In 2023, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stressed the importance of elevated academic standards, comprehensive mental health support, and competitive teacher salaries as primary goals for the U.S. Department of Education. Speaking at the Education Department’s headquarters in Washington, Cardona outlined the department’s accomplishments and introduced a new initiative named "Raise the Bar: Lead the World."
Cardona emphasized the need to challenge complacency and the status quo in education, focusing on substance rather than sensationalism, in order for the United States to become a global leader in education. While previous years were dedicated to aiding schools in their return to in-person learning after the pandemic, Cardona now places his emphasis on academic recovery. He aims to enhance the international ranking of American schools, as U.S. students currently place 36th out of 79 countries in math performance according to the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment.
Paying proper respect to teachers was another crucial aspect highlighted by Cardona. He called upon states and local school districts to commit to providing teachers with competitive salaries. National efforts to increase teacher pay are already underway, with a recent bill proposed in Congress aiming to establish a grant program incentivizing districts and state education agencies to raise the annual teacher pay to a minimum of $60,000.
Furthermore, the Biden administration intends to advocate for increased funding for the Title I program, which channels more financial resources to districts and schools with higher percentages of students from low-income families. In the December 2023 spending package, Title I funding increased from $17 billion to $18.4 billion. Cardona hopes that Congress will double the funding for Title I, as he believes it will help lower student-to-teacher ratios. The importance of programs such as "grow your own" and teacher apprenticeships were also stressed to address teacher shortages.
Cardona urged schools to elevate academic standards and implement more rigorous educational practices to enhance overall performance. He specifically encouraged schools to adopt the "science of literacy" or "science of reading" approach to reading instruction, which emphasizes teaching students the foundational elements of language and decoding skills in a structured manner. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws related to evidence-based reading instruction.
Additionally, Cardona advocated for schools to offer financial literacy courses to all students, review instructional materials to ensure high standards, and provide advanced math classes to adequately prepare students for college. He also emphasized that standardized test scores should not be the sole measure of academic success, but rather a tool to identify areas for improvement.
Lastly, Cardona emphasized the importance of serving students beyond the K-12 system, ensuring their educational needs are met throughout their academic journey.
Enhancing the Psychological Well-being of Students
Cardona urged schools to utilize the $120 billion from the American Rescue Plan and $1 billion from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to redirect their approach to mental health services in schools, prioritizing a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. Specifically, schools should strive to employ more school counselors and provide teachers and other school staff with training on trauma-informed practices. This effort is particularly crucial in light of the ongoing incidents of shootings in schools and the larger community. While the Education Department offers grants to school districts impacted by community violence through its Project Prevent and Project SERV grant programs, Cardona emphasized that ensuring school safety ultimately requires collaboration within the community.
In addition, the department has recently expanded its funding for the full-service community schools program from $30 million to $150 million. This program offers grants to schools that provide comprehensive support services, including primary health and dental care, nutrition services, mentoring, and job training for families. Cardona emphasized the importance of these services, stating that without them, it is unsurprising that the current education system leads to disproportionately harsh disciplinary practices for Black and brown students.