Cardona: “We are at the door of a new chapter in American education”

(Image credit: Kanoe Namahoe)

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Education cannot return to what it was in March 2020; That system didn’t work for everyone, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told educators at this year’s ASCD annual conference in Chicago.

“We are at the door of a new chapter in American education,” Cardona said. “Will we use this moment as a fresh start to boldly and unapologetically address the issues that have been pervasive in education? Or will we beat COVID only to succumb to complacency? We now have more impact on education than ever before. Let’s remember why we signed up for this profession.”

Cardona outlined his vision for advancing American education — and the role that all of parenting plays in that process — during his closing keynote discussion with ASCD Board Member Avis Williams and a subsequent keynote interview with me. Here are six takeaways from those conversations.

Create a culture of shared expectations

The most important thing school leaders can do over the next 22 months is create a culture of shared expectations — a culture of problem-solving where they may face unique challenges and may not have all the answers, Cardona said.

“These are different times,” he explained. “Creating a culture of conscious collaboration and looking at the whole child and the whole educator is probably more important now than ever.”

Cardona credited intentional collaboration—teamwork between educators, school leaders, and administrators—to bring schools to 100% full-time, face-to-face instruction. This kind of collaboration will be key to giving our schools a real fresh start, he said.

“As the African proverb teaches us: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” he said. “Even Michael Jordan from this town once said, ‘Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.’ For our students, every day in the classroom is a championship.”

Prioritize the entire educator

Improving whole-child outcomes starts with improving whole-educator support, Cardona says.

“We need to think differently about how we support our educators, otherwise we shouldn’t be surprised if they leave,” he said. He outlined three strategies he gleaned from conversations and visits with educators over the past year.

Offer a competitive salary. Many educators have a master’s degree or higher; However, their salaries do not match their degrees. Add to that the money they spend on buying materials for their classrooms and the time they take away from their families to plan lessons, work at school, or attend school events.

“We need to change this culture in education,” he said. “Elevate the profession by paying what educators should be paid. And that doesn’t just mean [the American Rescue Plan]. We need to create understanding at the state level [of the] Importance of state funding for education and municipal funding.”

improve working conditions. Teachers need emotional support resources. Many have suffered from stress, anxiety and personal loss amid the pandemic. Counselors and other mental health resources offer valuable support as teachers continue to navigate their new norm. When teachers know they’re being taken care of, they’re more likely to do their best, Cardona assured.

“When that emotional range is full because you’re dealing with issues, it’s hard for you to be 100% your job,” he said. “We have to make sure that we have people whose job it is to look after the well-being of our professional staff, our classified staff, because if they are well, they will take better care of our children. ”

Involve teachers meaningfully. The working day should be conducive to professional development. Cardona encouraged leaders to encourage conscious collaboration at their sites by embedding time in the workday for employees to come together, share ideas, discuss problems, and solve problems. “Teachers shouldn’t have to learn how to do their job better outside of school hours, outside of their workday,” he said.

Go beyond the traditional relationship with families

COVID-19 has turned student life upside down. It was particularly difficult for English learners, students with special needs and people with chaotic personal lives – absentee parents, food insecurity, homelessness and domestic violence, among others. Helping students recover — academically and emotionally — from the pandemic will require a new relationship between home and school, Cardona said.

“The responsibility of the system now is to go beyond the traditional relationship with families,” he said. “How do we help families so that they can support their children?”

Cardona urged school leaders to use their ARP funds to provide family support services — counseling, behavioral health support, after-school programs — and help them reconnect with the school community. He cited the example of school districts in Boston and Las Vegas using ARP dollars to develop parent engagement programs. In some locations, parents take leadership roles in the school or classroom. Other sites hired family-school liaisons. These individuals visit students’ homes and maintain relationships with families, particularly those who may have suffered increased trauma from the pandemic.

Programs like these go a long way in reconnecting home and school. We must build these partnerships if we are to advance children’s education, Cardona said.

“The parents have to sit at the table. They are our students’ most influential and important teachers,” he said. “Whether they are ready or not, we have to work to build a family.”

Check the narration

Educators need to share the successes they see in their classrooms. “We talk a lot about what happened during the school closure,” Cardona said. “But why are we ignoring the improvement that happened in September when students went back to school because of the work of educators?”

It’s time to go on the offensive and control the narrative, Cardona said. “Don’t wait to defend what you’re doing,” he advised. “Talk about the great work you do. Put a face to the benefits of America’s bailout plan. They are education experts.”

Cardona highlighted a Canton, Michigan school district that was restructuring the school schedules for all 6,000 of its high school students. The new schedule gives each high school student a time per day for mental health support or social-emotional well-being activities. “You made it possible,” he said, referring to the Canton high school leader. “They were brave and said, ‘We’re doing this because it’s good for kids.’ ”

Speak up about your accomplishments and be your district’s biggest cheerleader for improvement and innovation, Cardona told the ASCD audience.

“I believe that perceptions of how ARP funds will be used over the next 24 months will drive the appetite for education funding in this country over the next decade,” he said. “I want you to share your best practices. I want you to tell success stories. If we don’t control our narrative, someone else will.”

Be bold – don’t get complacent

Now is the time for schools to be bold about what they want to fix, Cardona said. He warned educators not to fall into a complacency trap.

“I would say for the past two years I have been scared of COVID. For the next few years, I’m afraid of complacency,” he said.

Cardona urged leaders to maintain a high level of urgency in tackling inequalities and to invest their ARP money in programs aimed at breaking these cycles. He gave the example of the Cascade School District in Washington. The district used its ARP dollars for evidence-based literacy and math interventions, summer schools, and tutoring.

“Now is the time to take education to a higher level – to really build it where it will have an impact on generations to come,” he said. “Take this opportunity to reset the things that we know didn’t work. And put your fingerprints on the education curriculum in our country and we will move forward.”

Don’t expect the work to be easy – it will be different

Education in America is on the brink of change. It will not be easy to break new ground, but going backwards is not an option, Cardona assured.

“We cannot return until March 2020. This system hasn’t worked for everyone,” he said. “The decisions we make over the next 24 months will either help close performance disparities or widen them, particularly for those students who have been in the hardest-hit communities.”

Cardona reiterated his call for educators to leverage their ARP resources for end-to-end programs — tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment curricula — that can help bridge these gaps.

“Let’s give every student the support they need to succeed at every stage of their academic life,” he said. “By investing in our students and teachers now, we are making a commitment not only to our school communities of today, but also to the school communities of tomorrow.”

Success is within reach, but getting there will take a concerted effort, Cardona said.

“We need everyone on deck here. To improve our education system, we must engage teachers, school leaders, families, students and entire communities,” Cardona said. “It will not be easy. It’s not meant to be easy. But I want you to work together. We are blessed to be in this position. This is the best time to be in education. Let’s make a difference.”

Kanoe Namahoe is Director of Content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. Reach them below kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com.

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