You may not guess it from my role as a state education chief, but I struggled in school. Growing up in North Philadelphia, I was often distracted and struggled to pass my classes and ultimately graduate high school.
But that all changed in my ninth-grade algebra class, when my teacher saw something in me that others hadn’t. My teacher challenged me and gave me the support I needed to improve my grades. I began to believe that I could be successful, graduate, go on to college, and teach and lead others. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.
My story is proof that educators can be our country’s great equalizers. Public schools can inspire all children and show them that they’re smart and capable of achieving their dreams and goals—regardless of their circumstance.
High academic standards and aligned assessments are critical for student success, but just as critical is creating safe, supportive school environments and the conditions for learning every student need.
State leaders have a responsibility to ensure that public schools provide this type of high-quality, equitable education for every student. That’s why my fellow state education chiefs and I have worked together for the past two years to renew our commitment to equity and find ways to create more equitable education systems in every state.
Every state chief has committed to educational equity, but each state is implementing distinct policies and taking its own path toward that vision. In Illinois, educators are receiving training on how to teach in culturally responsive ways. In Utah, a new committee is advising the State Board of Education on how best to support equity in student educational services. In Washington, the achievements of bilingual students now are recognized in new, more equitable ways.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, we’re working to ensure that students’ basic needs are met, so that they come to the classroom ready to learn. We know that when students come to school hungry, sick, or troubled by hardships in their lives, it’s exceedingly difficult for them to learn. As a result, their playing field isn’t equal to that of their peers.
That’s why our State Department of Education has partnered with other state agencies to provide food assistance, heath care, mental health resources, and other services to students who need them. For example, we have a program that reimburses school districts for certain health-related services they provide to students who are enrolled in Medicaid, such as behavioral health support. This program aims to reduce schools’ financial costs for providing these services while ensuring that students who need them have easy access to them, so they can go to class ready to learn.
My state is not the only one working to improve the conditions for learning—one of the important ways we know states can advance equity. From Oklahoma, which hosted a summit on trauma-informed instruction, to New Jersey, where there is new guidance to help schools support transgender students, states across the country are stepping up to provide a safe and supportive school environment for every child.
For the past two years, the nation’s state school leaders have shared promising practices to deliver an equitable education to all students and we are doing so again today because our complex challenges require our collective best thinking.
With more than 50 million public school students in the United States, our states are working hard day in and day out to make sure that every single one of those students gets the excellent education they deserve. There is still much work to be done, but with a strong vision and a set of commitments to guide us, we are making progress. There is amazing power and potential in our nation’s public education system, and states are leading the way to truly unleash it, for every child.
Pedro Rivera is Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education.