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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

This Is Our Moment: A Conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

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Photo of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona
Miguel A. Cardona, the former commissioner of education in Connecticut, became the U.S. Secretary of Education on March 2, 2021, taking office in the midst of an historic pandemic that had profoundly reshaped the nation’s schools. In his initial months on the job, Cardona—also a one-time public school teacher and principal—has focused closely on school reopenings and championed equity as a central education priority. In addition, he has been charged with overseeing the unprecedented $130 billion federal investment in K–12 schools provided in the American Rescue Plan. Educational Leadership recently asked Secretary Cardona about the challenges and opportunities facing schools and educators as they embark on this pivotal school year.
You’ve referred to the prospect of school building reopenings this year as “our moment to hit the reset button,” but you’ve cautioned that the goal shouldn’t be “to go back to what [education] was before March 2020.” What are you trying to convey to educators? What do you want to see change?
Reopening our schools means much more than turning on the lights. This is our moment as educators and leaders to transform our education system so that it truly serves all our nation’s students, particularly those historically and presently underserved—who also have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We know that even before COVID-19, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds had less access to educational opportunity, including outstanding educators, rigorous coursework, school counselors, and other supports necessary for their success. If our goal is simply to go back to where we were before March 2020, we’ll miss the chance to forge ­opportunity and needed progress from this crisis. We must rethink how we’re engaging with students, families, and communities.
Further, what we’ve seen amid the pandemic is that students’ access to in-person instruction has not been equal, especially for students of color. This is troubling because in-person learning offers so many vital opportunities for students to develop healthy, nurturing relationships with educators and peers, and because students receive essential supports in school for their social and emotional ­well-being, mental health, and academic success.
I’m heartened that as of May, nearly all—98 percent—of K–8 public schools were open for some form of in-person instruction, and 63 percent were open for full-time, in-person learning for all students. But disparities in enrollment remain. These disparities in access to in-person learning are unacceptable. We must reopen our schools across the country with equity at the center of all our ­decisions. We must make sure we create welcoming schools for all students. We must be laser-focused on this work so that all students have access to an excellent education that opens doors to opportunity and thriving lives.
We have often heard, and maybe even affirmed ourselves, that education is the great equalizer. Well, now is our chance to prove it.

We have often heard, and maybe even affirmed ourselves, that education is the great equalizer. Well, now is our chance to prove it.

There has been a lot of concern about instructional gaps as a result of the pandemic and the shift to distance learning. And, of course, the Biden administration has put forth significant funding to help schools address unfinished instruction and accelerate students’ learning. How concerned are you about the ongoing effects of learning disruptions during the pandemic? How can schools leverage these federal resources to address potential gaps?
Learning disruptions have been very real. As communities and as a country, we need to contend with the pandemic’s wide-ranging impacts on students and families. So many students have experienced interrupted and unfinished instruction. They may not have had consistent access to healthy, nurturing relationships with educators and peers in school. They may have experienced the loss of loved ones or had to bear the ­responsibility of looking after younger siblings or taking care of sick family members. Their families may have experienced a financial crisis connected to the pandemic. So even as I’m concerned about learning disruptions, I’m also focused on ensuring that we’re meeting the needs of the whole child.
Fortunately, I believe brighter days are ahead. President Biden’s whole-of-government response to help our country build back better from this crisis is helping bring vital resources to our students, schools, and colleges across the country. Funds from the American Rescue Plan—$130 billion—will help school buildings reopen safely for full-time, in-person instruction. It’s my expectation that every school will do that for the fall.
I want to encourage educators to explore the U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 resource page at We have some outstanding resources there, especially our three COVID-19 handbooks. Each handbook provides a roadmap to using federal resources to safely reopen schools, recover from the pandemic, reinvest in our students, and reimagine education for generations to come.
You’ve said that “the pandemic has sharpened our sword to fight inequities in education.” As a nation, how can we address persistent gaps in access to educational opportunity, which, as you’ve noted, are too often drawn along lines of race and class?
There is no silver lining when it comes to a crisis like COVID-19. At the same time, this pandemic has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure our educational system works for all students, not just some. There were gaps in access to educational opportunity long before this pandemic started, but the pandemic uncovered and exacerbated them. Some districts and schools were able to get their students fully set up online within a week after school buildings closed in response to the public health crisis, while some districts and schools didn’t have any contact with their ­students for months.
Putting equity at the center of everything we do means ensuring that all students have access to the resources and supports that they need to thrive in school. It means making all schools safe and welcoming places. It means providing every student with access to rich, rigorous learning experiences and instructional materials that are inclusive and representative of our students’ diverse ­backgrounds and experiences.
It’s important to note that addressing gaps in access to educational opportunity starts with listening to the needs and concerns of communities. Schools and districts need to make sure that students and parents are at the table talking about their needs and that they are part of the solution to community challenges. We must prioritize intentional collaboration and work collectively to build trust with parents and families, especially in historically underserved and under-resourced communities.
As I reflect on my experience as commissioner of education in Connecticut, I recall that we, as educators and education leaders in the state, had to dig deep during the pandemic. We had to work so hard in a completely different context to deliver quality teaching and learning experiences to our students and to do so equitably. We had to work so hard, using the best advice of medical professionals, to ensure that our students, our parents and families, and our teachers and school staff were safe and getting the supports that they needed. That work ultimately made us stronger. It made us more laser-focused on what we needed to do in defense of our students. All communities across the country now have to take that strength that they also forged in the midst of crisis and turn it into energy and urgency to fight against complacency. We must make sure to maintain the same level of urgency in fighting inequities, prioritizing students, and striving for better educational opportunities and outcomes for all children.
Through President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, we have the opportunity as a nation to address educational inequities and provide children with the resources and supports that can help them fulfill their incredible potential. I’ve traveled to dozens of schools in various states, and at each school, I’ve been able to hear directly from students, teachers, and parents about their needs. While these needs vary, every student, every teacher, and every parent wants the same thing: an excellent education.
There’s also a lot of concern about burnout and possible attrition among teachers and school leaders after the challenges of the past year. What do you want educators and prospective educators to know about working in K–12 education right now?
Teachers and school leaders are superheroes, and their response to this crisis has been inspiring. Educators have gone above and beyond this past year, to ensure not only that students continue learning, but also that their nutritional, mental health, and social-emotional needs are met.
As an educator, I know the talent, commitment, and passion teachers pour into their work with students. But I also know that this pandemic has challenged many educators as they’ve tried to balance the needs of themselves and their families with the needs of their students.
I want educators and prospective educators to know that the Biden Administration is committed to strengthening the teaching profession and treating educators with the respect they deserve. Through the president’s Build Back Better agenda, we are investing in our teachers as well as our students by improving teacher preparation and support. Our investments will also address teacher shortages and strengthen the pipeline into teaching for educators of color so that, nationally, we can increase the diversity of this great ­profession. We are also working to help current teachers earn credentials in high-demand areas, such as special education and bilingual education, and gain certifications that help teachers meet the unique needs of every child they teach.
I truly believe there is no more important time to be a teacher. Being a teacher is an exercise in love. It’s a calling. It’s the profession that helps grow all other professions, and that strengthens our democratic society. To anyone considering their career path, I would say, teach!
Has leading the nation’s schools during this crisis changed your perspective on education in any way? Are there things schools or educators are doing that should be more widely acknowledged or celebrated?
As an educator, it’s always been clear to me how connected our systems are—from health to education to the economy. But the pandemic truly has thrown into sharp relief how we must work across every system if we want to live in a more equitable and just society—which, of course, should be our collective goal.
This is our moment to have the difficult conversations about how to build back better, how to lead in a transformative way, and how to use every penny provided by the president and Congress to advance our students’ success. The funding is there, the urgency from the president is there. Are we going to lead through this challenging time and come out stronger? We can, and we must. And when we do, we will build a brighter future for every student in this country.
And in my opinion, we can’t celebrate educators enough. But we can’t stop at celebrating. We must also recognize and honor teachers’ expertise, include teachers at the table in discussions that impact their daily work with students in classrooms, provide teachers with opportunities to lead, listen to teachers’ voices, and compensate teachers commensurate with the incredible importance of their work.
How do you think schools should measure success this year? What criteria should they be looking at and monitoring in terms of student growth and progress and school environment?
The pandemic has caused significant disruptions to students’ learning. In response, the U.S. Department of Education has created tremendous flexibility around assessments. At the same time, information on student performance is critical to making good decisions in education.
Alongside other sources of data on student outcomes and students’ opportunity to learn, data from statewide assessments can help educators, policymakers, and parents and families understand the impact the pandemic has had on students’ learning. Data is especially vital to target resources to the students with the greatest needs. And it can provide important information to parents and families at a time when they, understandably, have so many questions about their ­children’s education.
Schools can and should be looking at the whole child and determining what supports children need to be successful. Transparency on opportunity-to-learn measures—such as chronic absenteeism and access to key resources like technology—can help inform decisions about what supports students need in the next school year and beyond.
What are you most hopeful about as students and educators head into the new school year and begin to emerge from the pandemic?
I’m hopeful that we’ll begin to meaningfully address the inequities that have plagued our education system for far too long. I’m hopeful about our educators who have, in the face of some of the most challenging circumstances, discovered creative ways to engage, care for, and teach our children. I’m hopeful that our states and districts will continue using the resources from the American Rescue Plan and other pandemic relief aid to reimagine education in ways that help our students and communities heal, and build our education system back better. And most important, I’m hopeful about our students, who have shown such strength, courage, and resilience. I’m hopeful about what they will teach educators, and all of us, about how best to meet their needs.

Anthony Rebora is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership.

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