Teaching experience. An advocate for programs supporting underserved learners. A focus on tackling the digital divide and resource inequities laid bare by the pandemic.
That’s the record that Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s first Latino commissioner of education, would bring to the highest education office in the country, as multiple news reports say the Biden-Harris administration plans to name him as its nominee for Secretary of Education. (Update: The incoming administration has announced Cardona as the nominee.)
If confirmed by the Senate, Cardona will hit the ground running. President-elect Biden has pledged to reopen schools within the first 100 days of his administration. (That would be by April 30, 2021.) That means, among many things, taking stock of the damage caused by long-term school closures, and creating plans for reopening amid steep budget cuts, increased costs for safety measures, and widening achievement gaps and learning loss that have hit low-income students and students of color the hardest.
News of Biden’s pick comes at the same time Congress is nearing a deal on $82 billion in new relief for education. And it follows weeks of speculation, debate and jockeying. Front-runners included former presidents of the country’s two teachers’ unions, Lily Eskelsen García (National Education Association) and Randi Weingarten (American Federation of Teachers); Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises; and Leslie Fenwick, former dean of education at Howard University.
Their stances on education policy differ, but they all have at least one thing in common: classroom experience, which Biden has promised would be a prerequisite. That alone is a marked departure from current Secretary Betsy DeVos, who many considered an outsider for her lack of direct experience in public education.
Here’s what to know about Cardona, who, if confirmed by a majority in the U.S. Senate, would become the country’s 12th Education Secretary.
Background and Experience
Prior to being appointed as Connecticut’s education commissioner in August 2019, Cardona spent two decades at Meriden Public Schools—the same school system he attended himself—first as an elementary school teacher, then for 10 years as principal and more recently in district leadership. In 2013, he became Meriden’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
Evelyn Robles-Rivas, president of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (CALAS), has known Cardona for more than 15 years—as fellow graduate students at UConn, as district administrators at Meriden and as executives at CALAS, where Cardona previously served as vice president.
Robles-Rivas said she and her colleagues in Connecticut are thrilled to see Cardona nominated to the highest education position in the country. “President-elect Biden could have not picked a better candidate,” she told EdSurge. “He is a great listener, an amazing team player and he’s always looking out for the best interest of students.”
Cardona’s story, she added, is one that many American children can relate to. He grew up in a public housing project in Meriden, as an English language learner, and worked hard to succeed and stand out. “He was improving himself because he promised he was going to work on behalf of the students and their families in Meriden,” she said. “He has come such a long way.”
The commissioner’s own experiences have made him acutely aware of the achievement gap in education, as well as the reality that students in this country are not all given the same opportunities to succeed, Robles-Rivas said.
While Cardona has “not only the knowledge base, but the experience” for the job, one of his greatest attributes, according to Robles-Rivas, is his ability to find and surround himself with smart, capable people who can help him push his agenda forward. She believes he will assemble a qualified team at the U.S. Department of Education, too.
Cardona’s nomination is “history in the making,” Robles-Rivas added. “Students from Meriden, students from Connecticut and Latino students in general are going to be looking at him … and have an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, this could be me.’ It’s hope. It’s encouragement. It’s definitely a wonderful opportunity for Latino youth to see him as a role model.”
All signs indicate that Cardona and Biden are aligned on their commitment to reopen schools across the U.S. in the early days of the new administration.
In an op-ed published Dec. 17, Cardona addressed Connecticut educators directly, noting that the safety measures put in place have been sufficient to make in-person learning relatively low-risk for students and staff this fall.
“If we provide safe in-person learning options for students, whenever possible, we can ensure we are doing everything in our control to level the educational playing field and reduce gaps in opportunities for our students,” Cardona wrote in the NewsTimes. “If we can do it safely, this is what we owe to them. It has been made apparent through frequent communication from health experts that our schools have consistently been among the best implementers of mitigation strategies and that contact tracing patterns show that there is not widespread transmission in schools.”
A month earlier, Cardona told a reporter at Connecticut Public Radio that the first two months of the fall semester illustrated that schools can function in person during the pandemic, and that with “mitigation strategies used effectively, [the virus is] not spreading.” He emphasized that school buildings provide not only instruction but also access to meals, resources and other important services that are difficult to deliver remotely.
Only about one-third of Connecticut public school students have the option to attend in-person instruction at this time, according to the Connecticut Mirror. Cardona has so far left reopening decisions up to local school districts, rather than requiring superintendents to offer in-person classes.
Robles-Rivas reiterated that Cardona is a good listener and makes time to hear from all stakeholders and experts as he weighs important decisions.
“He would look at every angle of the situation,” she said of reopening schools nationwide. “He is always looking for the best solution. He would definitely make sure students are in a safe environment, but he will also make sure schools open.”
Cardona’s direct experience with edtech is sparse, but Doug Casey, the executive director at the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, describes him overall as a “strong ally” for his office.
“This is a person who is deeply passionate about leveling the playing field of opportunity for all students and looking at education technology as a key lever in that whole effort,” said Casey.
At the start of the pandemic, Cardona’s office created the CT Learning Hub, which collected vetted digital learning resources for educators, parents and students. Recently, Connecticut announced that it was providing laptops and home internet access to every student in the state in an effort to close digital learning gaps, a program designed and executed by Cardona and the office of Gov. Ned Lamont.
“Commissioner Cardona is deeply committed to educational equity and ensuring all students have access to the very best learning experience possible, whether at home or in the classroom,” said Nick Simmons, the director of strategic initiatives for the governor, in a statement to EdSurge. “This project was one of the biggest investments in remote learning per student in the country this year and closed the digital divide in Connecticut.”
One pressing issue facing Cardona as he steps into his new role will be deciding whether state tests, usually required by the federal law, will be waived again this year given the disruption wrought by the pandemic.
Last spring, Connecticut did not administer its state-level standardized tests, the Common Core-aligned SBAC, consistent with a federal waiver granted by the DeVos administration. DeVos was not in favor of extending that waiver into 2021—and neither, it appears, is Cardona. Connecticut plans to give the test in the new year—and Cardona has indicated that it may serve as an important benchmark.
“This year, we want to provide some opportunity for [students] to tell us what they learned or what gaps exist so we can target resources,” Cardona said earlier this month in a news conference reported by the Connecticut Post. The state plans to seek approval to not use the scores in accountability metrics.
Equity, ELL and Multicultural Education
For Cardona, who started school as an English language learner (ELL), bilingual and multicultural education has been a focus of his studies and policies.
Cardona’s dissertation for the Educational Leadership doctorate program at the University of Connecticut focused on academic achievement disparities between ELL and non-ELL students. He identified ways in which educators and policymakers applying “political will” can lead to equitable outcomes for students. In 2011, while serving as school principal, Cardona served as co-chair of a statewide task force designed to study the achievement gap in terms of race and economic status and develop a master plan to close it.
“Our success as a state will be dependent upon how we support students who are learning English as a second language,” Cardona reportedly said at his confirmation hearing for the state education commissioner role.
He’s also acknowledged that the state’s efforts are “not good enough” when it comes to supporting them. In Connecticut, 2019 NAEP results showed 30-point proficiency gaps in math and reading between white students and their Black and Hispanic peers.
Cardona, who holds a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education, is a proponent for expanding bilingual education programs. He’s also supported a recent state law that will require all high schools to offer courses on African-American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino contributions to U.S. history by fall 2022.
“The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all,” Cardona said in a statement.
Eduardo Soto, the former associate superintendent for secondary education at Albuquerque Public Schools, recalled first meeting with Cardona at a CALAS event where “we had a deep conversation about his deep desire to help all English language learners.” To Soto, an ELL student himself, “it was clear his belief in the value of dual-language and bilingual programs in helping students make progress.”
Cardona taught for four years as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, his alma mater.
Gladis Kersaint, the dean of the education school where Cardona taught, says he has been an active participant in many ways with U Conn’s education school, and she believes he will see the role that ed schools can play as partners with school districts to improve education. “He’s thoughtful,” she said. “And he’s very committed to meeting the needs of students and a diversity of student populations.”
In a 2019 commencement address at Central Connecticut State University, where he did his undergraduate (he has four degrees), he said he wanted to push back against the notion that some high school students are college material and others are not. “That to me perpetuates inequities,” he said. “We have a lot of students sitting in our high schools today who need hands-on experiences, who want to build things, who want to develop things, who want to manufacture, who want to want to go into IT, go into business. And oftentimes, we have students who don’t take those opportunities, because they’re going to be less likely to be looked at by colleges.”
Higher-ed policy watchers say that they are looking to see who Cardona appoints to key positions that will play a more direct role for the future of colleges. “The Department of Education has much more ability to shape higher education than K-12 education, so I’m paying more attention to who gets appointed to the top higher education policy positions at this point,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor at Seton Hall University who studies higher education.
Ted Mitchell, who was education under secretary under the Obama administration and is now the president of the American Council on Education, said that while he does not know Cardona personally, he is a “fan” of the work Cadona has done in Connecticut. “He has been an advocate for higher education in Connecticut, for continued state funding of higher ed, and expanded access to free community college through free community college programs,” sayid Mitchell. “Among the many battles we’re going to need to fight going forward is the fight to maintain public support for higher education.”
Whoever fills the department’s higher ed role will enter a policy arena that has experienced whiplash over the last half-decade. Although the Obama administration sought to increase the share of Americans with postsecondary degrees, the Trump administration took an ambivalent stance toward colleges, emphasizing job preparation while downplaying the importance of a bachelor’s degree.
President-elect Joe Biden’s plans may split the difference. He has highlighted community colleges as a “proven, high-quality tool for providing hard-working Americans access to education and skills and a pathway to the middle class” and called for more investment in those institutions, which offer associate degrees, certificates and credits that transfer to four-year colleges. Biden’s agenda also calls for making tuition at community colleges free for students.
The incoming administration’s emphasis on community colleges has already drawn controversy among critics who subscribe to stigmas about the institutions that educators have tried to dispel. Future first lady Jill Biden, who teaches English at a community college and who has called the institutions “America’s best kept secret,” wrote her doctoral dissertation about retention at two-year colleges—earning her recent scorn from conservative pundits.
The article has been updated with a comment from former U.S. Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell