Q & A with Pedro Rivera, Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

By Susan Gettlin | April 28, 2016

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Arcadia magazine.

Arcadia values high standards and that is an essential component in best serving the needs of our children.

– Pedro Rivera

In January 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf appointed Pedro Rivera to serve as secretary of education. Rivera, who earned his Superintendent’s Letter of Eligibility at Arcadia in 2005, previously served as superintendent of the School District of Lancaster and in varying capacities for several Philadelphia schools for more than 13 years. Rivera spoke with Arcadia magazine about his goals as education secretary, the challenges facing education in Pennsylvania, and how colleges and universities can better prepare students. 

Q. What are your goals as education secretary?

A. I see my role as secretary of education as lead educator for the Commonwealth—working with educators, elected officials, and community members to ensure that every student has an opportunity to succeed and every educator an opportunity to serve our children with distinction.

Being asked to serve at the forefront of an administration where education is a priority is the opportunity of a lifetime. There is no more important issue to me than educating kids. My ultimate goal is to work with educators to restore confidence in our public school system. We are a state filled with outstanding teaching professionals and administrators, and I want our communities to be as proud as Gov. Wolf and I are about what is happening in our public schools.

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing education in Pennsylvania?

A. Our schools have suffered from reductions in classroom funding, making it more difficult for students to get a strong education. Establishing a fair funding formula for schools is a priority. We need to examine how we fund our schools and provide relief for those paying property taxes. There are huge disparities between property tax rates in this state, and school districts in the poorest areas are demanding the highest property taxes from their communities.

It is important that the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Philadelphia School District work together to address the needs of students and remain focused on what is best for the classroom. Part of the solution is adequately funding education and addressing the needs of the community. We need to involve and work with those who can make a positive difference in the lives of children—this includes fostering partnerships with businesses and community members.

Schools are more than just centers for learning— they are the backbones of our communities. It is important that communities lead the effort to improve their schools, and we will work to create a system of support where schools can improve locally.

Q. You have spoken about “finding the people who can best engineer a ‘transformation’ of the Department of Education.” What does that mean?

A. I believe in greater accountability for programs and services that are run out of the Department of Education. The oversight of charter schools in this state is a great concern for us as we work to ensure that all of Pennsylvania’s public schools are held to the same high standards. I am conducting a thorough review of the operation and regulation of charter schools throughout the Commonwealth and will make recommendations on how to improve the process in a way that best serves the needs of students and local school communities. 

Our world is changing and our education system must continue to evolve to meet the demands of the changing times. Just as schools and educators are tailoring curricula and teaching strategies to better connect with students in this digital age, so must state government. I believe that leveraging technology to communicate with the people we serve is cost-effective and pragmatic.

Q. How can schools, from the elementary level to higher education, work around budget cuts and reduced funding to provide a quality education?

A. Gov. Wolf is committed to restoring funding to public education institutions that have seen a reduction over the years. His proposal to direct more money to schools includes a severance tax on natural gas extraction. (Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state that does not have a severance tax.) Beyond funding, I know from experience that collaboration between education institutions and businesses not only enhances the learning experience for students, but can also be invaluable in helping them navigate pathways to a desired career. However, we must go beyond hosting a career day or arranging a job fair—it takes public-private partnerships. Relevant and timely curriculum also is an important component of any career education. If we can connect classroom instruction with real-world applications, we will hold the interest of students and give their education a deeper purpose.

Q. Why did you choose Arcadia for your superintendent’s certification?

A. It was important for me to develop a more complete understanding of the different areas of education and grow as a professional educator. Arcadia’s program provided the opportunity to push myself and enhance the skills I needed to be a more effective leader. Arcadia values high standards and that is an essential component in best serving the needs of our children. What really stood out to me with Arcadia’s program was the professors that I had were also practitioners, so I was not only learning theory but also how to apply what I was learning in the classroom.

Q. How can colleges and universities address some of the challenges facing education in Pennsylvania?

A. There’s a tremendous benefit to students and the community when colleges and universities engage local businesses to gain a better understanding of a community’s long-term needs and the kinds of opportunities that will exist for students when they graduate. If a community has an emerging industry that will require qualified individuals to fill essential occupations, institutions can work to ensure their educational offerings align with those opportunities and provide a career pipeline for homegrown Pennsylvania talent.

Q. How can PA’s colleges and universities better prepare students for post-graduate success?

A. Colleges and universities must ensure that they are preparing students for 21st-century jobs and providing them skills to compete in a more global economy. Our focus needs to be on high-demand occupations, many of which require skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Support for STEM education should include targeted guidance counseling, instructional and curriculum support, and opportunities for students to connect with STEM work-study programs and internships.

Q. What advice would you give to a recent education graduate heading into the field?

A. There is no greater service to a community than teaching children. It can be a thankless job, but you have the opportunity to impact hundreds, if not thousands, of lives during the course of a career. No matter how long you’re an educator, you can never stop learning and growing. Embrace new technologies, use best practices, and do not fear change. While it is important to push your students to succeed, it is more important to push yourself to be a champion for their success. Wherever your career may take you, always remember the children—they are the reason you became an educator.