Can Secretary of Education Cardona end The Achievement Plateau?
Probably not, but he can certainly help.
Local control reigns supreme in the U.S., but the federal government can use “nudge theory” to affect change across the country — we just need to figure out what they want to nudge.
The presumptive U.S. Secretary of Education (he’s not yet confirmed), Miguel Cardona, could not be more of a departure from his predecessor, Betsy DeVos. DeVos: born to a billionaire industrialist. Cardona: born in a housing project to Puerto Rican immigrants. DeVos: career politician and donor. Cardona: former teacher and principal. DeVos: never attended public schools. Cardona: led the same public school district he attended as a student.
Cardona’s got his work cut out for him: plateaued achievement, widespread school closures, a raging debate on reopening, and a department whose morale was battered by the reign of Betsy DeVos, among other challenges.
On his second day in office, President Biden signed an executive order mandating that Secretary Cardona establish guidelines for school reopening and deliver a report on the “disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students.” In the same order, he told the Secretary of Health & Human Services to collect data on school reopening, something Emily Oster (Brown economist of parenting books fame) had been doing on her own. Both will help facilitate the safe reopening of schools, so that’s a start.
Beyond that, though, what can the federal government really do to end The Achievement Plateau? The Department of Education (ED) has little direct control over the 13,500 public school districts and many independent charter schools operating in the U.S. It primarily functions using the “nudge theory” — incentivizing states to change policy — approach.
The most famous use of nudge theory came via Secretary Arne Duncan who, under President Obama, dangled $4 billion to get states to adopt common standards, add test scores to teacher evaluations, allow more charter schools to open, create data systems, and a few other provisions. Nineteen states were eventually awarded money in the “Race to the Top” program, with New York and Tennessee receiving the largest chunks, some $700 and $500 million, respectively.
New York’s 4th and 8th grade reading and math NAEP scores were lower in 2019 than in 2009. Tennessee’s were all higher (we’ll explore that more in a future post, but touched on it a bit here). The entire country, on average, barely moved (as the title of this blog suggests).
One conclusion we might draw from the above data is that ED’s nudge is only as good as the state and local officials who are implementing the suggested policies.
The other conclusion? They were bad policies.
It’s likely Secretary Cardona will get another large chunk of money whenever the next relief package gets passed, as the previous relief dollars were mostly sent to keep school districts afloat and prepare for reopening. What will he nudge states to do with that cash?
In his very neutral nominee acceptance speech, he referenced “the problems and inequities that have plagued our educational system since long before Covid.” He also referenced Pedro Noguera’s idea about the “normalization of failure” in many school systems. Both suggest he has his eye on fixing public education systems that serve poorer students of color. But how? Will he lobby to replace ESSA/ESEA? Move on from the Common Core Standards? Mandate 2 hours of daily social studies instruction?
His speech was soft of actual policy, mostly focused on optimistic and vague ideas, like “reimagine education — build it back better.” But he did specifically reference universal early childhood education, something which research suggests could be powerful for our most at-risk populations. Can he nudge states to finally invest in it (it’s not cheap)?
I hope so. Each year, nearly half of all kindergarten students in Philadelphia enter school already at-risk for reading and math failure. High-quality early childhood education could upend that trend, and, eventually, The Achievement Plateau. After all, if Secretary Cardona believes public education is a wilted rose, the way to fix it is with fertile ground for its roots.