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UConn Professor: As U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona Would Prioritize Public Schools

Miguel Cardona with his parents in Meriden
Miguel Cardona with his parents in Meriden

Miguel Cardona is drawing praise from many in the academic community as a visionary choice to be the next U.S. secretary of education. President-elect Joe Biden announced his pick last week.

As a child, Cardona entered public school in Connecticut speaking only Spanish. He attended technical high school, went on to graduate from Central Connecticut State University and eventually earned multiple advanced degrees from the University of Connecticut. Cardona was named the state’s education commissioner in 2019.

To learn more about the man now poised to lead the nation’s schools, Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson spoke with Robert Villanova, director of the Executive Leadership Program at UConn’s NEAG School of Education. He said he and Cardona first met when Cardona was principal at Hanover Elementary School in his hometown of Meriden.

RV: He was a dynamic and innovative principal of an urban elementary school. Since that time, we’ve stayed associated, Miguel and I. He came through our UConn Ed.D. program. And he decided that when he finished his doctorate to move on and complete the 13-month program that I work in, which is the Executive Leadership program, which is designed specifically to prepare superintendents for the 21st century.

So, I’ve known Miguel for a long time and I was not surprised when he was appointed commissioner because he certainly had demonstrated remarkable commitment to equity, high achievement for all kids, great interpersonal skills. But I was, I have to admit, very surprised when I heard that he was on the short list for secretary of education.

DO: What do you see as Miguel Cardona’s strengths? And what do you see as his particular challenges?

RV: His strengths are that he’s a demonstrated collaborative leader. He knows how to get to the end of building consensus, dealing with conflict. He has unbelievable interpersonal skills. He’s got the ability to take diverse points of view and blend them together and come out with a consensus that’s best for all. I think that’s a really, really strong asset that he brings to the table. He also has a clear and proud commitment to equity. He comes, as you know, from the city of Meriden. He’s proud of his family, and he’s proud of the accomplishments he and his family have made. And he leads with that in a way that is genuine and authentic, and makes people feel as though it’s a commitment we all should make as Americans.

DO: What about challenges he may face?

RV: I think the challenges that he’ll face as secretary are not that different than the challenges he’s faced as commissioner. I think that COVID has exacerbated some of the main challenges that I’ll mention. But he has to find ways, I’d imagine as a leader, to address the inequities that continue to challenge all educators across the country, including in Connecticut.

Also, the idea of prioritizing public education after a period when the federal government seemed to shift more towards an interest in private education, charter schools and alternatives to the current system. I think he is going to have to be able get that message out in ways that would be very new compared to the last four years of the message coming out of the federal government about education. That will be a significant challenge.

DO: Let’s go back to the upending of education during the pandemic. Commissioner Cardona has pushed for keeping state schools open as much as possible. And although unions in the state have expressed support for his nomination, still thousands of teachers and school bus drivers and custodians across Connecticut have said that they’re being asked to work in unsafe conditions. They’ve complained about a lack of clarity or consistency. They’ve requested statewide standards be put in place. And I’m wondering what are your thoughts on this and also how do you expect a U.S. Secretary Cardona to handle school openings during a pandemic?

RV: Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question at the current time, and I’ve been impressed and amazed at the fine line that Commissioner Cardona has been able to walk over the last nine or 10 months because the issues around that are just so complex. I’ve listened to conversations among many superintendents in talking to the commissioner and pushing back on a variety of issues from health and safety to inequities to everything that goes around that. And although there are continuing unhappy teacher perspectives who don’t feel safe, don’t have the resources they need, I’ve never been privy to a conversation that was heated or negative about threatening this or that.

It seems to me the leadership the commissioner has put in place has been to keep working on it behind the scenes, keep pushing, keep using the bully pulpit to get the message out there, pushing back without creating enemies. The fact that the teachers associations in Connecticut and nationally have endorsed his candidacy for the secretary position in this environment, that’s quite remarkable given that he’s really pushed hard for in-person schooling and he knows the challenges about that.

So I think the bottom line to me is, he’s got optimism with a reality bent to it. He’s got an optimistic message out there about how all students should be in school, but it's tempered by this reality about what it takes to get all kids in school. And I think he’s been careful not to cross a line to say “All kids no matter what in all schools.”

Hopefully, as the COVID corner is turning or about to turn, I’m hoping that the message that he’d get out would be one that he’s gotten out in Connecticut. The real goal is to get all children in school, in safe school, as fast as we can. But the pathway there is not going to be the same in Arizona as it is perhaps in Connecticut, and that’s the same challenge he had that it can’t be the same in New Haven as it is in Farmington. It’s a very similar issue on a larger scale.

DO: And one last question. As the director of an executive leadership program, does it matter that he was appointed to lead Connecticut schools only last year, so he hasn’t had a huge amount of time in the job?

RV: Well, that’s always the question. When is too early, too early? I think leadership promise is recognized in the way you carry yourself, in what you do, and how you work in a position.

Let me say a brief story. I just happened to be there when Miguel defended his dissertation probably eight years ago at the NEAG School of Education. And he did a very in-depth study of how politics can affect achievement, etc. A very thoughtful, scholarly study. At the end of his presentation, he gave a sidebar set of comments about his family, his Puerto Rican heritage, his commitment as an American citizen in a way that I could see around the room -- there may have been 20 of us, 18 of us -- there were tears in people’s eyes, because he has a commitment to what it takes. Education as the key to a better life -- that seems to be the underlying belief in all his statements and his beliefs and his leadership.

So I’m guessing whether it’s two years or 15 years in the commissioner position, the fundamental drivers that are going to make him a national leader are the same drivers that made him an effective commissioner in the short time that he was in there. That’s how I see it.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.
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