is a report published in 2014 by a state working group he chaired. Much of the report, ambitiously titled “A Blueprint to Close the Achievement Gap in Connecticut,” consists of platitudes about “effective learning strategies” and “high-quality model curricula. Which are “evidence-based”. Without more details, it’s hard to know what these phrases mean.
Still, I found a few nuggets in the report that shed light on how Cardona might address some key barriers to achieving equity in education. With the caveat that the document was the work of a committee – and it’s six years old – here they are, along with my thoughts on what might prevent it from addressing the root causes of our lack of progress. :
All children should receive systematic instruction on how to read words in the early years. Although the report never mentions the word “phonics”, the task force approved a previously published statement “early reading success modelWhich called for “an explicit and systematic teaching of word identification skills, including the teaching of phonetics and the teaching of phonemic awareness” (which means hearing individual sounds in words).
This shouldn’t be big news, because a long time ago scientific consensus in favor of this type of education for all children, not just those diagnosed with reading disabilities. But this remains a controversial issue, in large part because many educators still view phonetics as unnecessary or overwhelming, or both. Former Secretaries of Education, including Betsy DeVos, have embraced the idea of phonetics, but the decline continues and many students never learn to decode words well.
A promising aspect of the task force report is its recommendation that “new and current faculty members” in schools of education “have expertise in the science of reading and research-based practices.” Resistance to phonetics – and in general lack of knowledge of how reading works, on the part of those who train teachers to teach reading, is a huge part of the problem. It won’t be easy to solve, but if Cardona turns her attention to schools of education, it could make a big difference.
The curriculum should be rich and broad rather than narrowly focused on reading and math. The report briefly notes that as schools come under pressure to increase scores in reading and math, subjects like social studies, science and the arts were expelled of the curriculum, especially in elementary grades. Many students “need more time to develop math skills and [English language arts]», Affirmed the working group. But they went on to say:
“They also need time to develop the scientific knowledge, historical awareness, and the creative thinking and problem-solving skills that come with a well-rounded education. Low-income students, in particular, need exposure at school to a wide range of topics, skills and knowledge, as they are less likely than their wealthier peers to receive this exposure at home or as part of extracurricular activities carried out outside of school. … By providing students with engaging learning opportunities that appeal to their diverse skills, interests and learning styles, well-balanced schools can tackle the high dropout rates that plague low-income communities.
All of this is indeed (aside from the reference to ‘learning styles’, the widely held assumption that different people learn best in particular ways, which is supported by little or no evidence). But it would have been even better to make an explicit link between spending more time in social studies, science and the arts and better reading comprehension. It is not only that these subjects are of interest to students or that they promote “problem-solving skills”. They too provide knowledge and vocabulary that writers of more complex texts assume readers have – and many don’t. So, children who seem to need “more time on a task” in English may actually need more time for history and science.
It would also be good to know if Cardona understands that teachers need to start developing children’s academic knowledge from the early years, largely by reading aloud sets of books that delve deeper into specific topics and then leading discussions about the contents. Currently, the standard approach to understand reading one needs to focus on practicing so-called “skills” like “finding the main idea”, jumping from topic to topic.
One of the report’s most troubling recommendations is that K-3 students should take at least two hours of “language arts” every day. If this is primarily about practicing comprehension skills and strategies, as is the case in most schools, millions of children will continue to lack the knowledge and vocabulary they will need to understand what they need. they are expected to read in the years to come: knowledge and vocabulary that their more advantaged peers can learn at home.
Disadvantaged students need better access to Advanced Placement classes. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, even many motivated students lack the basic knowledge and skills that could enable them to perform AP level work, as they have had nothing but a regular reading regimen. and mathematics up to high school (“reading” consisting mainly of the practice of “skills” of comprehension). The task force report vaguely insists that all students must be prepared for AP-level work and that schools must “provide the necessary supports” that will allow them to be successful.
The only two mediums that might work are intensive tutoring, which is difficult to deliver on the scale needed, and, more promising, explicit writing instruction that is grounded in program content and begins at the level. of the sentence. AT a high school in the service of underprivileged students, the results of an AP US history course has undergone a complete transformation after adopting a method of writing based on these principles. Initially, only two out of 23 students passed the AP exam, with a minimum pass mark of three. Three years later, only two out of 28 students have do not Take a test. Those who passed all got a four or a five. The teacher, who taught the class both times, attributed the change to the impact of the writing method.
Of course, Cardona, like any US Secretary of Education, will have no direct control over what is taught in American classrooms. But just as previous secretaries exerted a powerful indirect influence on day-to-day education, not always for the best, so could he. Cardona clearly cares deeply about the students that our education system has failed, and he is said to be a good listener. Hopefully he will listen to some of the education leaders across the country who were pioneers a new approach that provides all children with what they need to be successful.
He could start with two that have been mentioned as candidates for his future job: Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, and Sharon Contreras, Principal of Guilford County Schools, North Carolina. I’m sure they would be happy to explain what they are doing and why.