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Our Collective Letter to Secretary Cardona

May 17, 2021

The Hon. Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona:  

We are superintendents representing a national network of innovative school systems committed to the transformation of education, anchored in a renewed vision for student success in the 21st century—Portrait of a Graduate. We stand united in our relentless pursuit of equity in deeper learning outcomes for every child.

We extend our congratulations on your confirmation as our 12th Secretary of Education. Your strong record on behalf of Connecticut students gives us hope, and we look forward to your leadership of the U.S. Department of Education and your impact on our country’s youth. As you take the helm during this critical time for U.S. education systems, you have our support as partners and collaborators in envisioning and advancing a new era in public education.

As our educators responded to the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became even more evident: the American education system is not currently designed to educate the needs of today’s youth. The world has changed rapidly and dramatically, further exacerbating the education inequities that exist across our nation. Our collective aspirations for a strong American workforce, a thriving economy, and a healthy, happy, and hopeful citizenry demand our attention to equipping students far beyond the acquisition of academic content knowledge. As education leaders, we recognize that our education systems must evolve through a renewed vision for American education and a broader definition of success. We must address this gap between the current state of the U.S. education system and the needs of our youth—and our nation.

Our shared vision is that each child experiences an education that purposefully integrates rigorous academic content with the skills and mindsets that empower students as lifelong learners and contributors in this uncertain, ever-changing world. With the growing need for 21st century learning, essential to thrive among the profound changes occurring in our world, a focus on deeper learning and a commitment to the promise of equity for all students is not simply a worthy goal; it’s an imperative. The locally developed Portrait of a Graduate serves as the North Star for this essential education transformation.

As superintendents working to effect meaningful change within our school systems, we recognize these changes must be scaled across the nation. A thorough evaluation of practices that impede these changes is critical to creating the conducive conditions for which this transformation occurs in all school systems across the country. This moment presents an opportunity to re-envision federal and state policies and practices such as inequitable funding formulas as well as narrowly defined assessment and accountability systems.

Delivering the education experiences that students need to thrive in our ever-changing world is the right work, and it can be done. The question is: how might the U.S. Department of Education create the conditions and supports to inspire every superintendent to lead this transformation for the benefit of all young people—and our country’s future?

The federal government can play an important role in leading a renewed vision—a reimagined public education system responsive to the needs of today’s youth. As an accelerator, the U.S. Department of Education can target investments for research in future-focused, innovative education models and practices. Federal, state, and local education institutions must collaborate and coordinate to identify and showcase these effective, innovative practices that serve the unique needs of today’s learners with equitable, deeper learning outcomes. Federal policy can play an impactful role by shifting policies and allocating essential funds to incentivize innovation on a broader scale.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated persistent inequities in our educational systems. The uncomfortable reality is that every child does not have access to deeper learning that prepares them for a brighter future. Far too many students have limited access and exposure to deeper learning. Historically marginalized students of color, students from low-income families, and students with learning disabilities most often bear the brunt of an antiquated, inequitable education system narrowly focused on academic content, low-level skills, and rote memorization.

As superintendents, we are committed to making systemic changes to advance equity, but we need support from our state and federal leaders to effect systemic change. Your administration can help by advancing policies, programs, and funding that bolster the recruitment of teachers of color to diversify the educator workforce. This will require an overall strategy to strengthen the education profession to attract more talent to the field. Now is the time to re-envision new models of cultivating and supporting teacher engagement and overall development that align with this new, 21st century vision of education.

Further, we encourage a global and holistic approach through collaboration across agencies at the national level on issues that have perpetuated inequity, such as poverty, funding, and student and family health and wellness. You have been a strong advocate of early childhood education, and we are hopeful you will continue to advance these efforts at a national level. Deeper learning experiences in early childhood education are essential as we address persistent educational inequities. As decades of research can attest, it is imperative to start early.

Finally, a reimagined, relevant accountability system—one that drives and signals future readiness for our youth and incentivizes our education systems to be responsive to the demands of this century—is also needed. A 21st century accountability system would shift from a focus on academic content assessments and recognize the importance of deeper learning assessments. However, it is ill-advised for federal or state accountability systems to measure 21st century skills and mindsets. These must be assessed in the local context by educators working together to calibrate evidence of success in working with their students.

This necessitates accountability systems that value local accountability measures as much as state and federal accountability measures. School systems must be equipped to nurture the whole child, which requires more complex, comprehensive models of assessment that measure progress around a broader definition of student success. New models of assessment, such as project-based, performance-based, and student-led assessments require more time and intensive professional learning to employ. But when done well, they provide educators, students, and families with much richer information about students’ learning and readiness to thrive and contribute in the 21st century.

The future of our country and our local communities rests on the evolution of the American education system to equip every student to succeed, contribute, and lead. We humbly submit these priorities for your consideration. There is no more opportune time to bring about change for our country’s youth.

As a national network, we convene annually to collectively advance deeper learning for all students as we showcase innovative practices and learn together. This highly anticipated event is unique because it is a convening of like-minded school system leaders and practitioners who share a common vision for the transformation of education. This year, our Annual Event will be in Indianapolis, Indiana, October 11-13, 2021. We invite you and members of your team to join us to learn more about the exciting and innovative work occurring in school districts across the country. Likewise, we invite you to visit our schools to engage with our students and teachers and to observe the powerful transformations underway in our school systems.

We have before us an exciting opportunity and responsibility to re-envision education systems that will prepare every student to thrive today and into the future. We support you as you lead this exciting and important new era in American education.

The following signatories represent EdLeader21, our national network of 150 innovative school systems accelerating 21st century learning for every student.

Jim Fritz, Superintendent | Anthony Wayne Local Schools, Ohio
Lori Wilcox, Superintendent of Schools | Aptakisic-Tripp D102, Illinois
Jeffrey Scott Greenley, Superintendent | Belpre City Schools, Ohio
Maureen Israel, Superintendent | Bullis Charter School, California
James Sotlar, Superintendent | Canal Winchester Local Schools, Ohio
Dr. Julie D. Helber, Superintendent | Chelsea School District, Michigan
Ginny Hunt, Superintendent | Clairton City School District, Pennsylvania
Dr. Talisa Dixon, Superintendent | Columbus City Schools, Ohio
David L. Hire, Ed.D., Superintendent | Coshocton City Schools, Ohio
Chip Jones, Ed.D., Superintendent | Cumberland County Public Schools, Virginia
Brian M. Troop, Ed.D., Superintendent | Ephrata Area School District, Pennsylvania
Candace Singh, Superintendent | Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, California
Dr. Karen Cheser, Superintendent | Fort Thomas Independent Schools, Kentucky
Rob Preston, Superintendent | Franklin Local, Ohio
David T. Sovine, Superintendent of Schools | Frederick County, Virginia
Jeffrey Brown, Superintendent | Granville Exempted Village Schools, Ohio
Amy Cashwell, Superintendent | Henrico County Public Schools, Virginia
Damian M. LaCroix, Superintendent of Schools | Howard-Suamico School District, Wisconsin
Aviva Kafka, Superintendent of Schools | Hyde Park Central School District, New York
Matt Flores, Chief Academic Officer | Jefferson County Public Schools, Colorado
Philip H. Wagner, Ph.D., Superintendent | Licking Heights Local Schools, Ohio
Rebecca McFall, Ed.D., Superintendent | Lincoln Public Schools, Massachusetts
Paul Mullins, Superintendent | Logan County Schools, Kentucky
J. Douglas Straley, Superintendent | Louisa County Public Schools, Virginia
Kathy Rollo, Superintendent | Lubbock ISD, Texas
Jason J. Kennedy, Superintendent | Ludington Area School District, Michigan
Kelly Lyman, Superintendent of Schools | Mansfield Public Schools, Connecticut
Dr. Ruth Zitnik, Superintendent | Maysville Local School District, Ohio
Dr. Danielle M. Prohaska, Superintendent of Schools | Mechanicsburg Exempted Village School District, Ohio
Aaron J. Sable, Superintendent | Medina City Schools, Ohio
Kenneth R. Freeston, Superintendent | North Salem Central School District, New York
Cory Steiner, Superintendent | Northern Cass, North Dakota
Todd Bowling, Superintendent | Northwest Local School District, Ohio
Dr. Jim Lloyd, Superintendent | Olmsted Falls City Schools, Ohio
Michael Duncan, Superintendent | Pike County, Georgia
Scott Dutey, Superintendent | Portsmouth City Schools, Ohio
Matthew L. Montgomery, Ph.D., Superintendent | Revere Local Schools, Ohio
Dr. Melvin J. Brown, Superintendent | Reynoldsburg City Schools, Ohio
Frank Alvarez, Superintendent of Schools | River Vale Public Schools, New Jersey
Stephen Laatsch, Ph.D., Superintendent | Saline Area Schools, Michigan
Kristine Orr, Superintendent | South Glens Falls School District, New York
Phil Downs, Superintendent | Southwest Allen County Schools, Indiana
Scott Kizner Ph.D., Superintendent | Stafford County Public Schools, Virginia
Steven Holmes, Superintendent | Sunnyside Unified School District, Arizona
Peter Sanchioni, Superintendent | Tiverton Public Schools, Rhode Island
Dr. John M. Weidner, Sr., Superintendent | Twin River School District, Nebraska
Michael R. McCormick, Superintendent | Val Verde Unified School District, California
Dr. Aaron C. Spence, Superintendent | Virginia Beach City Schools, Virginia
Dr. Thomas S. Bailey, Superintendent | Washington Court House City Schools, Ohio
Gerald D. Hill, Ph.D., Superintendent | West Bloomfield School District, Michigan
John R. Kellogg, Superintendent | Westerville City Schools, Ohio
Dr. Karen K. Garza, President & CEO | Battelle for Kids