Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, is a humble, down to earth individual. So humble, in fact, that when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf nominated him to be the commonwealth’s Acting Education Secretary back in January, his response was, “Are you sure?”
“When you think of folks who work directly in government or directly for government like secretaries and directors you tend to picture folks who are really strong in policy or government relations,” Rivera said. “Most are policy analysts interested in the big picture who prefer to make policy decisions from 500 feet up.”
A life-long educator, Rivera views himself as a practitioner. “I’m one of those individuals who just loves education. I love engaging in classrooms, I love engaging with communities, I love engaging with students,” Rivera said. “When you’re looking at [people who] have to make those policy decisions from that 500 foot level, they don’t always have the luxury of getting in the weeds. But that is where I have spent my whole career and my whole life.”
Although Rivera was initially unsure whether or not he fit the mold of a prototypical education secretary, now he knows that he and Governor Wolf share a similar vision for Pennsylvania’s education system. Both are passionate about providing equity and an opportunity for all Pennsylvania residents regardless of their zip code, background, socio-economic status or ethnicity.
Hard Times, Hard Decisions, Positive Results
Rivera came to the secretary position by way of the Lancaster School District where he was superintendent from 2008 to 2015. An urban community in the middle of a rural county, the district was in sad economic shape when he took the superintendent position. Home to Tyson Chicken, RCA and Armstrong Flooring, Lancaster was hit hard by the economic decline of 2009 and was slow to recover. “As [the Pennsylvania steel mills closed] Lancaster saw that same kind of decline in manufacturing. Many of the manufacturing plants and a lot of the large employers closed shop and moved as well. It definitely saw some difficulties economically,” Rivera said who was responsible for about 11,000 students and 1,500 employees in Lancaster.
The district had a non-existent funds balance and in some areas was facing a deficit. To balance the budget, he and the school board had to make some difficult decisions. He consolidated programs, reduced personnel, shifted and aligned funding and focused on goals and deliverables. “Our budget, our curriculum, our alignment, everything focused on ultimately what we wanted students to achieve by creating a real student-centered agenda and budget,” Rivera said.
Under his leadership, Lancaster developed and implemented a new curriculum, an aggressive professional development plan and innovative teacher observation tools. These initiatives resulted in an increased graduation rate, notable improvements in math, science and writing proficiency scores and enhanced the level of participation from high-performing students in programs that help prepare them for college and other post-graduation opportunities.
Originally from Philadelphia, Rivera is a first-generation college graduate who was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt. His grandmother, who worked in a factory as a seamstress sewing zippers, brought Rivera’s mother to the U.S. from Puerto Rico searching for a better life. His mother finished high school late in life and instilled in Rivera the understanding that to be successful he had to work hard.
After graduating high school, Rivera attended Penn State and enrolled in a master’s program at Chaney University. He obtained his superintendents letter of eligibility from Acadia University.
Taking a Hard Look at Standardized Tests
In the past seven months as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, Rivera has made his office more accessible to Pennsylvania educators. He’s visited with thousands of educators across the commonwealth and has shared his educational vision with them. “The response has been very positive,” Rivera said.
Working under the proposition that educators need to rely less on standardized tests, Rivera has taken a hard look at student assessment. “We started a really good dialog to get support on taking a more holistic approach to identifying student success and identifying how successful our schools are,” Rivera said. He views standardized tests as a baseline that provides educators with an idea of what they need to teach and reinforce. “[Standardized tests] take a state or nationally normed assessment and skills and they access how well students do in those skills. Standardized test were never meant to be the end all and be all. We know in administration that they are one indicator, but it is not the only indicator,” Rivera said.
Over the past 10 months, Rivera has spent considerable energy advocating for Governor Wolf’s education budget, which puts a billion more dollars into Pre-K through higher education and much-needed resources and support back into Pennsylvania’s classrooms. Governor Wolf’s budget focuses on early-childhood, career and technical education, students with IEPs and English language learners. “Our poorest communities need greater resources so [we’re] looking at equity,” Rivera said. “We’ve been out there really pushing an agenda of equity.”
Higher Education in the State of Pennsylvania
As a member of the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and a member of Penn State’s board, Rivera has been working with the state legislature to find more funding and resources for Pennsylvania colleges. State schools in Pennsylvania have seen their funding wane and their tuitions rise. “At the end of the day, it’s the kids, families and students that suffer,” Rivera said. Advocating for increased resources, Rivera wants to ensure that all two-year, four-year and technical colleges are affordable. “Socioeconomic [status] should not dictate whether or not you have access to higher education,” Rivera said.
“It’s gotten to the point,” Rivera said, “that parents who have children in the third grade already believe that they cannot afford to send their children to college.” To change this mindset he wants to use guidance counselors to expose parents to available opportunities, invest heavily in higher education and align K-12 with college career preparation, so more students are oriented toward higher education.