President Biden Is Investing to Help Children at School: Secretary Cardona Needs to Provide the Policy Vision

The Education Law Center headlined the press release about its annual Education Justice Lecture: “President Biden’s First 100 Days Set Stage for Overhaul of Federal Education Policy.”

The press release sounded exciting as it described Linda Darling-Hammond, the event’s primary speaker, “underscoring the backdrop of the multiple crises facing the United States and their impact on structural inequities and racism in the nation’s public schools.” It described Dr. Darling-Hammond explaining, “how these profound challenges are behind the President’s call for a comprehensive federal policy to support major investments and reforms in public education, including addressing discrimination and segregation, equitable funding and resources, universal preschool, wholistic student supports, investments in the teacher workforce and access to post-secondary education and college.”

Immediately I opened the link to Darling-Hammond’s presentation, where I found myself disappointed, even though she titled her remarks, “President Biden’s First 100 Days: A Transformation in Action”—and even though I agree that what Darling-Hammond reported is important.  She describes the American Rescue Plan Act which would, according to Darling-Hammond, definitely help children and families by expanding access to affordable health insurance; boosting families’ access to needed nutrition services; supporting and stabilizing child care and Head Start; supporting child mental health; offering stimulus payments, unemployment supplements, and tax credits for family medical leave; and most important of all, expanding the child tax credit and making it fully refundable. As Darling-Hammond stresses, the expansion of the child tax credit, if it becomes permanent, is projected to cut child poverty in the U.S. by half.

Darling-Hammond also summarizes the streams of money in the American Rescue Plan to help schools reopen, to help homeless students, to improve services for disabled students and to expand broadband infrastructure.  And she adds on significant proposals from the Biden administration in the President’s proposed budget—large increases in Title I and IDEA funding and over $400 million to build more full-service, wraparound Community Schools and even more in the Proposed American Families Plan for Pre-K, free community college, teacher training, and additional support for child care.

What I found was a report about the urgently important investments Biden has proposed, but Darling-Hammond’s summary missed what I was looking for, which was also what Darling-Hammond had promised: the plan for an “overhaul of federal education policy.”  The report is long on money and short on what I have been hoping Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona would provide: a major change of plans.

This is not to say that whatever amount of all this money is eventually appropriated by Congress will be unimportant.  Much of this investment is to support America’s poorest families with enough money to more comfortably care for their children. Generations of research demonstrate that poverty itself is the greatest barrier for children in general and for their engagement at school. (See here, here, and here.) Aggregate standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood income.  Helping families with food, healthcare and childcare, and enough money to provide for children’s basic needs will inevitably help children at school.

But the problem is that none of this gets at the big problem today in federal education policy and with the state policies that have been spawned by the federal government and are still required to some degree in education policy across the states. Secretary Miguel Cardona has kept in place the vast infrastructure of federally mandated standardized testing.  And even though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) no longer mandates a cascade of punishments for so-called failing schools, as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did, ESSA does require states to rate and rank public schools and to submit to the U.S. Department a plan for turning around the lowest scoring five percent of schools.  And so, due to long-running federal policy, we have all kinds of practices based on standardized testing—the state school report cards that brand so-called “failing” school districts, school closures, the idea of charterization or privatization as a turnaround strategy, state takeovers of schools and sometimes entire school districts, evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, the Third-Grade Guarantee, and high school graduation exams.  The federal government doesn’t require some of this anymore, but states still have to promise school turnarounds and lots of states still have the systems in place that they set up under NCLB.

Today we know that the test-and-punish scheme of NCLB and ESSA didn’t work. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have never risen and achievement gaps measured by standardized tests have not closed. During the presidential campaign, President Biden himself spoke out against the current regime based on standardized testing.  Now we must look to Cardona to set a new and more constructive policy framework to go with the added investment.

Cardona is to be commended for quicker action to reverse Betsy DeVos’s disastrous college loan policies that have left graduates of for-profit trade schools with huge debts and worthless degrees.  But, in the area of education policy, he has hired Roberto Rodriguez as Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.  And President Biden has hired Carmel Martin as Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy. These people helped implement Arne Duncan’s test-and-punish policies epitomized by Race to the Top and the Common Core Standards and both of them were involved with the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee back in 2001 during the drafting of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Cardona needs to acknowledge the failure of standardized test-based accountability and to define a well-formulated path forward.  At the very least he should begin to re-name educational inequity with the term, “opportunity gap,” which describes children’s lack of access to equal resources instead of the old test-score-based term, “achievement gap.” There are some policies that we know would help the nation’s most vulnerable children at school, many of them the things that schoolteachers taught us in the statewide walkouts and huge strikes of 2018-2019: smaller classes, more counselors and social workers, enriched curricula, and the reopening of school libraries staffed by certified school librarians.

President Biden has proposed to make more money available. Secretary Cardona needs to proclaim a vision for how the investments in K-12 public schools might best be spent.