Education secretary says pandemic worsened achievement disparities

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the pandemic worsened achievement disparities among students and argued that the way to close existing gaps is through in-person learning.

“The achievement disparities have worsened in the last year and a half,” Cardona told The Washington Post in an interview published on Tuesday.

He specifically said Black and brown students were accessing in-person education at a lower rate last year and at the end of the past school year. 

The secretary contended that the “best lever” for closing the achievement gap among students is through safely reopening schools for in-person learning, and touted the department’s Return to School Roadmap as an effective tool to help achieve that goal.

“We have a Return to School Roadmap with tips and strategies on how to safely reopen schools because the reality is the best lever for equity across the country is in-person learning,” Cardona said.

“And if we know students learn best when they’re in the classroom, we have to do everything to make sure that they’re getting in-person. So safety matters most,” he added.

The roadmap, according to the department, is meant to support educators, school leaders, parents, families and communities as they bring students back to the classroom.

Cardona, who said he wrote his dissertation on “the use of political will to address the achievement disparity,” said educational leaders must “muster whatever political will we can to hit the reset button on those things we know didn’t work.”

He also said educational leaders must work to ensure that students are returning to a system that “equalizes the playing field.”

He added that funds appropriated in the American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed in March, are expected to “close those gaps,” and said he is inviting educators nationwide to join national experts to discuss “bold strategies to address inequalities that were made worse.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report in June that COVID-19 “appears to be deepening divides in educational opportunity across our nation’s classrooms and campuses.”

The report said that based on early studies, the educational gaps that existed prior to the pandemic — including access, opportunities, achievement and outcomes — are widening for many students, and are “falling disproportionately” on students who entered the pandemic “with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities.”

Many of those, the report noted, are groups that have historically been marginalized and underserved.

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