From the outside, the Meriden Public Schools system looks like a network of struggling city schools.
The state has designated it an Alliance District and one of the “lowest-performing districts” since more than one-quarter of the students are multiple grades behind in English, math and science. It is also an economically isolated district that spends 30% less per student than the state average despite three-quarters of its students coming from low-income families. And the school ratings often used in real estate listings don’t look favorably on the district, either.
This is where Miguel Cardona — President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to become the next U.S. education secretary — grew up and spent 21 years of his 23-year career as an educator. And his experiences there — his battles and the district’s successes — will likely be front-of-mind as he coordinates policy for all the public schools in the country.
Cardona has never put much weight into titles, and he has grown used to defying low expectations set upon him and his students.
“If you come across people in your life that doubt you or have low expectations, prove them wrong,” Cardona told students in the district last week during a celebration of his nomination and his time in Meriden. “Testimonies are better than titles.”
Throughout his career, Cardona has focused on being the countervailing force to what he and some education scholars and politicians call the “normalization of failure” or the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
For him, a child born in public housing in a poor community who entered school speaking only Spanish, it meant eluding the likelihood of depressing outcomes for most children who grew up in his ZIP code — and a rapid rise to become the state’s youngest principal, the state’s first Latino education commissioner, and likely the country’s next education secretary.
In Meriden, it meant broadening opportunity by opening access to advanced-level courses to drastically more students, embracing the Common Core standards and the accompanying tests that raised the bar for where students should be academically, providing emotional support and interventions for students acting out rather than suspending them, and setting up programs to help more high school graduates navigate to college.
Cardona also took the lead in Meriden to fine-tune controversial education reforms aimed at teacher accountability that were being pushed onto his district by state and federal officials into a model that the local union eventually supported.
Meriden is a model district, and the growth numbers in particular kind of provide evidence of that.”
Meriden’s results are ahead of most districts’ throughout the state on arguably the most important benchmark — the share of students who meet their growth targets and are on track to catch up or stay ahead.
Statewide, 33% of students from low-income families were on track to catch up in English Language Arts, compared to 39% of the poor students in Meriden by the end of the 2018-19 school year, the last year Cardona was the district’s assistant superintendent before becoming state education commissioner. In math, 37% of poor students in Meriden were on track, compared to 34% statewide. The growth of Meriden students also jumps out compared to the state’s 32 other “low-performing” Alliance Districts.
The share of Meriden students from low-income households reaching their growth targets has outpaced state averages nearly every year since 2014-15, when the state first started measuring whether students were on track to catch up.
Education experts have long made the case that looking at such growth is a better measure of district performance than a lone year of standardized student test results that largely serve as a proxy for poverty.
“Meriden is a model district, and the growth numbers in particular kind of provide evidence of that,” said Casey Cobb, a professor whose research focuses on education reform and leadership at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education who got to know Cardona well as he worked to earn multiple education degrees and certificates from the college. “Meriden has really been a model district, I think, for sensible student-centered reform. For a high-poverty urban district, they’ve done quite well.”
Cardona’s approach to improving the education provided to the roughly 8,000 students attending Meriden schools each year offers some insight into how he may approach improving urban schools throughout the country if the U.S. Senate confirms him as the next secretary of education.
It’s also an approach that drew the attention Linda Darling-Hammond, the person leading Biden’s transition team for education, who first met Cardona several years ago during a panel discussion when he was the assistant superintendent of the district.
“He has a very thoughtful understanding of teaching and learning and how you actually support people, and so I have been paying attention to him,” Darling-Hammond, an expert on teaching practices and currently the president of the Learning Policy Institute, said during an interview shortly after Biden nominated Cardona last month. “He shows a deep understanding of teaching and learning and a very strong commitment to equity and the process of improving teaching that is just unusually well developed and very thoughtful. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. He really gets it.’”
A delicate approach to controversial reforms
With a trial looming that would determine whether the state was spending enough to meet its constitutional obligations and pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to embrace certain controversial education reforms, former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2012 called the school inequities facing the state, “the civil rights issue of our time” and put education reform as his top issue for the legislature to resolve.
His prescription: redistribute state education aid to impoverished school districts, increase state involvement and authority in chronically failing schools, change how teachers earn and keep tenure, open more charter schools and limit who can be accepted into teacher preparation programs at the state’s colleges.
Largely left out of the controversial debate that followed were the more bland and expensive ideas of the state’s Achievement Gap Task force, a panel led by Cardona and Sen. Toni Harp, the leader of the legislature’s budget-writing committee.
The year before Malloy would make his bold proposals, Cardona and the panel released its first report that they believed provided a roadmap to close the state’s yawning gaps in achievement between students from low-income families and their peers by 2020.
I remember thinking, ‘Wow. He really gets it.’ ”
Those recommendations included expanding the school day and year, requiring districts to provide full-day kindergarten and offer more vulnerable children access to high-quality preschool, and creating a legislative panel and position that reports to the governor to evaluate the efficacy of district reform efforts.
Despite the task force continuing to meet to prepare its next report, Cardona did not testify either for or against the governor’s controversial proposals.
“The task force chose not to ride the wave of educational reform that was sweeping the state and most of the country in 2012. Instead, it divided the work into two buckets: It analyzed factors inside schools that contributed to achievement gaps, and also the external causes,” he would reflect years later in the trade publication District Administration.
But Cardona wasn’t completely on the sidelines as the governor’s controversial reforms were pressing forward. He served as a member on the state panel Malloy tasked with linking teacher ratings with student test scores. And after 10 years of being the principal of a local elementary school, Cardona was made the point-person in Meriden to overhaul its evaluation system to meet the new state requirements.
“A clear system of evaluation and accountability can improve teachers’ instruction,” Cardona wrote in his dissertation about the need for political will to address yawning achievement disparities in 2011, the year before he was tasked with overhauling Meriden’s setup. The need exists to “maintain high expectations for teachers’ performance while simultaneously setting agendas for professional growth of every teacher.”
We wanted to look at much more than just one test score that came in the spring. It was much more than that.”
For Cardona, that meant the district using a mix of data and observations to better measure and more fairly track teacher and student outcomes.
That system would help Cardona get buy-in from the local and national teachers’ unions because an educator’s rating would only use student test scores for those who were with the teacher the entire school year and only factor in if students were meeting their individual growth targets.
“We worked with the unions [and did] not try to shove something down their throat. It was much more of a collaborative style,” said Meriden Superintendent Mark D. Benigni, whom Cardona worked under for 9 years. “We value growth. It’s much more of a growth model.”
Erin Benham, who was president of the local teachers’ union at the time, said it was clear when Cardona teamed up with her that he wanted to get evaluations right and make them a tool to help staff in the district grow rather than be used as a tool to quickly get rid of teachers who need support. That thinking shows up in the annual improvement plans Cardona sent on behalf of Meriden each year to the state, which earmarked a substantial amount of state funding to couple the evaluations with a data system and professional development opportunities for teachers in areas where they needed to improve. Teachers with lower-ratings were also given time away from their classroom to observe and learn from model teachers.
“We wanted to look at much more than just one test score that came in the spring. It was much more than that,” said Benham, who is now a member of the state Board of Education, which played a key role in naming Cardona as state education commissioner.
A few year later, as the teachers’ union ramped up pressure for the state to abandon the Common Core standards and the tests associated with them, Cardona traveled to the state Capitol complex to plead with the state not to put a moratorium on implementing the standards, as the legislature was considering.
“Over the last 10 years, under the No Child Left Behind era in education, we saw a tremendous narrowing of curriculum to those things that were assessed. Worse, we saw too many teaching and classroom activities mirror the format of the tests,” Cardona testified before the education committee. “The shift to the Common Core gives us an opportunity to hit the reset button on 10 years of practices that were partly ineffective. It allows us to rethink the skill-and-drill practice and over-emphasis on test prep that have stunted the growth of our students and narrowed the creativity and autonomy our teachers need to meet their needs of their learners.”
While education fads weren’t his solution to closing Connecticut’s embarrassing achievement gaps, he wrote in District Administration that an influx of spending on schools was worth a shot.
“We spend roughly five times the amount on incarceration than we do on education,” he wrote in 2016. “Perhaps we have it all wrong. Maybe the task force should focus on closing the gaps between education expenditure and incarceration expenditure. … As Frederick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.’”
As the state’s education commissioner, however, he had to come before several unhappy legislators and defend Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed spending cuts — including cuts to subjects he has long been passionate about, such as bilingual education and after-school programs.
“With this budget, difficult decisions have to be made,” he testified before the Appropriations Committee last February.
He may not face the same dilemma with his new boss, as Biden wants to triple federal aid to the schools that serve higher numbers of students from low-income families, provide universal preschool and double the number of social workers and psychologists working in the schools.
“For far too long, we’ve spent money on interventions and Band-Aids to address disparities instead of laying a wide, strong foundation of quality, universal, early childhood education and quality, social and emotional supports for all of our learners,” Cardona said during a speech after Biden announced him as his pick for education secretary.
This tightrope Cardona has walked over the years when controversy arises — including around reopening schools after the pandemic shut them down — has disappointed some, who would have liked to see him be more bold and pick a side.
Gwen Samuel, a longtime Meriden resident and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said while she supports him, she does have concerns that he hasn’t been very political to challenge politicians to push forward with what is necessary to improve education.
“I know people thought it’s like a super-pro that he’s not into politics, if you will, but you also want someone that understands the landscapes — because he’s no longer in Kansas anymore,” Samuel said. “He plays it [too] safe for me.”
The Meriden model
While the overhaul of teacher evaluations and adoption of Common Core may have contributed to Meriden’s growth, a long list of other efforts to improve the schools were also rolled out during his tenure.
Cardona regularly says the way to improve students outcomes is by addressing the “poverty dilemma” that excludes so many students from low-income families from accessing the same opportunities as their peers.
In 2015, the year he was promoted to the district’s assistant superintendent, Cardona and Benigni co-wrote in District Administration about how they were born into poverty and what they were doing to break that cycle of poverty for more Meriden students.
“We were poor. We were the statistic. Yet, just as we were unleashed from the grip of poverty, so too can millions of other children break free,” they wrote.
That approach included expanding the school day by 100 minutes at a handful of elementary schools so that students could participate in more extracurriculars such as drama, woodworking, arts and crafts, and hand-on science activities. The district also secured funding to build two new high schools and to purchase tablets for every high school student so they could catch up or move ahead through online learning.
“Providing students with expanded learning opportunities allows for greater enrichment and academic growth,” Cardona wrote in the district’s 2018-19 reform plan to the state.
Many school district leadership teams don’t have as much success supporting schools out in the trenches as Meriden has.”
The district also hired a team of bilingual staff to work with families if their children were missing school and to connect them with things like tutors, dental and medical appointments and after-school programs. They also hired “climate specialists” to work with students who were acting out and help them understand how their behavior affects their teachers, classmates and their likely success in school.
Benigni said that the restorative practices that Cardona helped train teachers to use focused on “getting students to own their behaviors” rather than sending them home from school and shut them out from learning. Cardona would also collect and share data with school staff that showed students of color were disproportionately being shut out of class, hoping it would foster an honest discussion about what they must do differently.
The approach — and new state laws that restricted when students could be suspended and expelled — helped drastically reduce suspensions.
“We embraced much more of a reflective room space rather than an in-school suspension space, we train teachers on how to work with students who may be exhibiting uncomfortable behaviors,” Benigni said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to suspend, but we’re going to look at suspension as an exclusionary practice that really, in the end, doesn’t benefit the student or our goals as a school system.”
Cardona and the district used data to show teachers the positive or negative trends that were being noticed by central office staff. That approach has drawn praise from education experts, including Robert Villanova, the director of UConn’s Executive Leadership Program at the Neag School of Education and former longtime superintendent of schools in suburban Farmington.
“Many school district leadership teams don’t have as much success supporting schools out in the trenches as Meriden has,” he said. “Meriden’s track record is they’ve been able to support their principals in a variety of ways because the central office leadership team is savvy and experienced in how to make sure that they have the resources and the time they need to make improvements.”
Meriden’s approach is also about the culture — and Cardona’s seemingly endless optimism that if given the challenge, students will step up.
That meant opening access to Advanced Placement classes for hundreds more students from poor homes — with their representation in these high-level courses increasing 17.6 percentage points during his first three years as assistant superintendent. That increase meant Meriden had one of the smallest gaps in the state between students from poor homes and their peers in these courses. As more students enrolled in these courses, so did the share of students taking the end-of-course exams and students getting a score high enough to potentially earn some college credit.
To get more high school students thinking about college, Cardona — the first in his entire family to go to college — got the high schools in Meriden into The RISE Network, an effort funded largely by billionaire philanthropist Barbara Dalio to help get at-risk students on track to graduate from high school and progress to college or into a career.
That approach started with Cardona serving pancakes and bacon to families during freshman orientation a few weeks before school started to having a team of staff focused on making sure each new ninth-grade class is on track, as research shows that is the most important year for a student’s trajectory. The program also set up field trips for all sophomore students to visit colleges so they could see for themselves what a college campus was like, and also help students apply for early college experience programs that colleges offer.
“Every single student in Meriden has the opportunity to imagine themselves as a college student,” said Emily Pallin, the leader of the Rise Network.
The results: Despite a sizable increase in the number of students from low-income families attending Meriden schools, the share of students heading off to college held steady with around 55% enrolling in college and about three-quarters of those students making it to their sophomore year of college.
Part of the strategy of raising expectations was also to bring families in often to the discussion and get them on board and excited about their child enrolling in higher-level courses or setting up the path to go to college after high school.
Samuel, of the Connecticut Parents Union, said Cardona’s habit of making parents feel heard will serve him well. Because of his willingness to take the time to hear parents out, she believes he will go out of his way to make things happen with parents in mind.
“He listened to me, he was attentive. That’s a strength,” Samuel said. “And I might not have agreed with all the decisions, but I can respect the fact that he listened. Some parents can’t say that in their district, so that is an absolute strength.”