Higher academic standards, robust mental health supports, and competitive teacher salaries are all key priorities for the U.S. Department of Education in 2023, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Tuesday.
Cardona spoke to a crowd of educators, parents, and journalists at the Education Department’s headquarters in Washington to highlight the department’s achievements and set the stage for what’s to come, including the announcement of a new initiative called “Raise the Bar: Lead the World.”
“We have what it takes to lead the world in education, but it will take the collective will to challenge complacency and status quo in education and focus on substance, not sensationalism,” Cardona said.
While past years have been about helping schools return to in-person learning after the pandemic closed school doors, Cardona’s focus is now squarely on academic recovery. He hopes to help American schools improve their ranking on the global stage.
U.S. students ranked 36th out of 79 countries in math performance on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, the most recent assessment of student academic performance internationally. Cardona labeled that placement as “unacceptable.”
Increasing respect for teachers
Cardona used the speech as an opportunity to speak directly to teachers. The secretary called on states and local school districts to commit to paying teachers a competitive salary.
There are already national efforts to increase teacher pay underway. A bill introduced in Congress last month would establish a grant program to incentivize districts and state education agencies to raise annual teacher pay to a minimum of $60,000.
The Biden administration also plans to push for increased funding for the Title I program, which directs more funds to districts and schools with larger shares of students from low-income families. In the 2023 spending package passed in December, funding for Title I increased from $17 billion to $18.4 billion.
Cardona said he’d like to see Congress double the funding for Title I, which he says will help lower student-to-teacher ratios. The education secretary also emphasized the value of “grow your own” and teacher apprenticeship programs to bring in more teachers and address shortages.
“Have we as a country minimized the profession so much that we’re OK with teachers driving Ubers and getting second or third jobs on the weekend to earn enough money to pay the bills?” he said. “I’m not OK with that.”
A push for high standards, more rigorous academics
Cardona urged schools to raise standards for academics with the hope of improving performance overall.
He called on schools to follow the “science of literacy,” otherwise known as the “science of reading” approach to reading instruction, which has students learn to read by learning the foundations of language—such as how individual letters represent sounds—in a structured progression and building their vocabulary.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to implement policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. The approach ensures that students “have strong decoding skills taught while also embracing a lifelong intrinsic passion for reading,” Cardona said.
The secretary also called on schools to provide all students with access to financial literacy courses, review instructional materials to ensure high standards, and provide high-level math classes to prepare students for college. And he said standardized test scores are not the only indicator of academic success.
“We need to recognize once and for all that standardized tests work best when they serve as a flashlight on what works and what needs attention,” Cardona said, “not as a hammer to drive the outcome from the top down, often pointing fingers to those with greater needs and less resources.”
Serving students beyond K-12
Cardona applauded President Joe Biden’s call for universal pre-kindergarten, an initiative that nearly passed in the president’s Build Back Better bill last year. This year, Colorado and New Mexico joined a growing list of states that offer universal pre-K as evidence shows students have better outcomes when they enter the school system at 4 or even 3 years old.
The secretary also placed an emphasis on career- and college-preparation programs, highlighting work the department has already done to expand apprenticeships and other career opportunities. In a recent survey conducted by Populace, a think tank that studies American opinions on institutional systems, American adults labeled college readiness as a low priority for K-12 schools, stating that they should instead focus on equipping students with basic life skills and preparing them for careers.
In November, the Education Department announced an initiative to expand access to training programs and provide more career learning opportunities. Cardona pointed to that initiative as well as the CHIPS and Science Act, a law that expanded federal investments in science, technology, engineering, and math education.
“Currently our pre-kindergarten through grade 12 system and college systems are disconnected,” Cardona said. “For too many students, the gaps between the systems are too big to cross.”
Improving student mental health
Cardona also called on schools to use $120 billion in American Rescue Plan funds and $1 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to refocus school-based mental health services to be more proactive than reactive.
Specifically, schools should work to hire more school counselors and provide trauma-informed professional development for teachers and other school staff. That work is especially important as shootings in schools and the broader community continue.
The Education Department offers grants to school districts affected by community violence through its Project Prevent and Project SERV grant programs, but school safety ultimately needs to be a “community-based effort,” Cardona said in an interview following his speech.
The department recently expanded funding for its full-service community schools program from $30 million to $150 million. The program provides grants to schools that offer wraparound services, such as primary health and dental care, nutrition services, mentoring, and job training for families.
“Without these types of services we can’t be shocked when our current education system results in exclusionary school discipline practices for Black and brown students,” Cardona said.