Federal Education Policy Recommendations from the SoLD Alliance


December 7, 2020

To: Biden-Harris Education Agency Review Team

From: SoLD Alliance Governing Partners

Subject: Federal Education Policy Recommendations from the SoLD Alliance

As President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris prepare to take office, our nation faces unprecedented challenges caused by overlapping crises, including the ongoing COVID pandemic, longstanding racial injustices, and worsening economic conditions. As President-Elect Biden has said, our goal must be not only to respond to these crises but to transform our outdated systems and position our nation to “build back better.” And we must do so in a manner that both significantly addresses longstanding, systemic racial, socioeconomic, and other inequities and unites rather than divides us as Americans. This is particularly true in the education context, including our public schools and the broader ecosystem that supports young people’s learning and development.

We are writing this memo as governing partners of the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) Alliance to offer two overarching recommendations for the Biden Administration regarding key actions to both address current crises and transform our education systems to dramatically improve equity and outcomes:

  1. Seize this moment to work with the field to help set a new national vision and agenda for education, and use the science of learning and development to help define that agenda and center it on equity. Our national education agenda is at a once-in-a-generation inflection point. The current crises we face have both created immediate needs and further illustrated the fundamental insufficiencies and inequities in our current systems. In recent years, there has been a leap and convergence in research from multiple disciplines regarding what we know about how young people learn and develop. This science provides extraordinary, actionable insights regarding the incredible potential in every young person and what we can and must do both to respond to current crises and to transform systems such that every child, and particularly those most marginalized, has the opportunity to thrive. We urge you to use the bully pulpit and convening authority to engage key leaders, communities, and stakeholders from across the political spectrum to help define and advance a new education narrative and agenda – one that puts children at the center and transforms and aligns our education and other youth-serving systems around them, from birth through adolescence. Just as you are rightly embracing science in response to the COVID pandemic and other policy areas, we urge you to use and grow this knowledge to help chart a course that can dramatically improve equity and outcomes in education.
  2. Take a range of early policy actions that can both respond to current crises and serve as high-leverage downpayments toward a new national agenda to build education systems that are aligned with the science and designed for equity. The science of learning and development calls for long-term changes in multiple aspects of our education systems, but there are many steps the Biden Administration can take early – including things to help the field start doing and stop doing – that are both consistent with the science and ripe for federal action. These include immediate actions to address the COVID pandemic and its inequitable impact; early administrative actions to advance racial equity and empower leadership in the field; and new legislative proposals and investments to signal key shifts and support state and local leaders in transforming outdated education systems. We urge you to consider a number of early policy actions, which are itemized below.

This memo is focused on the US Department of Education (ED) transition team and its areas of authority, but please note that our science findings are relevant to learning and development in all settings; they have implications for federal programs across agencies; and they call for greater alignment and integration of those programs (as discussed below).

The SoLD Alliance is ready to serve as a resource for the transition team and the new Administration in using the science to inform your education vision and priorities, as well as our shared national education agenda. The SoLD Alliance is a growing network of leaders from across the education ecosystem – and across the ideological spectrum – who are working to elevate key research on learning and development and what it means for education practice and policy. You can find more information on us, the science of learning and development, its implications for education and youth development, and the work of our Allies at www.soldalliance.org.

  1. Seize this moment for Presidential leadership to help establish a new vision and agenda for education, and to elevate the science of learning and development as a key driver of change.

Education has long been central to the promise of America. But our current education systems have never been designed to promote the equitable opportunities or outcomes that our children and families deserve, and that our democracy, society, and economy need. For more than 25 years, our national education agenda has centered on standards-based reform. This agenda has put some essential foundations in place, particularly for equity, and has led to modest progress in outcomes. But it is (and always has been) only one piece of the puzzle and has had unintended negative consequences as well. Today, there is a need and opportunity to define a new education agenda – one that builds upon and goes beyond the current reform frame; leverages new research, data, and evidence, including from the science of learning and development; centers equity, justice, and those closest to the challenges; puts children and youth in the center and transforms and integrates our public systems to best serve them; is more unifying across the political spectrum; and is more impactful in terms of opportunity and outcomes. Finally, the overlapping crises we face regarding the COVID pandemic, racial injustice, and economic recession create both great need and forcing events for action – in terms of our education systems and the broader ecosystem that supports learning and development.

President-Elect Biden and other Administration leaders have a unique opportunity to help frame a next-generation agenda. Despite the limited federal role in education, history clearly illustrates that presidential transitions and leadership can play an outsized role in defining and advancing our national education agenda. There is also widespread public support for a new vision for education focused on developing the whole child and ensuring all young people can thrive. We urge you to work with the field – particularly elevating the voices of students and communities that have been most marginalized – through consistent use of the bully pulpit, ongoing outreach and engagement, regular convenings, and more to help define and advance a new narrative and agenda for the generation ahead.

The science of learning and development can help define that vision and agenda.

The science of learning and development offers a series of integrated findings regarding how children learn and develop and what we can and must do to help all young people thrive. These findings are greatly significant for the education of all children, and they are particularly drivers of equity in that they dispel false myths and biases that have long held us back and illuminate approaches to have the greatest positive impact on young people who are most marginalized and least served by our current systems. Together, these findings call for a transformation in our education and other family- and youth-serving systems. For example:

These findings have profound implications for educator practice and for how we must design schools and all learning environments to put children and youth at the center and create the conditions in which all young people, and particularly those most marginalized, can thrive. (See Figure 1 below, and for more information, see for example, ,Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development )

Figure : Key Foundations for Design of Learning Environments that are Aligned with Science and Designed for Equity

2. Take early policy actions that are aligned with the science and designed for equity to help address current crises and “build back better.”

Taken together, these science findings, and their implications for teaching practice and design of learning environments, call for fundamental shifts in education policy as well to transform our education systems and build a broader, connected ecosystem to best serve all children and youth, and particularly students living in poverty, students of color, students with disabilities, students who are learning English, and other youth who are marginalized — who together comprise the vast majority of our public school students, and our nation’s future.

Building education systems aligned with the science will require a new long-term vision and agenda with new, broader pillars and a more comprehensive theory of action – significantly expanding and improving on current standards-based reforms. President-Elect Biden and his Administration can play a key role – working with the field – to help define and advance this new agenda for the next generation.

There are many ways to present these big shifts or pillars of a broader education agenda, and they are overlapping and integrated. For example:

All of this calls for an array of near-term federal policy actions to both address current crises and as first steps toward a new national education agenda and building back better. Many of these early priorities are already reflected in policy proposals released by the Biden-Harris campaign, and many enjoy wide support in the field. These actions would benefit all children, but they focus intentionally on serving children and youth who are most marginalized and least served by current systems – as has long been and remains the core federal role. These recommendations include further actions on COVID relief and recovery, early executive actions, and broader legislative proposals.

  1. Ensure equitable access to education resources to create the context, conditions, and learning experiences that can help children thrive. This includes:

2. Eliminate the digital divide to improve learning and strengthen relationships. This includes:

3. Increase educator capacity, diversity, and support to improve adult understanding and practice, and to support adult learning and well-being, including in COVID response and recovery. This includes:

4. Strengthen early childhood education in terms of access, quality, and systems integration to promote strong learning and development from the earliest years. This includes:

5. Strengthening pathways for adolescent recovery and success by creating an adolescent promise agenda that recognizes the unique challenges for adolescents created by COVID, the importance of identifying and re-engaging students who have become disengaged, and the need for an asset-based, comprehensive approach to policies that will support stable pathways from school to college, work, and adulthood. This includes:

6. Increase support for out-of-school learning time, community-based organizations, and family engagement to accelerate COVID recovery, re-engage and support disconnected youth, and maximize learning and development across settings. This includes:

7. Establish comprehensive systems of supports and promote collaboration and integration of federal, state, local, and community programs to most efficiently and effectively meet the full needs of each and every young person. This includes:

8. Transform school culture, climate, safety, and discipline to create learning environments designed for belonging, relationships, and success. This includes:

9. Support efforts to establish more comprehensive, improved systems of assessment and broader measures of opportunity and achievement to better measure and support student learning and development, with a focus on equity. This includes:

10. Enhance the federal education R&D infrastructure and invest in state and local R&D capacity to support a culture of continual improvement toward creating systems that are aligned with the science and designed for equity. This includes:

Finally, many organizations have developed detailed proposals that are aligned, in whole or part, with the science of learning and development, and the SoLD Alliance seeks to amplify these efforts. For example, the recently released framework from the Learning Policy Institute (a SoLD Alliance Governing Partner) titled, ,,Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond, the Aspen Institute’s report, ,,Recovery and Renewal: Principles for Advancing Public Education Post-Crisis, and the BELE Network’s ,,Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Framework to Restore our Collective Future.

The SoLD Alliance is a growing network of leading researchers, practitioners, advocates, and policymakers who are working together because we see that the science of learning and development holds powerful, positive, unifying lessons for how we can advance equitable opportunity and outcomes for all young people, particularly those least served by the current systems. Governing partners of the SoLD Alliance include Pamela Cantor and Brigid Ahern (Turnaround for Children), Linda Darling Hammond (Learning Policy Institute), David Osher (American Institutes for Research), Bethany Little and Scott Palmer (EducationCounsel), Karen Pittman and Merita Irby (Forum for Youth Investment), and Todd Rose (Populace). To learn more about partners and Allies of the SoLD Alliance, visit https://www.soldalliance.org/advisory-committee.

Thank you again for your service and consideration of these recommendations as you support transition to the Biden Administration. If you would like to discuss these ideas, please feel free to contact Jamie Fasteau at Jamie.Fasteau@educationcounsel.com, Samantha Kobbah at Samantha.Kobbah@educationcounsel.com, Bethany Little at Bethany.Little@educationcounsel.com or Scott Palmer at Scott.Palmer@educationcounsel.com, who would be happy to answer any questions or facilitate your engagement with the SoLD Alliance and aligned leaders in the field.

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