Miguel Cardona’s rise from a classroom teacher in the Meriden Public Schools, to building principal and central office administrator, state education commissioner and now nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education may seem meteoric.
But it is highly deserved and not all that surprising, say area educators and experts.
Robert Villanova, director of the Executive Leadership Program for the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education where Cardona studied for his administrative credentials, said the nominee possesses “exceptional interpersonal skills.”
“He’s very good at communication and he does it in a way that’s invitational,” Villanova said. “He gives you his undivided attention.”
Neag School Dean Richard Schwab said Cardona was atypically young compared to most candidates seeking to get into that school’s education leadership program when he enrolled nearly two decades ago. Cardona had sought to become a building principal. Schwab said a friend, former East Hartford Schools Superintendent George Drumm, had strongly recommended Cardona for the program.
“He said this guy is an up-and-comer. We ought to keep an eye on him,” Schwab said.
“I think Miguel is what we need,” he said of his nomination to join the Biden Cabinet.
Schwab said for decades the seat of U.S. Education Secretary had been filled by individuals associated with think tanks and other organizations outside of schools and who did not bring practical teaching experience to it.
“We finally realized we need a Secretary of Education who is a leader of K-12 education, who’s been on the front line,” Schwab said.
It’s also a boost for public education.
“This is a Connecticut grown educator, a K-12 English language learner, a product of Connecticut teachers and Connecticut universities,” he said, describing Cardona as smart and “grounded in practice.”
That, he said, shows investing in public education does pay off. “What an honor not only for Meriden, but for Connecticut overall,” Schwab said.
Cardona, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would be a contrast with predecessor Betsy DeVos in that role. DeVos stepped down in the aftermath of the violent Wednesday riots in the U.S. Capitol building.
“After the last four years with someone who is so anti-public schools leading the nation, we’ve got someone who is a product of the public schools,” Schwab said.
Cardona titled the 2011 dissertation he wrote toward his educational leadership doctorate “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities.”
In it, he examined the continuous disparities in student achievement between those who are considered English language learners and those who are not, in Connecticut and nationally.
Cardona cited academic research in his findings that the “ineffectiveness of major reform efforts in education in the U.S. and abroad has been linked to the educational leaders involved having diffuse political will that was not sharply focused on addressing educational inequities.”
For educators outside of Meriden and even outside the state of Connecticut, Cardona’s selection represents a significant shift in federal policy and a reason to be optimistic.
In an email to the Record-Journal, Southington School Superintendent Tim Connellan wrote Cardona “will be missed here in Connecticut, but our loss is a huge gain for all the children in this country. I expect him to continue to be the caring, thoughtful and intelligent person that we have all come to know.”
Connellan continued, “Dr. Cardona puts children and their education first. He has been able to cut through the red tape and genuinely listens and values the opinions of superintendents and other educators. It has been so nice to have a commissioner of education who is a ‘regular guy’, a real person with front line experience and knowledge. I fully expect him to carry over his philosophy of “children first” and his views of what constitute equity and excellence in education. Working with the new administration, I am confident that he will be able to reverse some of the disastrous policy promulgated by Ms. DeVos.”
Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo had similar things to say about Cardona, adding he wishes the secretary-select “all the best.”
“His commitment to students and families has been evident throughout the pandemic. Balancing those needs with those of teachers and staff across districts has been a challenge he has met successfully … I know he will be steadfast in his efforts to close the achievement gap and to address the many challenges that districts face across our nation at this time,” Menzo wrote.
For example, in Fall River, Massachusetts, which is more than 100 miles east of Meriden. The city of close to 90,000 people once had been home to a flourishing textile industry. Its school district serves more than 10,000 students from pre-kindergarten to high school. Like Meriden and other cities, a vast majority of those students come from low income households. Many of them need academic interventions and other support.
Like Meriden, that school district has seen successes turning around once struggling schools by implementing strategies like extended school days and increased interventions.
Matthew Malone, superintendent of the Fall River Public Schools and a former state secretary of education in Massachusetts, said based on what he knows, Cardona “checks all of the boxes in terms of someone I would want” in that role.
“You want someone who is able to see all sides in the education system,” Malone said. “He’s an English language learner. This is the great challenge we’re all struggling with. There’s no silver bullet in terms of how to close that achievement gap.
“I think that it is a breath of fresh air to have someone making calls who can see, who knows first hand the challenges students and teachers face,” Malone said. “It’s great to have someone in a policy setting position, in high level leadership who understands what’s the impact on kids.”
Like other school districts, Fall River faces challenges continuing in-person learning. That district is averaging around 70 to 80 teacher absences daily, because they must quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus.
Like other educators, Malone is hopeful Cardona will restore honor to the teaching profession, which he and other education leaders feel has been maligned under previous administrations.
“Our goal is to make sure this profession is one people want to strive to enter,” Malone said.
Cardona, in his acceptance speech, discussed the teaching profession and the devastating impact of the pandemic.
Cardona acknowledged the present day challenges. But, he said, “It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to realize how important teachers are for this country,” describing a profession that has been kicked around “and not given the respect it deserves.”
“For so many of our schools and far too many of our students, this unprecedented year has piled on crisis after crisis,” Cardona said. “It’s taken some of our most painful, long standing disparities and wrenched them open even wider. It’s taxed our teachers, our leaders, our school professionals and staff who already pour so much of themselves into their work.
“It’s taxed families struggling to adapt to new routines as they balance the stress, pain, and loss that this year has given,” he said. “It has taxed young adults trying to chase their dreams to advance their education beyond high school, and carve out their place in the economy of tomorrow. And it has stolen time from our children who’ve lost something sacred and irreplaceable this year despite the heroic efforts of so many of our nation’s educators.”
He continued, “Though we are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel, we also know that this crisis is ongoing, that we will carry its impacts for years to come. And that the problems and inequities that have plagued our educational system since long before COVID will still be with us even after the virus has gone.
“So it’s our responsibility,” he said, “it’s our privilege to take this moment and to do the most American thing imaginable, to forge opportunity out of crisis, to draw on our resolve, our ingenuity, and our tireless optimism as a people and build something better than we’ve ever had before.”