The Potluck

Education Secretary Cardona talks trust, testing and police in schools at journalism conference

By: - May 4, 2021 7:58 am

WILMINGTON, DE – DECEMBER 23: Miguel Cardona speaks after President-Elect Joe Biden announced him as his nominee for Education Secretary at the Queen theatre on December 23, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke with reporters Monday about the effects of the pandemic on education and how to help students recover from the tumultuous year.

Cardona, who stepped into his role two months ago, participated in a discussion during the annual conference of the Education Writers Association, a national organization for education journalists. Cardona is a former elementary school teacher, principal and commissioner of education in Connecticut.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, moderated by EWA board member Sarah Carr. 

You’ve spoken extensively about the need to earn the trust of families of color across the country. On the one hand, they’ve been less likely to have access to in-person instruction during the pandemic, and on the other, are less likely to choose it when they do have access.

What are three things that most school districts are not doing currently that you wish they would do to better serve and gain the trust of families of color?

We need to make sure that our schoolhouses are prepared to meet the social-emotional needs of our learners. We need to make sure that students are seeing themselves in the curriculum … that what we’re presenting to students is sensitive to what their background is and what their needs are. …

Number two, we have to make sure we’re connecting families to the learning process … What I want to see more of is a natural, authentic engagement of families, and I’m not just talking about (Parent-Teacher Associations or parent-teacher organizations), although PTOs and PTAs are awesome and we need them. I’m talking about engaging with all families. …

Another thing that we’re really going to focus on — it’s one of my priorities coming into the agency — is making sure that our pre-K-12 education system is connected not only to higher education, but to workforce needs. We need to make sure that we’re providing better pathways for our learners (to the workforce).

There’s been a lot of concern about inconsistency across the requirement to do standardized testing this spring. I wondered if you could talk about the principles that are guiding the … decisions that you make. And related to that, I hoped you could speak to (whether) the data that we’ll get will justify the effort, given that there’s a lot of students that are still studying remotely who aren’t engaged in school right now. …

The conditions are not perfect anywhere. I don’t think there’s a teacher across the country that needs a standardized test to tell them how the children in front of them are doing. Yet we have to make a decision about how to move forward based on the (reopening) data that we’re receiving from states … Standardized tests aren’t the end-all. But putting those pieces of data together will help paint a picture that can help you distribute resources … (Test results may help) a policymaker, someone at the state level to say, ‘This community needs to get more than this community, based on what we’re seeing.’ Not only from the standardized test but (other data as well). We’re making very serious decisions about how to (distribute) billions of dollars. So every little bit of data helps. 

In terms of the reliability … we’re working with states to provide as much flexibility as possible, including assessing students in the fall … When we talk about raising the bar, making sure students are coming back to quality curriculum, we have to know what they missed so that we can modify the curriculum next year. …

Clearly, the conditions aren’t ideal, nor are they consistent throughout the country … There’s never a perfect answer for any of this, but we have to lead. We have to make decisions.

George Floyd’s murder prompted districts to cut ties with the police. What are your thoughts on the presence of school resource officers and the police-free schools movement?

I was in a district where we had resource officers in the middle and high school, and when trained well and when working in partnership with the school to be proactive and a support for students, it’s a positive thing. So I’ve seen models of where it works exceptionally well, where it even provides a pathway for students to look at themselves as potential law enforcement officers or in the field of law enforcement … There have to be efforts to make sure that it’s done well or else it could turn very negative. We don’t need officers to be in there … with the mentality of trying to catch students. That’s not what it should be. It should be a positive resource, kind of like a community school almost — where you have different members of this community in the building, supporting students to be successful in life.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.