Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Remarks from President-Elect Biden’s Secretary of Education Nominee
I stand here today grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the President-Elect and Vice President Elect has granted me. And, as I promised him, my remarks will be brief and to the point.
For me, this decision was quite easy and deeply personal. Make no mistake about it, our Nation’s students – which to be clear is all of us as we are all considered life-long learners – must always be but especially during this critical moment, our Number 1 priority. Our students cannot afford to wait. Therefore, if I am confirmed, our Department of Education will receive unapologetic, bold, and transformative leadership. There is no more time to wait.
I’ve always believed that we must continue moving onward and upward if we want to be successful and that is what we will be doing. While the last four years may have been filled with divisiveness, hatred, and fear mongering, it is time to turn the page and give our Nation’s students – give each of us – a fresh start, a new hope, and an overwhelming excitement that we have to be unapologetic, bold, and transformative if we want our students to have the future they deserve.
In this vein, our administration will be focused on three main goals; a back to basics, if you will, but with a bold twist. Under our administration, we will focus on (1) Our people – school principals, classroom teachers, support staff, etc.; (2) Relevant learning experiences for all students regardless of geography or race/ethnicity coupled with the appropriate assessment system and data desegregation tools; and (3) Time on task as to be a life-long learner one has to not be confined to school during certain days, months, or hours.
The three main goals above are not rocket science, but it does represent what is needed at this moment to ensure our Nation remains the superpower it is destined to be.
None of us would be where we are today without a teacher. Yet, our teachers and our school leaders are not only paid but also viewed in a manner not indicative of the relevance and importance of their role. They are important. I know as I used to be both. Both are on the front lessons; during this pandemic but also every single day when students enter their buildings. As such, we have to pay them accordingly. We must partner with our universities to revamp our training programs – match best practices that exist in medicine and law with education, including entry level opportunities and upward progression. More of this will be presented at a later date but upping the ante on the view of the educational process is a priority.
We recognize that states cannot do this alone so as we attempt to raise the level of payment in partnership with them and Congress, we will also raise the level of accountability as let’s be clear everyone cannot and should not be in our schools. We must be looking for more ways to get seasoned professionals in our Nation’s classrooms and schools without the stringent requirements some states impose further making it impossible to get professionals in the door. We also must strengthen our professional development efforts. From special education requirements to best practices for teaching talented & gifted students to recognizing implicit biases brought to the workplace daily, we must build in time and learning opportunities for our staff just as we are doing for our students. Building back better means we put our money where our mouth is and pay our classroom teachers and school leaders, demand accountability across the board, and build capacity early and often in our educators.
RELEVANT LEARNING EXPERIENCES
Each year, we read a survey with the same results – Students are bored in school. We don’t have to read a survey; we can ask a student and they’ll say the same thing. In the vast majority of cases, it does not matter the student’s age. Our classrooms from PreK-20 look the same way as they did when the majority of us were in those classrooms. Our time has come to change this. We must focus on relevant learning experiences for all students. We must ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of education? The purpose of schooling?” Both of which have different meanings. Nonetheless, students must know why they are learning something; why it is important; simply put – why it matters. This only occurs through personalized learning as it taps into a student’s interests and passions – what they want and not what we want for them. And it’s not a buzz word. I’ve seen personalized learning in action as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and, most importantly, as a parent. It is a gamechanger, and perhaps the best chance we have to ensure authentic, relevant learning experiences. For our 6th grader or 9th grader or any grade in between, the ability to connect the dots to ascertain how “this” might be relevant to me in the future as well as the “now” is mission critical. This may include more movement for some students, more group work for some students, perhaps more independent work for others. This could mean various testing styles administered, hands on play incorporated for some students, different time allotments on tests and assignments, etc. The goal is understanding how every student learns and to tailor his or her experience based on their needs.
For our older students we must re-examine their exposure to real life lessons that they can apply to adulthood. Why is a student’s senior year of high school full of memories of prom, graduation parties, royal home coming courts, and who is mostly likely to be who yearbook superlatives but little to no mention on real life strategies and concepts? Yes, that is important, but is it all they should receive that last critical year? Why do our students have to test on the Pythagorean theorem to graduate but not demonstrate that they have an understanding on how to build a resume, how to establish good credit, how to make a budget, how to interview for a job, how to dress for success, how to cook basic meals, how to change a tire, how to utilize the Career and Technology Education skill learned to open their own business since they would have earned their credential, and how to network on as well offline? We know these skills are important so we can’t neglect to teach them early and often not just in one single year. Building back better means we stop robbing our students of their future because we are stuck in our past. Relevant Learning Experiences matter.
TIME ON TASK
Where we spend our time informs of us our priorities. Well, for our Nation’s students, they need more of it. And, not more of the sit and get, but more of the relevant learning experiences. The antiquated school calendar must be re-examined to ensure it is meeting the needs of all of learners in all of our communities. The notion of seat time and clock hours must be re-examined as our definition of mastery has evolved. Conversations must be had around when students should begin schooling so we are eliminating gaps before they even occur. Yes, we have federal efforts such as Head Start, but our Nation has changed and we need to evolve with a bold and transformative shift as our research is clear that students absorb so much within the first five years of life.
For mostly minority and underprivileged students, inequality and lack of equity in education starts before they even have their first elementary school day. Early learners need access to formal education before age five through not just pre-K and preschool, but even before that through structured play, hands on learning that increases motor skills, and early introduction to literacy. Lack of these basic fundamentals exacerbates our already widening the achievement gap. Also, we must begin critical conversations around the purpose of high school and life preparedness. Maybe 13 grades should be reviewed and fold post-secondary opportunities within the high school structure thereby decreasing the amount of student loan debt for students and families. And we must by all means have a forward-thinking conversation around how we put all of this together in a cohesive manner so our students get a full experience of the learning experiences we want to offer them from the written to the hidden to all of the extra curricula opportunities. This will involve partnering with states that have already started and been doing this work. It will also involve engaging with our families so we ensure a balanced approach. Building back better means at the end of the day all of our students are well-rounded and prepared – again, for their future and not our past because their time is being well spent.
Unapologetic, bold, and transformative is what we intend to do with a laser focus on equity so that all students get what they need – Yes, All students. I do know that all of this will require mounds of hard work, especially as our country is divided and each state through the Constitution controls its educational programs. But we are the United States of America, and in the end, we come together, especially when it comes to our children. This is our time to truly make good on the true purpose of education, which the short answer is to develop academic and social skills. The better answer is to meet each student where they are so that they can learn academically and learn their own strengths and weaknesses. Education helps kids grow into their own and prepares them ultimately for adulthood. Education serves as such a vehicle. But this is only when education is equitable and when classroom teachers and school leaders are paid according to the magnitude of the work conducted and are empowered and provided with high expectations coupled with the appropriate supports, including monetary supports.
I believe students deserve more. I believe in challenging everything about our education system until we get it right, especially the systemic structures that hold some students and families back. Maybe, I will indeed be just as, if not more, controversial than my predecessor due to my aggressive approach to education. But if we are not aggressive with the literal future of our Nation, what is worth our attention and fight? Our kids are worth the fight, and I ask that you fight with us. Let’s spend the next 4 years creating unforgettable education experiences for our students together. Thank you again Mr. President-Elect and Madame Vice-President-Elect for the opportunity to work with you and our country to build back better.