It’s been two weeks since Election Day. And while education policy was noticeably missing from debates and most campaign speeches in recent months, President-Elect Biden is now moving fast to reimagine America’s public school systems.
A 20-person education transition team led by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond was recently formed. Made up by a diverse group of experts and leaders, this team will focus on laying the groundwork for future education reform—likely in a way that significantly diverges from Secretary DeVos’s agenda and even some key elements from the Obama era.
The crafting of actual policy, however, will be under the control of the future Secretary of Education. Though there is wide speculation regarding contenders, Biden has yet to name his choice for the esteemed role. Still, we can expect that he or she will focus on the safe reopening of schools, which is identified as a central condition for jumpstarting the economy in Biden’s COVID recovery plan. The future administration is also likely to work toward fulfilling other elements of President-Elect Biden’s promises to financially support public schools, expand early learning, and ensure equitable access to a high-quality education for every American student.
Biden has promised that the future Secretary of Education will be a public school educator with deep expertise in the field. Though this is reassuring to many, the person selected for this role will be coming in at a crisis point in American education, facing the coronavirus pandemic, a deepening economic recession, and systemic racism and inequity.
So, where will our next Secretary of Education even start? And what does it mean for K-12 educators and students? Among the many, many priorities, here are three in particular that we expect will be chief among them, as well as what districts can do in the meantime.
- Combat learning loss and close achievement gaps. It’s clear that the pandemic has dramatically stunted student learning and exacerbated achievement gaps as a result of school closures and inequitable access to devices, internet, and support at home. Illuminate researchers recently analyzed data from over one million FastBridge assessment administrations that unfortunately confirm losses in both reading and math. In addition to providing funding for technology and connectivity in underserved areas, it’s likely the next administration will focus on the implementation of evidence-based strategies for teaching and learning, specifically multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). Research has long pointed to MTSS as a highly effective protocol to address student needs, and prominent groups like the Southern Regional Education Board, have included it in their frameworks for addressing COVID-related learning loss.
- Address student mental health and social-emotional well being. Just last week, Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee wrote an open letter to President-Elect Biden calling for, among other things, immediate social, emotional, and mental health supports for America’s students. President-Elect Biden’s education plan also cites CDC data showing one in five children in the United States experience mental health problems to underscore his commitment to the issue. Due to the still largely-unknown impact of the pandemic, financial hardships (and the food insecurity, housing instability, etc. that comes with it), and increased social unrest, it’s critical that educators start focusing now on social-emotional learning (SEL). Specifically, districts should implement research-based screeners, such as SAEBRS, establish early warning systems, and provide professional learning opportunities for educators.
- Build back data systems to understand student growth. In spring 2020, each state applied for—and was granted—a waiver for the summative assessments and accountability determinations required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Many states announced intentions to do the same in the 20-21 school year due to continued disruption and unreliable data. However, on September 3, Secretary DeVos issued a letter asserting that her office had no intention of issuing waivers again because of the role assessment data plays in ensuring equity. Now that a new Secretary of Education will be in place ahead of state assessment administration, he/she must address concerns on both sides and articulate a clear plan. In their recently-released policy recommendations brief, the Association for School Superintendents (AASA) suggested that the new administration should issue waivers for federal assessments and accountability, but at the same time ensure low-stakes mechanisms are in place to document learning loss and progress. For this reason, leveraging a comprehensive, balanced assessment system that ensures the right assessments are administered at the right time for the right reasons will be essential for every district to understand student needs and take appropriate action.
Though it may be some time before we know who is tapped as the next Secretary of Education, it’s clear that there is a lot of important work ahead for him/her. Fortunately, there are actions that educators are able to take now to address student needs and accelerate learning.
Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student.
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