Q&A with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

Miguel Cardona, 46, is the U.S. secretary of education. He served previously in numerous educational roles in Connecticut, his home state – as a teacher, then principal, and ultimately as the state’s commissioner of education.

Q: Throughout your career you have focused on addressing achievement disparities between students of different backgrounds. Covid has exacerbated many of those disparities. How are you planning to close those gaps?

A: I feel fortunate to be serving in the capacity that I’m serving in at this time. My dissertation was (on) the use of political will to address the achievement disparity – and here we are. The achievement disparities have worsened in the last year and a half. As educational leaders, we have to muster whatever political will we can to hit the reset button on those things we know didn’t work. And double down on making sure that as we reopen our schools, not only that they’re welcoming, that they’re safe, but also that we’re going to bring students back to a system that equalizes the playing field. With the American Rescue Plan, the expectation is that the funds are used to close those gaps.

We have a “Return to School Roadmap” with tips and strategies on how to safely reopen schools because the reality is the best lever for equity across the country is in-person learning. What we were finding last year and at the end of the past school year is that Black and Brown students were accessing in-person learning less. And if we know students learn best when they’re in the classroom, we have to do everything to make sure that they’re getting in-person. So safety matters most.

We’re inviting educators from across the country to join national experts talking about bold strategies to address inequities that were made worse. We’re talking with state chiefs, with superintendents, governors, reviewing plans that they’ve been developing to reopen schools. And we’re making sure that equity and stakeholder engagement are a part of it. So those are some of the things that we’re doing to make sure that we’re using our weight to address the inequities made worse during the pandemic.

Q: With the delta variant causing upticks in covid cases now, just as students are heading back to school, what do you tell families worried about kids not being able to go back to school or about the health risks of doing so? And do you see a vaccine mandate as necessary for those eligible?

A: I’m an education expert, and I’m leaning on the medical experts to know best when it’s time to mandate it. But my children were vaccinated as soon as they were able to. My wife and I are breathing a little bit easier. And it’s not just about my family; it’s about making sure that we’re not spreading the virus. So, yes, I would want to see that so that we can get to the business of teaching and learning and addressing the gaps that were made worse.

I’ve spoken with families across the country, and I hear them saying, “They need to be back.” They just want to make sure that they’re safe. I always put my dad hat on: I wouldn’t put my kids in harm’s way. I want to know what the school is doing, that they’re following protocols. I want to know if there are infections that are going to impact my children or my community. Schools are having to do more outreach, more knocking on doors; the website needs better communications strategies to allay those fears that parents have. And we have to keep in mind that not only are our parents concerned, our educators want to make sure that they’re being kept safe as well. That’s why the $10 billion toward testing is critical.

Q: How long-term do you think that effects on students’ socio-emotional health will be?

A: With different communities it’s different. We know that in some places, densely populated places, the impact of this last year and a half was significant. There was a lot of loss and a lot of emotional recovery needed. I do think that our students are resilient. I do think that this summer provided an opportunity for students to reconnect in ways that they hadn’t for over a year. But now, as the numbers go back up, I think mixed with the fatigue, you have frustration that this is coming to the point where we have to go back to some mitigation strategies that we were able to loosen a bit.

So I think that the social-emotional effects will probably linger. But with the funds made available and the attention that we’re placing on the social and emotional well-being of students, I do believe our students are going to be able to recover. And I do believe, equally as important, that our staff are going to get the support that they need to recover from the experiences that they had during this pandemic as well.

Q: Addressing a group of students while commissioner of education in Connecticut, you said, “Statistically, I’m not supposed to be here.” Can you talk about how your own experience growing up shaped your view of education and your motivation for doing the work you’re doing today?

A: This morning I had an equity conference in Connecticut, and I was talking with folks who went through the fire with me in the pandemic; these are educational leaders from across the state. And as we talked about equity and access, I reminded them that no matter where they are – they could be in the most impoverished community – that the next president could be in their classroom. I moved seven times before I was 13 years old. I remember my mother, barely 20, 21 years old, walking me to school and learning English when I got to school; I knew Spanish first. In terms of demographics and socioeconomic status, my community was lacking. Yet I always say: I was born rich, I just didn’t have a lot of material possessions. I had a very strong family. I had a sense of pride and sense of community – our school provided that. And I saw my parents work really hard and give back to the community. My brother’s now a lieutenant in the police department in my hometown. My sister became a social worker in my hometown. I became an educator in my hometown. So we have to be careful how we assess ability, and we should never, ever assume certain things based on circumstance.

In fact, I’m secretary of education because of my experience. Even going to a technical high school – I studied automotive for four years, and I didn’t go to the Ivy League schools. But my experience is what made me the candidate that the president of the United States wanted for secretary of education at this time. Those lived experiences are going to help me stay passionate and to make sure I’m pulling the right levers so that when we come out of this pandemic we’re better than we were before. To make sure that all students, nationwide, are seen as potential presidents, potential secretaries of education.

Q: What was it about education, specifically – did you have a teacher or some experience – that made you see its potential to affect others?

A: So I had a cousin who was 7 or 8 years older who went to this high school. And you know: Big Puerto Rican family, a lot of cousins, we, kind of like little ducks, followed our older cousin to the technical high school. And it was a great experience – I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I was studying automotive, and about junior year I had a teacher who noticed that I was using my artwork to talk about justice and equity. I was doing a small mural talking about how we’re all one race, the human race, and it depicted different cultures. She saw that and said, “You know, Miguel, this would be great in the cafeteria as a large bulletin board.” So she asked me to do a bigger mural and, to me, I was being seen by an educator. I saw that my art could be a tool for communication of my values. So she said: You should consider a career in teaching. So I went to college to become an art teacher and was drawn to elementary education. Basically, whether I’m a fourth-grade teacher or secretary of education, it’s a way to serve the community.

Q: So you still see education as the great equalizer?

A: Of course. Even more so now with the belief that the president has and the vice president and the first lady have around how education is that great equalizer. She’s an educator; the vice president went to an HBCU. They understand what it can do for a community. And look, they’re following it up with action, with resources. So, yes, I do believe it is the great equalizer – it was for me. Public schools are the reason why I’m secretary of education. I was the first in my family to go to college because of the public schools and how they drove me into education. And for millions of students across the country, that’s our task, that’s our charge and that’s why I’m so passionate about getting students safely back into school to make those relationships with those teachers that are going to pat the kids on the shoulder and say: “I see something in you that maybe you don’t even see.”

Q: When you got the call from the Biden administration to head the Education Department – or however it actually works – very much in the thick of the pandemic, what was your reaction?

A: Let me first share with you that a year ago in July, I remember feeling this immense weight on my shoulders as commissioner of education (in Connecticut), knowing that we’re going to be reopening schools: Are we doing the right thing? Have we taken all the precautions? I worried that the health and well-being of students and educators were at stake. It was such a heavy burden. I wondered: Why am I here? Why is this happening? You know: I didn’t sign up for this. I remember that as though it were yesterday. And then a year later I thought to myself how fortunate I was to have gone through that experience because it prepared me for the months ahead and addressing the work that we have now.

But when I got a call from Washington, there were several interviews, and vetting, and this and that. And one of them called me on a Sunday and said, “Be prepared tomorrow at 6 o’clock: You’re going to have an interview, and it’s likely that the president-elect will be on the call.” So then I knew it was very real. (Laughs.) The next day I get on that call – it was with (White House chief of staff) Ron Klain, President Biden and the first lady. We had a 45-minute conversation. They knew about my work, they just wanted to know who I was as a person. The job wasn’t offered to me then. The president said, “I’ll give you a call tomorrow.”

I then had a call with (the) vice president-elect about an hour later, and again, I felt really connected. I just shared what I’m about, what my values are, what I believe for children. And I knew that when I hung up those calls, whatever happened, I was just so thrilled that I got a chance to talk to President Biden, the first lady and the vice president-elect. The next morning, I get a call at 11 o’clock. My wife was home and my children were home that day, and we huddled together, and when the president shared with me that he wanted me to join his team, you know, you’re overwhelmed with emotion. I had my wife in my left hand and my kids in my right hand, and he was on speaker phone and he told me why he selected me. He thought that at this point we needed somebody who understands what families are going through. What teachers feel and schools. And so, while a year ago I felt such pressure, I felt such pride. And I recognized why I was feeling that way last year: I was just sharpening my sword for the fight ahead.





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