Biden Needs An Education Secretary Who Sees That What Gets Taught Is Important

Suspense is mounting about who President-Elect Joe Biden will nominate for Secretary of Education. To make a positive difference, he needs to choose someone who understands that what teachers are asked to teach is crucial.

The education slot is one of only four remaining vacant cabinet positions, and Biden has said he plans to announce all his nominees by Christmas. Names have been floated for weeks, along with attempts to shoot some down, but the Biden transition team has yet to tip its hand.

One possible reason for the delay is deep disagreement within the Democratic Party about how to address education problems. Another may be that after decades of largely fruitless education reforms, it’s not clear what the federal government can or should be trying to do.

Biden has promised he’ll nominate someone with experience as a public school teacher, and—influenced by his wife’s background as an educator—he’s vowed that under his watch the education system will become “much more teacher-centric.” His platform rests on increased funding and more resources like school psychologists and nurses.

There’s no mention of the kinds of structural reforms the federal government has focused on over the past 20 years, including under the Obama administration: charter schools; accountability for results based on test scores; programs like Teach for America, which bring bright but minimally trained college graduates into the teacher workforce for a few years. Not only have those measures failed to produce significant positive results, they’ve angered substantial numbers of teachers and the unions that represent them.

But there’s one area the federal government—and education reformers in general—have paid little attention to: the substance of what gets taught in American classrooms. One reason may be that the federal government has no direct control over curriculum. At the same time, the supposedly “structural” reforms of the past decades—particularly the emphasis on standardized test scores—have had major indirect effects on what gets taught and how, and they have unintentionally held back the very students the legislation was intended to help. If Biden wants to change that situation, he’ll need an education secretary who understands why that happened.

The federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which took effect in 2002, ushered in an era of testing that has shined a spotlight on inequities in our education system. Scores for low-income students, those with disabilities, those learning English, and those from disadvantaged minorities were revealed to be clearly lower than the scores of their more advantaged peers. Using financial incentives, the Obama administration put pressure on schools to bring up all scores and narrow gaps. The result in most places was literacy instruction, and curriculum, that mirrors the tests: disconnected passages followed by questions about the main idea, “writing prompts” that ask students to compose essays expressing opinions on topics they know little about.

What anyone who heads the nation’s education system needs to understand is that the skills the tests purport to measure can’t be taught directly and in the abstract. They can only develop if you immerse children in information about the world in a systematic way, ask them questions that lead to thoughtful discussions, and teach them how to write about what they’re learning. If schools don’t do those things, the kids who end up with better test scores—and better life outcomes—are the ones lucky enough to acquire that knowledge and develop those abilities outside school, usually because they come from more highly educated families.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many education leaders who do fully grasp that point; the need to build children’s knowledge in this way, beginning in the early elementary grades, wasn’t part of educational orthodoxy even before high-stakes tests came along. Among the few who do get it, there’s one whose name has been mentioned as a possible Biden pick for secretary of education: Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

When Santelises took up her post in 2016, she did a thorough review of what was being taught in the city’s classrooms. What she found, she has said, was “heartbreaking.” The curriculum was disjointed and full of holes—holes that could be filled for some students “through parental guidance, outside tutoring, and the rich experiences that are the hallmarks of privilege.” The others were left to sink or swim, and they generally sank.

To remedy that injustice, she led the district in adopting a coherent literacy curriculum that exposes all students to challenging material beginning in kindergarten. In addition, Santelises—who is African-American—wanted to provide Baltimore’s largely Black student body with a curriculum that included both “windows” onto mainstream culture and history along with “mirrors” that reflected their own particular lives and heritage. The district created a social studies curriculum grounded in Baltimore history, including figures and events from the African-American community.

Her efforts appear to have paid off. While standardized tests are far from a complete measure of what students are learning, scores in Baltimore have risen significantly, something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade. Santelises has agreed to stay on as CEO through 2024. She’s promised not to leave for another superintendent job, but that wouldn’t rule out accepting the role of secretary of education.

Someone like Santelises, who has spoken and written eloquently about the connection between curriculum and equity, could make great use of the bully pulpit she would have as secretary. She could point other districts to models of reform like Baltimore’s, perhaps introducing them to the idea of a curriculum audit like the one done for Baltimore by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. She could encourage states to follow the lead of Louisiana, which has engaged in similar knowledge-building efforts on a larger scale. Even without direct control over curriculum and instruction, she could wield the kind of powerful and positive influence that has eluded previous secretaries of education.

But in recent weeks, Santelises’ name has faded from discussions of possible nominees. It’s not clear why, but one factor may have been a Twitter attack that was largely based on antipathy towards groups that have supported her or with which she’s affiliated—not on her own qualifications. Her nomination was, for example, endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that is anathema to those opposed to charter schools and test-based accountability. If Biden shies away from Santelises for those reasons, it will be the nation’s loss—and Baltimore’s continued gain.

The current front-runner appears to be Connecticut’s education commissioner, Miguel Cardona, apparently at least partly because he’s focused on getting schools in that state reopened—and Biden has pledged to reopen most U.S. schools within his first 100 days in office. Reopening schools safely is vital, but it’s also vital to know what to do once they’re open. Whether Cardona understands how curriculum affects equity—and learning for all students—is unclear.

Another possible candidate who has emerged recently and looks more promising is Sharon Contreras, who leads the school system in Guilford County, NC. The district, the state’s third largest, includes Greensboro, and Contreras was nominated for an award for top urban school superintendents (along with Santelises). Last year, the county’s elementary and middle school students scored higher on state tests in every subject and grade level—for the first time in nearly a decade. Gains were made across all racial and ethnic groups. Contreras gave partial credit for that to the knowledge-building curricula adopted under her watch, which begin in kindergarten.

Whether or not Biden’s ultimate pick has a track record of appreciating the role of knowledge in learning, and its connection to equity, let’s hope he or she is willing to consider the evidence. A truly “teacher-centric” education system would embrace a reform that makes it possible for all teachers—and all students—to succeed.

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