educational equity · School Budget · student voices

No Retakes, No Extensions: A Student’s Open Letter To Incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Dear Mr. Secretary,

Congratulations on your promotion. You have a lot of work ahead of you. During your time in office, there are a few things that I ask you to do:

Firstly, and most importantly, always listen to students. Every aspect of education should be student-centered and student-directed. In any educational question, the needs and wants of the students should be the determining factor. If teachers and administrators won’t support a student-centered approach, they chose the wrong profession, and I hope you will show them a better path to a career beyond education.

Second, I ask that you strengthen communities. You have the opportunity to direct funding that can be used to reinforce community direction of education so that they will be able to continue to educate their children well regardless of what your successor may do or the policies they may dictate. Creating bottom-up control by student communities, so that students can have self-determination in their education at every level, should be the ultimate goal of any education department. Dictating that funding must go to student-controlled and family-controlled programs is critical to ensuring efficient use of funds. Administrators know what’s best for administrators. Students and their families know what’s best for themselves, so they should be the ones in control of the funding meant to help them. What forms could these new student and family-directed structures take? That’s up to the people who are meant to be helped by these structures: the students.

The education system must work for all students, so it should be easy for anyone at any point in their life to get any education they need. Too many children’s opportunities are limited by the shortcomings imposed on their local schools by statewide and national policies. Education should be accessible at every stage of life, so adult students who better understand their circumstances and abilities are not cut off from the cornerstone of personal advancement which is education.

You wrote “For me, education was the great equalizer. But for too many students, your zip code and your skin color remain the best predictor of the opportunities you’ll have in your lifetime. We have allowed what the educational scholar Pedro Noguera calls the ‘normalization of failure’ to hold back too many of America’s children,” and your words ring true. As I wrote a few weeks ago, “If a system has unlimited room for failure and limited room for advancement, what do you think it was designed for?”

This connects perfectly to your next task, which is to annihilate the school to prison pipeline. Although your department only controls about 8% of elementary and secondary education funding, that funding is nevertheless essential to many schools, and no school should be allowed to operate which criminalizes its students.

Assuming, though, that students do manage to get through school without being expelled or thrown in prison, they will likely want to attend college. Relevantly, President Biden tweeted:

This, to me, is disappointing. Years of schooling don’t fundamentally need to be extended, not to compete in modern markets, and not because this is the 21st century. Lowering the price of college is the obvious remedy to pursue for people who have the ability to change those kinds of things, but it’s not a solution. You have wider-ranging power than most people who set prices and manage financial aid at colleges, so it is your responsibility to pursue a solution. Giving funds to colleges so that more students can attend is like paying money to insurance companies to insure potential patients, when a coherent system of well-funded hospitals could do a better job treating illness far less expensively and when funds actually need to be spent on promoting health rather than treating unwellness.

You wrote that “For far too long, we’ve allowed students to graduate from high school without any idea of how to meaningfully engage in the workforce while good-paying high-skilled, technical, and trade jobs go unfilled.” There is no reason why those skills can’t be learned in high schools. High school educations should be made more valuable so that people will be able to afford not to attend college. But, for as long as those skills are learned primarily in college, the cost of not attending college will be too high for many people to afford. So, it is unfortunately necessary to lower the cost of getting a degree, which is a remedy, not a solution.

You wrote that “For far too long, we’ve spent money on interventions and bandaids to address disparities instead of laying a wide, strong foundation of quality, universal early childhood education, and quality social and emotional supports for all of our learners.” This is very true, but also very vague, so I’ll be watching to see how you implement these ideas.

I’m reasonably confident that whatever you attempt in order to create “emotional supports for all of our learners” will fail. School counselors are helpful at times, but they are about as useful as the emails schools send out telling people to take care of their mental health while simultaneously being the thing endangering people’s mental health. The fundamental structure of school is antithetical to “quality social and emotional supports for all of our learners.” 

Trying to address the emotional needs of students without address the underlying causes is the very “bandaid” of which you write. I hope you prove me wrong and come up with something unexpected and radical, but I’ll be here, giving constructive feedback on where you fail. I will advocate for things far too radical for any government to implement, and far too wide-ranging for your department to actually do.

As explained above, I believe that students must be given more control over all aspects of their educations. This is the necessary structural change that can be the path to letting people develop their own “quality social and emotional supports.” Students must be empowered to do this themselves. School staff and their acronymed interventions can’t do it for them.

When implementing new policies, always make sure to include effective methods of evaluation of success and ensure that the relevant data is made publicly accessible in a timely manner. But, beware of Goodhart’s and Campbell’s laws. The only true measure of the effectiveness of any educational policy is the subjective effects on the students themselves, and you can only know of these effects by getting direct feedback from students, not parents, not teachers, and not administrators.

School should be a safe and constructive environment for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, disability status, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Students can best succeed in an environment where they are safe and they feel safe to be themselves.

To ensure this safety, please do not rush administrators to open schools. We are in the peak of the pandemic right now. Since early December, in the US, there have been more coronavirus deaths per week than ever before, and the numbers are still rising.

Listen to Dr. Fauci, and listen to people on the ground attending and working at individual schools. If this means that you have to find new ways to educate students online, so be it. If you listen to students, I’m sure you’ll find many innovative ideas that teachers and administrators wouldn’t come up with to improve online learning. 

Schools must meet students where they are. The government has the resources to ensure that every student can access their education online. It’s your job to make sure the necessary funding gets to where it’s needed, and to collect and distribute data on how much it is actually helping. I look forward to analyzing the efficacy of your policies from the accurate and comprehensive data that your department will collect and publish. (I’ve become very good at navigating the NCES website. No data can hide from me.)

Finally, your most urgent task, by far, is to undo the attacks by former Secretary DeVos on the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ students. Secretary DeVos actively ignored SCOTUS’s ruling on Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is inherently discrimination on the basis of sex, and enforced a policy of ignoring any complaints of discrimination against transgender students, including complaints about being prevent from using the correct bathroom. She left a legacy of discrimination, and created an unsafe environment for students. You must address this by restoring the guidelines used during the Obama administration, making clear that the court’s reasoning applies to Title IX requirements, and by annoyingly texting President Biden at least every 15 minutes until he passes the Equality Act.

The student body of the USA has its eyes on you. You will get no retakes, and no extensions. Act now and act well.

Sincerely,

Gregory Wickham

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