U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona smiles at the camera


Miguel Cardona grew up in a public housing project in Meriden, Connecticut. The grandson of a tobacco farmer whose parents moved to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico as children, he spoke only Spanish when he started kindergarten.

Now, after a career in public education—from teacher to Connecticut education commissioner—Cardona is positioned to assume the highest education office in the nation.

In January, President Joseph Biden appointed Cardona as the country’s 12th Secretary of Education, calling him an innovative leader who will fight for a more equitable and successful education system. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March.

With his public school resume and advocacy for low-income students, the 45-year-old stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Betsy DeVos.

Fearing disadvantaged students would fall behind because of disparities associated with online learning, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Cardona urged schools to reopen last fall despite coronavirus-related concerns from the state’s largest teachers union. At the federal level, he’ll be responsible for realizing Biden’s plan to reopen most K-12 schools within the administration’s first 100 days.

Those who know him say Cardona is authentic and engaging. “What you see is what you get,” says Mark D. Benigni, superintendent of Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools, the district Cardona attended as a child and later served as principal, teacher evaluation specialist, and assistant superintendent.

Benigni and Cardona grew up in the tight-knit community, knowing of each other’s families. They worked together closely for nearly a decade before Cardona left to become state commissioner of education. Their daughters, both in ninth grade, are friends.

Cardona has an easy rapport with young people, says Benigni: “Miguel would just go into a building and jump into conversations with students—he didn’t need a planned meeting. The same guy you can have a private joke with is the same guy students see every day. When you’re truly comfortable in your own skin and love what you do, people naturally gravitate toward and want to share with you.”

Simsbury, Connecticut, school board member Lydia Tedone is looking forward to working with Cardona. “I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Cardona and highly value his commitment and interest in public education on all levels, especially this past year,” says Tedone, who is also a member of NSBA’s board of directors. “His investment in districts amid COVID-19 has shown that every child matters, while student safety and achievement are at the forefront at this time. We are fortunate to have benefitted from his leadership and look forward to his continued success on the federal level helping to reshape public policy and advocate for each child, so they receive the best public education.”

Bully pulpit

Just how much leverage does an education secretary have in how K-12 schools are run at the local level?

A significant amount, given the dependence that many school districts have on federal funding. Federal money makes up an average of 8.3 percent of school district budgets, mostly in Title 1, special education, and preschool funding. Many school districts, especially those with large populations of disadvantaged students, have come to rely on the funds.

the outside of the U.S. Department of Education building

Education secretaries and federal education officials have been able to bring about important reforms through that funding. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed into law in 1965, helped integrate schools in the South, once districts began to worry that they’d fail to get that funding if they remained segregated.

ESEA, established well before the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979, was “an early, dramatic illustration of the power of the federal purse,” according to Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow and director of K-12 equity at The Century Foundation, a think tank in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Kahlenberg hopes Cardona picks up the torch that John B. King Jr. held as education secretary under President Barack Obama. King endorsed numerous programs that provided federal financial support to districts trying to reduce segregation by race and class.

Cardona’s experience in Connecticut—where Hartford’s school integration program, promoted through magnet school programs and public school choice, is a national example— gives Kahlenberg confidence that that could happen.

“Miguel Cardona could help the Biden-Harris administration implement school integration in a smart way that’s politically palatable,” he says. “Hartford is one of the poorest cities in the entire country, so if suburban students can be attracted to its schools, it can be done anywhere.”

In the trenches

Cardona is a staunch advocate for public schools in a nation where 90 percent of students attend one. Seen as someone with a relatable background, he is bilingual and bicultural. He holds a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural education and considered going into bilingual education but felt it was important for non-Latino students to see a Latino as a teacher.

“He’s been in the trenches,” says Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), who is friends with Cardona. “He grew up in a town with significant challenges, and it’s given him an empathy, an understanding, of how many of our students and teachers and school leaders feel on different issues.”

an empty classroom, the desks arranged in rows


Those issues include civil rights for minorities and the LGBTQ community, which had taken up a smaller footprint under DeVos, says Michael Hansen, senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Major racial disparities in student discipline rates have been documented for decades. In 2015-16 alone, for every 100 students enrolled, Black secondary students lost 82 more days of instruction than their white peers as a result of out-of-school suspensions, according to an October 2020 report released by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. At the elementary level, Black students lost 20 more days, and across K-12 the Black-white difference was 51 days.

“Whether those disparities were the result of unconscious bias or not, they are processes that still result in unequal outcomes for students of color and other marginalized students,” Hansen says. “We should be paying attention to them as flags that something sinister may be happening that produces these results.”

A stabilizing force

Cardona is a good listener, says Rader. Every week Cardona would host a meeting of what he called “the partners,” which included CABE, teacher unions, and school superintendents and principals. Half the time was dedicated to him speaking or to staff updates; the other half was set aside for him to hear what others had to say.

Cardona doesn’t always give people what they want, but he does want to hear what’s on their minds, notes Rader: “When things were getting rough in the press—after conversations with teachers unions that were really pushing for all-remote learning—he’d never say, ‘I won’t talk to them again.’ But he’s also frank enough to be able to say, ‘Well, we’re going to have to disagree on that.’”

Cardona’s collaborative nature is what propelled him from the school building to district administration. When Benigni became superintendent 11 years ago, Cardona was the principal at Hanover Elementary School. At the time, a new Connecticut reform measure tied student performance data to teacher evaluations. The district tapped Cardona, who had become the youngest school principal in the state at age 27, to become its teacher evaluation specialist.

“I knew this was going to be a tricky situation,” remembers Benigni. “The last thing I wanted was for these new state reforms to impact our working relationship with our teachers union—a relationship we had worked so hard to build. It was a delicate balance, but I trusted that Miguel would navigate those waters well, and he did a great job.”

Benigni adds that he anticipates Cardona will be a stabilizing force at the federal level when it comes to standardized testing: “He knows that standardized testing needs to be all about individual student growth and teacher support and development. He’s someone who recognizes that testing doesn’t have to be the enemy, that it’s helpful when used in the right way—when it’s seen as a lever for improvement, rather than a threat of failure.”

Hansen feels that a “great innovative solution”—one the assessment community has been talking about since before COVID-19—would be to start better leveraging formative tests already happening in school districts. The tests have computer-adaptive responses and precise scoring, without high stakes attached.

“This is a space where we should be making some bold moves,” says Hansen. “It’s COVID-responsive, but it’s also an opportunity to really change testing and how we hold schools accountable and monitor student progress, which would be a push in the right direction for all these issues.”

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, retired research professor of education, and founder and president of the Network for Public Education, will be watching with cautious optimism. Calling this assessment issue Cardona’s “first test,” Ravitch, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for research under President George H. W. Bush, points to a federal law, around since the 1970s, prohibiting any federal official from influencing curriculum or instruction.

“Will he listen to parents and teachers who say it’s inequitable to administer the tests—and that the tests will not tell you whether the kids have needs?” she says. “We’ve known since 1965, when ESEA was passed, where the needs are, and the needs are where there is poverty.”

Transformation now! 

Aside from equity and testing challenges, Cardona from his bully pulpit will need to address several looming issues, including recruiting and retaining teachers; closing the digital divide in education, which is commonly called the homework gap; and helping better prepare students for success in today’s world through improved 21st-century skills, observes Chip Slaven, the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) chief advocacy officer.

This all feeds into NSBA’s Public Schools Transformation Now! campaign, which calls for a fundamentally different approach to schooling to close the digital divide.

two boys use a laptop


The campaign was launched “to put our public students and their individual needs at the center of learning, as well as fight for a more just and equitable education system,” says Anna Maria Chávez, NSBA’s executive director and CEO. “With a long-standing relationship with CABE and his commitment to public education in Connecticut and around the nation, we know Dr. Cardona will be an ally in this fight.”

Slaven says that while additional short-term COVID relief money is desperately needed, attention then must pivot to the next reauthorization of ESEA to help transform and modernize public schools in the long term.

“Schools need to be given the resources and flexibility to be even more creative and innovative to help their students,” he says. “We have to let schools try different things, and to do that, they need resources and funding.”

Evelyn Robles-Rivas, president of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, says Cardona knows there’s always room for improvement.

“He understands, looking at the diversity of our nation, that we’re always looking for opportunities we can put in place to enhance the learning experience of all students,” she says. “And having role models that represent all students in positions of leadership is powerful.”

In January, Cardona told Meriden high school students and staff to “find support from dedicated teachers and educators around you, like I did. If you come across people who doubt you, or have low expectations, prove them wrong.”

Benigni believes Cardona will do that himself—again— in the coming years. ‘

“He’s very passionate and has strong principles that he’s not afraid to share, but he’s not someone who feels like it’s only his way,” says Benigni. “Finding the best way for students to succeed is always the final outcome, and that type of approach is going to work well.”


a dotted line

San Diego superintendent picked for deputy secretary of education


a headshot of Cindy Marten


Cindy Marten, President Joseph Biden’s choice for deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, worked as a teacher and administrator before becoming superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District in 2013.

“Cindy is bringing to her role a deep grounding in local work,” says Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education. “She will have a very clear focus in her role on making sure that the federal government is supporting the needs of local educators.”

After being nominated, Marten said in a statement that she has “never been more optimistic about the future of the American education system.”

At Central Elementary, where Marten was principal, 100 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and a high percentage are English learners from communities all over the world.

Instead of pulling students out of classrooms to work with specialists, her approach has been to keep students in the classroom, which heightens the educational experience for every student and requires teachers to become experts in teaching every student regardless of need, says Barrera.

Marten has her critics, including the NAACP. The San Diego chapter has condemned what it calls Marten’s attested pattern of allowing excessive suspensions and expulsions of Black students.

Her supporters, meanwhile, say she goes to great lengths to make sure all children have access to a good education.

John Lee Evans, the school board’s former president, says that as Central Elementary principal, Marten led an effort to close the digital divide before the pandemic—so that when schools had to close, the district was positioned to give out about 75,000 devices to students to use at home. She worked with local cable companies to get free internet access for those who needed it and organized the drive-up distribution of school meals that extended through the summer. And aside from lifting test scores, she established an on-site health center with community funds and a child care center for teachers and staff.

San Diego outpaces the state when it comes to graduation rates and college-readiness rates, according to Barrera.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), San Diego in 2017 was the only large urban district in the nation to register significant test score increases compared with 2015 in both reading and mathematics in the fourth grade, with notable gains made by students eligible for subsidized meals. In addition, no other city in the country saw as many gains in both the fourth and eighth grades in reading and math on the NAEP.

“No district anyplace can make a claim today that it has achieved equity,” Barrera says. “But I would also argue no district can make a claim that it has had more improvement and more equitable outcomes for students than San Diego Unified under Cindy’s leadership.”

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