Betsy DeVos could bring radical changes to public schools. PA’s top education official is not changing his approach.

PA secretary of education pedro rivera sitting with students.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera engages with students at the E.H. Phillips Elementary School in Central Dauphin School District on Feb. 16, 2017, as part of the Wolf Administration’s Schools That Teach tour. Since the tour kicked off in 2015, Rivera has visited dozens of schools and spoken with hundreds of stakeholders about improving educational opportunities for all students across the state. (Photo provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education)

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera is not letting uncertainty at the U.S. Department of Education derail any of the plans his department has set in motion for improving education in the state.

Newly installed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has talked about abandoning the Common Core and promoting school vouchers and charter schools over traditional public school districts.

But Rivera, in an interview this week with PublicSource, said the current education agenda will remain in place. The priorities have included implementing the Pennsylvania Core standards, aligning state tests and curriculum to those standards, revising the system for assessing quality in schools, creating new high school graduation requirements and working to increase equity among public schools.

“We are not going to reverse course at all,” Rivera said. “We are going to move in the direction we are moving.”

The secretary said the decision was made in consultation with his staff and Gov. Tom Wolf.

DeVos’ desire to eliminate the Common Core — an effort of the Obama administration to create national standards for K-12 education — falls in line with the wishes of President Donald Trump, who wants to see states enact their own standards.

In Pennsylvania, Rivera says the PA Core (the state’s version of the Common Core) will remain in effect regardless of what happens at the federal level.

He said the standards in the state’s core were created to ensure students receive a rigorous education and, in particular, focus on reading by third grade and math proficiency by seventh grade.

Third-grade reading proficiency is important because if students can’t read by third grade, they have difficulty in other subjects such as math, science and social studies, which require reading comprehension.

Seventh-grade math proficiency is essential because, without it, students may be unable to excel in the more difficult math they face in high school.

The rigor of those standards hit home for the secretary earlier this week while helping his daughter, a kindergarten student, with her math homework, which involved subtraction.

When Rivera and his wife turned to an online early learning app for help, they found subtraction in lessons slated for first grade.

The secretary explained to his wife that kindergarten math skills were realigned during his time as superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, where his daughter attends. They did this to better prepare students for math proficiency in later grades.

“What we wanted to do was make sure first graders were prepared to take trigonometry or calculus by the time they graduated. So we had to teach addition and subtraction in kindergarten,” said Rivera, who was superintendent from 2008 to 2015.

DeVos has said she wants to limit the size and scope of the federal education department and return much of the responsibility for education back to the states.

If that happens, Rivera said he’s confident his department can handle the responsibility because leaders on his staff all have education experience. They have either risen from the ranks of teachers to superintendents or have moved from education to working in the Legislature.

In contrast, DeVos is a billionaire who has never worked as an educator nor attended or sent her children to public school.

“I’m really confident that we can handle the job and set an agenda that is kid and education focused,” Rivera said.

Rivera said his department has been hearing from parents of special education students who want to know what will happen with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — federal legislation that promises a free and appropriate education to all students with a disability.

DeVos said she was unaware the act existed when questioned about it during her confirmation hearing. Rivera said it’s too soon to tell what, if anything, will happen with special education at the federal level.

“You have a lot of parents who have fought long and hard to ensure their children aren’t mistreated in their schools,” Rivera said.

“It wasn’t that long ago that special education students were tucked way in corner basement classrooms.”

The secretary said he stands with those parents and predicted they would fight any effort to dismantle the law or reduce federal funding for special education.

DeVos, an advocate of school choice who supports vouchers and charter schools, has criticized traditional public school districts. She called them a “dead end.”

Rivera said he wasn’t sure if the federal government could force a voucher system on the states, but he believes such an action would require involvement of the state Legislature and would be a lengthy process.

School choice is a good idea, Rivera said, when done equitably, with quality and “the needs of students and communities in mind.”

But choice created simply for the purpose of providing a choice is not necessarily a good educational strategy, he said.

During a radio interview this week in her home state of Michigan, DeVos said the biggest goal for education should be “continuing to stoke and enhance a child’s creative and curious nature.”

But for Rivera, the goal is far more substantial — to create equity among school districts. He wants to narrow the variance in the amount spent per pupil between wealthy districts and poor districts, which leads to achievement gaps that separate students by class and race.

He defended public schools in Pennsylvania, saying he’s visited numerous districts across the state and has seen more high-performing classrooms than low-performing classrooms.

He also said the value of traditional public schools is that they take in all students, regardless of their needs or issues.

“Whoever walks through the door, that’s the student that you are going to teach that day,” he said.

“If that student comes to school hungry or that student comes with mental health needs or physical health needs or having dealt with an issue in their community or their homes, they are our kids and those are our issues.”

This story is supported in part by a 100 Days of U.S. award from The Sprout Fund.

Reach Mary Niederberger at 412-515-0064 or at mary@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MaryNied.

  • William Van Cleave

    The Common Core was not created by President Obama. He endorsed it but it was a state initiative. He had nothing to do with it. It is not a federal set of standards, and that misinformation is unfortunately spread by people who see the federal government as overreaching. Please check your facts before presenting misinformation like this.

    • Mary Niederberger

      The Common Core grew out of an initiative from state political and education leaders who believed there should be a common set of standards to ensure that students across the country were ready for college or careers. At the time, standards varied from state to state, with some far lower than others. The Common Core advanced to development under the Obama administration, when states adopted either the federal standards or created their own state version.

  • Melissa Scott

    PA Core Standards are Common Core with a new name. All of my son’s books are Common Core books. Also, I’m surprised that the Secretary hasn’t seen all of the studies showing the detrimental effects of forcing this type of learning on kindergarteners. Any advances with early math and reading are lost by 4th grade. Kids in the younger grades need play-based learning for healthy academic learning and good social skills. Also, according to top math professors, what kids really need to succeed in higher level math is to MEMORIZE their math facts in lower grades. This doesn’t happen with Common Core. Kids barely touch on one skill before moving onto another. I’d love to touch on the detrimental physical effects of sitting for the whole day with only a 15-minute recess, then coming home to a lot of homework. Also, the lack of teachers reading aloud and great literature is a sad state of affairs.
    P.S. I’m not a DeVos fan, but you forgot to mention how much the Secretary is worth because that is somehow relevant.

    • William Van Cleave

      There is no such thing as a Common Core book. The Core is a set of standards agreed upon by states, and these standards had nothing to do with the federal government. Publishers and schools have responded to those standards in different ways. Furthermore, these standards say nothing about recess or homework or memorizing or not memorizing the tables. Try reading them. Furthermore, you don’t mention the reading or writing standards. Prior to the Core very little attention was being paid to written expression in state assessments. Trust me as an educator when I tell you that college students have to read text and write about it. The Core targets the development of these skills in a grade appropriate way, thank goodness.

  • jyychem

    “In Pennsylvania, Rivera says the PA Core (the state’s version of the
    Common Core) will remain in effect regardless of what happens at the
    federal level.”…Oh but don’t you know that several yo yo’s in our State Legislature and also at least one federal representative (Ryan Costello) have informed everyone that PA no longer has Common Core. Really? PA Core is virtually identical to Common Core. I wish these people would get their acts together.

  • Rich Migliore

    Secretary Rivera’s broadbased experience as a teacher, school leader, and superintendent of public schools coupled with his level headed approach to leadership will provide a steady hand as we sort through the political agendas at play in all of this. Secretary Rivera has a moral compass and a human understanding of the needs of so many students and their local communities. In my mind, he is by far the best Secretary of Education we have had in a long while.

    • jyychem

      He is a politician and doesn’t respond to citizens in any way like Secretary Dumaresq did.