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Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at Raising the Bar: Literacy and Math Series to Address Academic Recovery

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Good afternoon. Welcome to your Department of Education. From day one, it was my expectation that we become a service agency. 

Today, and the series of summits we will hold in the future, are intended to ensure that we support your efforts to improve education across the country. 

We come together today for one reason: to raise the bar for our children’s academic recovery.

When I began teaching as a fourth-grade teacher, I remember how responsible I felt for catching students up when they missed a couple days of school due to being out sick. I knew that missing a couple days of math class, even in fourth grade, could make it difficult to understand lessons when they returned.

My point is this. Even small disruptions in students’ lives can have big impacts on their academic performance.

There’s no way we could endure a crisis as tragic and disruptive as the pandemic without major impacts on student learning.

Many of you are educators who have seen that impact up close.

Others are principals, administrators, superintendents, state education chiefs and leaders nationwide.

And many are also parents who watched their own children struggle with this school disruption. 

Whatever your perspective, let’s all agree: this is a moment of truth for education.

What we saw in the Nation’s Report Card data released this week tells us that in states big and small; blue and red; urban, suburban, and rural, America’s students have fallen further behind in math and reading. 

And the achievement gaps that have been a stain on our system of education are even worse today than they were three years ago.

These results should surprise no one, and alarm everyone. They’re appalling and unacceptable.

If this report doesn’t move us to bold action, what will?

If we don’t accept this once in a lifetime challenge, who will?

Going back to the systems of before the pandemic is not enough.

We must resist the temptation to return to systems that were not serving all students well. We must fight complacency with the same urgency we fought COVID for the last few years.  Because yes, lives depend on it. 

The leadership challenge before us today is unique.  It’s not any less important than the challenge to reopen our schools in the height of a pandemic, it’s just different. 

Our leadership challenge is not to refine the same strategies or just focus on fidelity of implementation of old strategies.

OUR leadership challenge today is not just to hire a one or two more social workers and add a couple more after school options.

Our leadership challenge today is not to have a couple more career fairs.

Nor is it to have just a handful of tutoring options for those who were most impacted.

Or to expect a shiny new computer program to flag challenges and identifies students who need more support is going to cut it.

OUR leadership challenge today is not to put technical band-aids on big problems… but to address the fundamental adaptive challenges that have plagued our system and were highlighted in our Nation’s Report Card.

Sure, we could get by in the next couple years with a couple great events, a few ribbon cuttings, and a couple strong headlines about good things happening with kids. 

And while all those things listed before are good, they fall short of the transformational change we need in this country.

They fall short of the once-in-a-generation opportunity we are being afforded as leaders. 

Let’s not forget, the 2019 NAEP data was nothing to brag about. The system was disrupted for us.  Let’s not waste this disruption.

We have the opportunity in the next two years to redefine our highest dreams and our highest aspirations on what it means to be a leader. 

The goals we had as leaders 3 years ago were too small for what we can accomplish in the next two years. Just like we tell our kids, dream bigger, let’s lead bigger. 

What does that mean?
It means embracing the urgency of NOW and not letting it dissipate into the land of “we can’t do that here” or “that wouldn’t work in my district.”

It means using all your political capital to have the one-on-one conversations with your mayors and Governors about the negative impact that flat funding will get us in our schools. 

The American Rescue Plan is a down payment on the transformational change needed in education. 

We need our state and local leaders to match the urgency in education shown by our President.

It also means recognizing that teacher shortages are real and that we’re at the doorstep of another national crisis if we don’t address it boldly.

It means truly engaging educator, parent, and student voices in all aspects of learning and communication.

 It means empowering students and parents to be part of the solution and going the extra mile for those students and parents for whom the system is not currently designed.

It means using our students’ performance data to inform and audit our instructional core. Are we investing in highly-qualified teachers and providing authentic professional growth opportunities? Are we providing students with high quality content to boost outcomes in literacy and math? Are we connecting our students with meaningful instruction and engaging pedagogy?  

We can invest in things, or we can invest in transformational change.

The leaders with us today, both in person and the many joining virtually, are our country’s best hope. 

How we meet this moment will determine the fate of our future and our standing in the world. 

From Day One, the President and our Agency acted with a sense of urgency.

We knew that academic recovery could never begin until we safely reopened our schools.

Thanks to the sacrifice, commitment and perseverance of many of you in this room, as a country, we went from 47% of our schools open when President Biden took office, to close to 100% by November of that year. 

We also knew that schools needed both the funding and the resources to get students back on track academically.

That’s why the President secured $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan to help schools reopen and recover.

At the time, some said we had asked for too much. Today, we know just how vital these funds are for our schools.

We worked hard to get ARP funds out the door quickly. And we did it! Thanks to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education team, James, Kortne, Danny, and so many others for staying connected with all of you to make sure that we were listening to your needs and responding to your challenges. 

And because academic recovery requires spending more and spending wisely, we’ve paired these funds with technical advice, guidance, and resources to help schools invest in what works.

This week, we released another guide to help you design data-driven plans for addressing learning loss.

And today’s summit kicks off a new series to encourage the kind of intentional collaboration we need to accelerate academic achievement.

Our goal is to equip you – America’s teachers, leaders, parents, and administrators – with the latest science on learning; and the most promising tools to raise the bar for our students.

We do not profess to have all the answers in DC.  What we do have is the power of convening.  And that’s what this new series is all about.

Experts will offer insights you can use in the field.

We will hear from colleagues across the country how specific actions connect to transformational strategies aimed at improving the academic success of students.   

Let’s learn from these leaders here today and let’s work together as one nation to replicate the best practices to maximize student learning.

Across America, there are pockets of excellence. Not only must we learn from these examples, but we must systematize strategies that work, to ensure that their impact on students outlasts our time in our positions.

To the presenters today, in person and virtual, thank you for your commitment to your students and thank you for joining us as we collectively raise the bar in the United States.        

To all my colleagues joining today:

  • We have more funding in education than ever before.
  • We have proven, concrete strategies to accelerate academic recovery.
  • We have students that are in greater need than ever before
  • And we have doubters who don’t believe we are up to the task… Doubters we will prove wrong!

I’ve always said, we never signed up for a pandemic.  But we did sign up to improve the lives of children. 

And if we seize this moment to raise the bar with a sustained level of urgency like never before, I know we’ll not only recover – we’ll transform our education system to a level that our students need, a level that our country needs, and a level our world needs.

Thank you. 

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