With Cardona as education secretary, here are 6 principles for improving schools

Opinion: With Cardona as education secretary, here are 6 principles for improving schools

Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.
Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Susan Walsh / Associated Press

The election of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris, and the anticipated ascension of longtime Milford resident Dr. Miguel Cardona to U.S. secretary of education, is good news for students, families and educators. We believe these three leaders will bring wiser, research-based approaches to improving public schools. We join with educators and community leaders from Alaska to Maine to offer six key suggestions.

1. Let’s redesign schools so all youngsters learn how they’re smart, rather than how smart they are on standardized tests. Every child is born with the capacity to go to college, but every child need not open that door. Talented carpenters, plumbers, welders, poets and musicians can follow different paths to lucrative and rewarding careers. Their technical skills and ability to grasp complicated subject matter, for example, make them exceptional, yet school standardized tests may not capture these gifts. These fields and the students who enter them deserve our respect and recognition of their talents.

2. Let’s learn from the most effective public schools and educators, whether district or charter. Let’s end the useless argument about which is better, district or charter. There are enormous differences among these schools, and the debate is like arguing whether leased or rented cars get better gas mileage. We urge the use of multiple measures to identify outstanding schools, including but not limited to the measures found in the federal “Blue Ribbon Schools” program.

3. Let’s expand the use of the most effective socio-emotional education interventions to provide students the support they will need when returning to in-person learning. Embrace the students with love, support and empathy, and help them see themselves and the cultural strengths of their families in the lessons we construct. We hope federal, state, local, foundation and university-based officials will help spread the word about these effective strategies, and realign schools to empower students as co-leaders in their education.

4. Let’s recognize and use the creativity, skill, talents and energy of young people. Let’s provide opportunities — for students to not only study, but also help solve problems, as part of course work. For example, students have:

 built homes and fixed up apartments for homeless people as part of their schooling;

 tutored younger students in reading and/or math — something research proves is great for tutor and tutee alike, and studied hunger through history as part of English and social studies and then worked to reduce hunger in their own communities.

These and similar “service learning” programs improve academic and social skills. They help youngsters learn to be positive, constructive citizens.

5. Let’s recognize and use extensive research showing the value of a more racially diverse group of educators for all youngsters. Let’s connect outstanding educators with students considering careers in teaching, and provide more scholarships for talented youngsters eager to become teachers.

6. Let’s expand public school choice options that involve schools open to all with no admissions tests, whether district or charter. Let’s acknowledge and fix problems that have developed with some federally funded magnet, district and charter school programs. Let’s encourage and expand dual high school/college credit programs that give high school students the option of taking free courses on college campuses, such as Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Options and Washington State’s Running Start programs. These programs save families, students and taxpayers millions of dollars and increase the likelihood that students will not only graduate from high school but also from some form of post-secondary education.

The Biden-Harris administration has inherited the most daunting series of crises since the end of World War II, and easing the pandemic’s effects on children is a top priority. But let’s not forget that our educational system was grappling with huge student achievement challenges before the coronavirus. In 2019-20, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reported that 35 percent of fourth-graders, 34 percent of eighth-graders, and 37 percent of 12th-graders did not attain proficient performance levels. The racial divide in achievement is telling: Black and Latinx students enter high school with literacy skills that are, on average, three years behind those of white and Asian students. Research suggests that struggling readers are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Layered onto these challenges, the effects of the pandemic have been devastating. We’ve seen how crucial access to reliable internet is for the millions of students who lack it. Distance learning and too much screen time (between online classrooms and video games for fun) has contributed to devastating impacts — anxiety, depression, obesity, frustration, epic withdrawal and feelings of isolation. Families and educators are rightly anxious about the longterm consequences for youngsters and the nation as a whole.

We’re delighted the administration has tapped outstanding Connecticut talent to work on these urgent issues. We’re eager to join others in using these six principles and research-verified strategies to produce considerable progress.

Stamford resident Eric Cooper, EdD, is president and founder of the National Urban Alliance (www.nuatc.org), a professional development and advocacy organization. Joe Nathan, PhD, directs the Minnesota-based Center for School Change (www.centerforschoolchange.org.)

This column originally appeared on February 16, 2021 in several Connecticut newspapers including the Stamford Advocate,