Miguel Cardona: We just can’t turn on lights and start teaching

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021  (Susan Walsh/Pool/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021 (Susan Walsh/Pool/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Education secretary says schools must deal with emotional fallout first from COVID-19

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did not see her lack of experience in public schools – she never attended or worked in one – as a detriment. “I frankly think it’s been an asset because I don’t know what can’t be done,” said DeVos.

She also arrived in Washington with an antipathy toward public education, declaring in 2015 speech that “It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”

President Joe Biden chose a public school graduate, teacher and champion to replace DeVos. In a livestreamed discussion with the National Education Association president Wednesday night, Miguel Cardona cast public education as a lifeline for many students, including him.

Growing up in Connecticut, Cardona said he followed an older cousin into a technical high school where he studied automotives, but a teacher suggested a career in education.

“I was going to become an art teacher, but I gravitated toward elementary-age students,” he said. “I taught fourth grade. I wanted to do that for my whole career. I wasn’t planning on being secretary of education. I wanted to serve my community.”

“The values haven’t changed, the titles did. But it is still the same passion that drives me,” he said.

Cardona took questions from the virtual audience with the first one coming from physics teacher Kristen Record, the 2011 Teacher of the Year from his home state of Connecticut. She asked about testing, a topic that dominated the written comments from viewers. Most of the testing comments reflected the frustrations over the decision by the U.S. Department of Education to require states to give standardized assessments this year despite the turmoil and disruptions of the pandemic. Among them:

Norm-referenced tests could replace the punitive ones but only to see where to work with each child, not as gotchas.

But seriously can we stop testing, fund more science, and treat science as we do math and English language arts?

Why do we still have ANY standardized testing punishing our students?

Cardona compared his anguish over testing to what he went through resolving whether to reopen schools in Connecticut, a decision he said was personal since his wife worked in two middle school with 700 students each and his two children attended a high school with more than a thousands kids.

“Those decisions I was making as commissioner of education were decisions I was making for my own children and my wife. No matter how we moved, there was going to be major opposition,” he said. “There is no one size fits all.”

Cardona said no educator needs standardized tests to know how their kids are doing. But, he said, test scores provide another data point that can help determine how to best target the $130 billion in federal COVID-relief aid going to schools.

“Soon leaders are going to have to make very difficult decisions to say this classroom needs a class size of no greater than 9, but this one can go to 21,” he said, “Why? Because we know where our kids need it the most.”

“I get the challenge that this is,” said Cardona, adding that he’s witnessed an overreliance on testing and a narrowing of curriculum and programs in the last 10 to 20 years.

“Really well-done assessments, you shouldn’t even know you are taking them. They should mirror good instruction. I guarantee you that’s something we are going to be discussing and seeing how we can improve assessments so they really reflect student learning,” he said.

Asked about learning loss and what his agency can do to get students back on track, Cardona said academic headway and acceleration cannot occur until schools address the social and emotional well-being of both returning children and teachers.

“When we welcome our students back, let’s not make the mistake of turning on the lights and thinking just because they have masks on, we can turn to page 35,” he said.

He said an acceleration of learning doesn’t have to be traditional summer school, but could be giving kids museum passes, having docents there for them and asking them to write about what they saw. “We need to be creative on how we get these kids back in, but first and foremost that relational piece has to be addressed. When we get that right, the acceleration and learning will come.”

Cardona acknowledged the federal education agency has to re-establish trust with educators. “We may not always end up at the same spot, but I know what it felt like to be in a classroom and feel I wish they knew this; I wish they heard this. Our job is to help support you so you can be successful in helping children.”

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