Secretary Cardona's Vision for Education in America

Secretary Cardona's Vision for Education in America

January 27, 2022

I remember being five-years-old, walking into my first day of kindergarten at John Barry School in Connecticut, nervous.  At that time, I was learning English. I felt like I didn't belong. It turned out to be a horrible day. My mom had to pick me up early from the nurse's office.  I'm not sure if it was the feeling of being overwhelmed, being around bigger kids who spoke English a lot better than me, or maybe a feeling that the challenge ahead of me was too great. 

But I recall being overcome with an overwhelming fear. 

My young mother walked from home a few blocks away to come get me from school, and on the way home, she told me that it would be ok.  She told me that school would open doors for me be to be anything I wanted to be. 

Sarita, you were right.

I also remember a year and a half ago, it seems like forever ago, when I was serving as commissioner of education in Connecticut, sitting in my basement, in my makeshift office. At that time we were deciding how to reopen schools for in-person learning, knowing that excessive school closures would worsen opportunity gaps for marginalized students, but also knowing that haphazard and sloppy reopening would increase the health risk of those I served. During those moments, there were concerns that the challenge was too great.  Like my first day of school, it also seemed impossible. An overwhelming fear made many people nervous about reopening.  

Yet, remarkably we did. 

And today, just over one year into President Biden's term, we know what to do. While I recognize the daily challenge our students, parents, and educators still face, we have better tools now to keep our schools safe and thriving amidst a pandemic.

While we must stay cognizant and supportive of the challenges our heroic educators face daily to keep our schools open today, we must also simultaneously meet this moment in our country's history. 

A moment to reimagine education to our shared ideals.  One where all children can succeed.

Like my first day of school, or working to reopen schools over the last two years, we have a daunting and important task ahead of us. One that we are prepared to tackle head on at the Department of Education.

We must Level Up our entire system of education, from pre-kindergarten through adult education.  

This is our moment. 

It's our moment, not only to keep schools open, but also to address the inequities that have existed in our school systems for far too long.  

It is our moment to finally make education the great equalizer … the force that can help every student thrive, no matter their background, zip code, circumstance, or language they speak at home.  

But I'm here today to say that re-opening schools—and keeping them open—while critical, is insufficient.  

Our hardest and most important work lies ahead. It'll be what we are judged against. 

And I want to be very clear: as educators and leaders, we're either closing educational opportunity gaps or making them worse with the decisions we make in the coming months and years. 

Our students' success is at stake.  Not just the students we serve today, but also those who have yet to be born. 

Our country's strength is at stake. 

Our status in the world is at stake.

Our task is not only to improve our education system from where it was before the pandemic, but also to take bolder action to elevate it to lead the world. 

How we do this together is what I want to focus on today. I'd like to take some time to outline my vision, as your Secretary of Education, for moving forward together. 

We must push with the same urgency as the President did in getting this country back open. And there are a few actions that, I believe, are among the most important. 

First, we must make sure our students thrive during, and as we recover from, the pandemic. As I noted earlier, safely reopening schools is the baseline, but it's not good enough.  We must make up for lost time.

Our schools must offer increased access to mental health supports for students, wrap-around programs, meaningful and authentic parent and family engagement, and interventions for those students who felt the impact of the pandemic more bluntly than others.  

Missed instruction has affected millions of students—we must ensure that these students receive the most resources and supports.  Let's come together to ensure that all children, in all schools, feel connected and supported.  

I'd like to see every high school student in America participate in at least one extracurricular activity in their school—whether that is being a part of an arts or theater program, athletics, or an afterschool club.  All kids must be seen, all kids must be connected, and all kids must hear their names in school every day.  

Thanks to President Biden and Vice President Harris's leadership in passing the American Rescue Plan and providing $130 billion, schools have the resources to not only stay open, but invest in recovery. We moved with urgency and I am proud to say that 100% of the funds are now in the states hands for use to support our students, families, and educators. 

Across the country, cities and rural communities alike can use these unprecedented resources to invest today in strategies we know work to help our kids catch up and succeed. Strategies like targeted, intensive tutoring, or after school and summer programs to meet the needs of our students and the demands of our economy. Across our country, entire communities, including parents, educators and students themselves should be brainstorming together about how we can deploy these resources to help schools do this work. 

And I'd like to challenge all of our district leaders to set a goal of giving every child that fell behind during the pandemic at least 30 minutes per day, three days a week, with a well-trained tutor who is providing that child with consistent, intensive support. We cannot expect classroom teachers to do it all themselves. Districts have American Rescue Plan funds available to them today to invest in these efforts. 

Our schools must also embed mental health supports into their day-to-day operations in new and innovative ways. Every child must have access to a mental health professional – whether through their school or through a community-based organization – and districts should use ARP funding now to hire these critical staff and create more partnerships. 

For example, I visited a high school last year where every student had a learning period dedicated to social-emotional wellbeing or mental health supports in their daily schedule. Let's see more of that. 

And let's work together to meet the President's goal of doubling the number of school counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals in our schools.

Importantly, we cannot let lack of mental health or other supports lead to exclusionary school discipline practices for students who are suffering from trauma.  

It's time to reimagine holistic supports for every student, every day, and reimagine schools and school systems designed to meet the needs of our learners. 

Next, to improve and elevate our education system, we must unapologetically address opportunity and achievement gaps that are pervasive in our country.  

This means acknowledging that many of the students who have been most underserved during the pandemic are the same ones who have had to deal with barriers to a high-quality education since well before COVID-19. 

We can't lose this moment—this chance for a reset in education—by going back to the same pre-pandemic strategies that did not address inequities for Latino, Black, and Native students; students from low-income backgrounds; students from rural communities; students with disabilities; students experiencing homelessness, and English learners. 

Instead, let's do what America does best—turn crisis into opportunity.  

It means increasing funding for Title I schools—those serving communities most in need and, in many cases, hardest hit by the pandemic. 

It means increasing funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that every eligible child with a disability can access a free, appropriate public education.

It means not allowing for a culture of low standards or low expectations for some students and families over others. 

It means providing every family and every child the opportunity to start out on an equal playing field by providing free, universal preschool and affordable high quality, inclusive child care. 

It means utilizing Rescue Plan Funds to ensure in the coming years, that every child can read by third grade. Let's hold ourselves accountable. 

It means more meaningful and authentic parent and family engagement.  As a former school principal, I knew that partnering with parents was critical to our school's growth.  Especially now during a pandemic, engaging all parents' voices in this process of recovery and addressing disparities is not only important, it's necessary.  All parents' voices must be heard.

It means honoring native languages and cultures, as well as gifts and talents students bring, funding and pushing for additional special education teachers, and investing in educators and paraprofessionals, - in their well-being, and in recruiting and retaining them. Because when we invest in our teachers, we invest in our students.  

For the past two years, educators, school personnel, and school and district leaders have worked courageously to ensure we went from 46% of schools open full time in person one year ago to over 96% open full time in person today, despite Delta and Omicron surges.  

Let's not just talk about honoring educators, let's make sure they are treated with the respect and the dignity they deserve. 

This means a livable wage, ongoing professional learning and development, supportive working conditions and a work environment where their voices are welcome as critical partners in our work to improve education. Moving forward, it is on us to make sure education jobs are ones that educators don't want to leave and that people from all backgrounds want to pursue.

All of these goals are within our reach. We keep talking about it—do we have the will to make it happen?

This can't be done with federal resources alone. We need our states and districts to take a hard look at their own ways of funding schools, and for those leaders to make the difficult decisions to fix broken systems that perpetuate inequities in our schools across the country.

And, finally, to elevate our education system to lead the world, we must transform education beyond high school so that it works for everybody, and so that it leads to well-paying, rewarding careers.  

It is unacceptable in the United States to have a postsecondary education system that further separates the haves and the have nots.  

It is also unacceptable to be burdened with unmanageable loan debt for several decades because you chose to earn a college degree. 

Today, too many talented Americans are choosing against enrolling in higher education due to the fear of debt and the feeling that college is out of reach.   

We maintain a posture of neglect when postsecondary education is out of reach for students and their families.  This is unamerican.  

That's why our administration has already cancelled $15 billion in student loan debt – more than any other Administration in history, and that's only in our first year in office. And we're committed to supporting every student loan borrower when they transition back into repayment. No one should be forced to make a payment they can't afford.  

To fix the system, we also overhauled the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, so public servants who have paid for 10 years can finally get the loan relief they deserve. I'm proud that as of last week, our changes have made 70,000 doctors, nurses, veterans and service members, teachers, and others in public service fields eligible for $5 billion in loan relief. 

But we're not done yet. 

We will work with Congress to make long-term improvements to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. We're also committed to holding programs, colleges and universities accountable. We've brought back the enforcement unit in Federal Student Aid to crack down on institutions that defraud students. 

And because we need to make sure schools that focus on career programs aren't leaving students with mountains of debt and without good job opportunities, we've begun the process to create a strong Gainful Employment Rule. Students will not be taken advantage of for financial gain.

In all we do at the Department, we will be student centered. 

As we work to make colleges more affordable and accountable, we must also make them more accessible.  

That means creating stronger college and career pathways between our pre-k through grade 12 systems, our 2 and 4 year colleges, and our workforce partners so that our systems lead the world.  

To get this done, our high schools must evolve more quickly.  Each high school in the country should have at least one career counselor so that every high schooler has great options when they graduate.  

Today is a new day and we need new thinking.  

At the Department of Education, we will work with our partners in the Departments of Commerce and Labor to develop career preparation programs that will run through our community colleges. We will continue to invest in colleges that serve underrepresented groups, and we will prioritize and increase grants from the Department of Education that allow any American—at any age or point in their career—to pursue higher education. 

Like Ruth, who I met in Michigan this summer. Ruth is a middle-aged woman working just to make ends meet. She had a health issue that forced her to go to the hospital during the pandemic.  That experience of being in the hospital opened her eyes to a future in the healthcare field.  As she told me, "After seeing what our country is going through, I want to live the rest of my life helping others who are going through health issues."  

Using a Pell Grant, she is returning to school to be a nurse practitioner. It is never too late for any American to go back to school. And I challenge states and districts to rethink the link across our education systems, from preK-12 to higher education, so more people like Ruth can reignite their passions and discover new ones.

At the Department of Education, we'll do even better as a service agency.  

This is happening as we continue get out in the field.  I visited over 90 stops in 25 states in the last 10 months, and I recognize that our field is in great need.  It needs a Department of Education that supports them, that values them, that leads with students at the center.  

And with me as Secretary, that is what you will get.  

We will continue to listen and engage partners in our work through intentional collaboration.This collaboration includes students, parents, families, educators, and leaders across sectors—because we won't be able to accomplish any of this if we try it alone.  Through proactive webinars and meetings since March, we have listened to nearly 8000 parents, thousands of educators, leaders, and students, and my goals and actions today are driven by what we are hearing—its time to level up in education.  

We will also remove silos between systems designed to work together to serve the same families across America.  That means strengthening our partnerships with our colleagues at the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Environmental Protection to support children, their families, and entire communities. 

We will work so that all schools truly can be hubs of their communities, where students and families are connected to the resources and services they need.  You see, we are all on the same team and we serve the same families. If a child is hungry, lacks stable housing, or lives in unhealthy conditions, their bandwidth for learning will be diminished.  It's all-hands-on-deck in the Biden-Harris Administration.  

To my colleagues in the field, I know you are tired, you are stretched. You probably feel how I felt when I was trying to reopen schools during the first part of the pandemic- it felt impossible.  I see you and understand what you are going through—it will get better.  And it will soon translate to our best opportunity for much needed transformational shifts in education.

While we did not sign up to serve during a pandemic, we did sign up to serve students. Your work today will have a greater impact on our country because of the time in which you are serving.  

To the educators across the country—thank you!

We stand, together, at a moment when our actions as educators will determine our country's standing in the world, when our students look to us for more than academics, and when we can collectively lead our nation's healing.  

Let's move America forward with a greater sense of urgency, purpose, and passion.  

I chose to speak today because, despite our country being in the midst of a surge, I know our children cannot wait any longer.  They have suffered enough and this is our moment.  

This is our moment to truly reimagine education.

This is our moment to lift our students, our education system, and our country to a level never before seen.

As the great Congressman Lewis said, If not us who, if not now, when?  

For the students that are in this room today, to the middle schoolers, high school, college students here today. To my own children at home, and the millions who will benefit from our collective work, this is our moment.  We are doing this for you. We got into this profession to give you opportunity.  We serve so that you can have bright futures.  

So students, today, with a greater sense of urgency, we re-commit to fulfill the promise to support you as you seek the education that will give you the tools to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let's get to work!

Thank you!