HARTSVILLE, Tenn. — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Thursday it is the job of school leaders to listen to parents, students and educators as they continue to grapple with the lingering effects of the pandemic on the nation’s public schools.
The nation’s top education official, during a visit to rural Trousdale County in Tennessee Thursday, said education leaders can and should use the pandemic as a reset and a kick-off point to building on things that best work for students and educators.
“The pandemic is the closest thing to a reset button we have in education and it’s time for us to think outside the box and try to create more opportunities for students and the best way to do that is to listen to the students directly,” Cardona said during a roundtable with Trousdale County High School students and other leaders in Hartsville, Tennessee.
Cardona praised some of the work of Tennessee leaders over the past few years, including the state’s commitment to reopening schools and ensuring students are learning in-person, its efforts around apprenticeships, career training and the state’s efforts to expand the teacher pipeline and tackle staff shortages.
Cardona also said he was really pleased that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is “showing a commitment to education funding the way he is.”
“That to me shows that the work that they’re doing is going to be sustainable,” Cardona said. “So there’s a lot of different things I’m prodigy of here.”
Cardona praised the state’s efforts to consider the needs of different groups of students during its funding reform process, especially those in rural communities where resources like broadband internet or other opportunities might be scarce.
“When we think about how the pandemic affected students disproportionately in rural communities, we have to make sure as we reopen schools, we make up for that, that they have the same options as other students,” he said. “That might mean that we fund more because they don’t have a device yet and students down the street had [devices] three years ago or that they don’t have broadband yet and students down the street had it three years ago.”
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“So we have to make sure that we’re looking at where the students are, what their needs are, and that we’re providing the resources and support to let them have the same opportunities,” he said.
After listening to students share their experiences of school during the pandemic, as well as the efforts of their small community’s teachers, Cardona asked the student representatives what they thought teachers needed more of amid the challenging environment inside many schools.
Patience, acknowledgment, understanding, appreciation, better pay, the students named.
Trousdale County Schools Director Clint Satterfield told the panel that in order for the district to focus on the things its students need most and to prepare them for success, he needs highly effective teachers in the classroom.
“You’ve heard our students talk this morning about the impact of the teacher upon their education, and we know that education research tells us teachers on the number one factor in the classroom,” he said.
But Satterfield said, patting Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn seated next to him on the shoulder, “When we’re in Tennessee, and our teacher pay rates are 40th country, it’s very hard to recruit and retain the type of people that they need and the type of people that these students talk about that made a difference in their life.”
Lee recently promised $125 million toward teacher salaries in his proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, part of a $1 billion boost to public school funding. Some of that additional money is earmarked for a new school funding formula, the details of which Lee and Schwinn are expected to unveil next week.
Cardona also asked the students gathered to share things that they hope schools will keep doing after the pandemic.
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Zander Napier, a senior at Trousdale County High School, said he thinks the continued use of technology would be good for the students coming up behind him.
“Paper and pencil isn’t going to be around forever, so keeping the almost completely digital way that we did things for classes or projects or work going forward would be a great thing,” Napier said.
His classmate, Piper Triplett, also a senior, said that blended learning or hybrid schedules that give students, especially those who are high achieving, more flexibility to do apprenticeships, career training or take dual enrollment courses during the school day would also be ideal.
The secretary’s stop in Hartsville was the first of a few in Middle Tennessee Thursday and Friday. Cardona is in town for the National Conference on Education, hosted by The School Superintendents Association, or AASA.
He’ll also meet with local educators, including Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle, and future teachers at Tennessee State University in Nashville Friday.
Follow Meghan Mangrum on Twitter @memangrum.