Miguel Cardona introduces himself to the country after being nominated to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education: 'I, being bilingual and bicultural am as American as apple pie and rice and beans. For me, education was the great equalizer, but for too many students, your zip code and your skin color remained the best predictor of the opportunities you’ll have in your lifetime.'

President Joe Biden has nominated Miguel Cardona, the current Connecticut Commissioner of Education, to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. Anyone he nominated would be better than Trump’s Secretary of Education. But who is Miguel Cardona and what is the vision that he brings to the U.S. Department of Education and to the teaching and learning in all of the schools in this nation?

Ann Policelli Cronin APC

When I ask Connecticut teachers about Miguel Cardona, those who know him or have worked with him say that he is really nice guy who knows what the challenges in our classrooms are, knows how to help teachers to improve their teaching, and respects public schools. All good.

The majority of Connecticut teachers who don’t know him personally say that he has been largely quiet as commissioner and are critical that he seems more interested in keeping schools open than in caring about public health, including the welfare of teachers, students and students’ families during the pandemic.

But what is his vision for teaching and learning that he will bring to the U.S. Department of Education? When appointed Commissioner of Education in Connecticut 19 months ago, he stated that his goals would be to:

  1. Make a positive impact on graduation rates.
  2. Close the achievement gap.
  3. Ensure that all students have increased access to opportunities and advantages that they need to succeed in life.

It is reasonable to assume that the goals he had for Connecticut 19 months ago will be goals that he will now bring to the country. Those goals, however, are “old hat” and don’t have a record of being successfully accomplished.

The goals themselves are worthy ones, but they need a new interpretation which would give rise to a dramatically new vision and radical new actions. The questions are: What would that new vision and new actions look like? And is Commissioner Cardona open to that vision and those actions?

New vision for increasing graduation rate

The first step in reinterpreting those goals would be to change the term “graduation rate” to something like the graduating of well-educated high school students. Currently, graduation rates make good headlines but can mean very little in terms of student learning.

Increasing the number of students graduating is now often accomplished through something called “credit retrieval.”  “Credit retrieval” allows students to make use of often dubious computer programs that, in no way, equal courses in academic subjects, yet the students get credit for the academic courses. In doing so, students increase the graduation rate for their schools but do not have adequate learning experiences.

Charter schools have another way to increase their graduation rates. They “counsel out” students who are likely to not graduate before the students get to be seniors which leaves only a pre-selected group as seniors and, unsurprisingly, they all graduate. And, lo and behold, the charter school has a high graduation rate. For example, one year at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, 25 students out of 25 students in the senior class graduated, but 64 students had been in that class as ninth graders.

With a new vision, a way to count the students who receive a high school education is to not count the number of students who receive diplomas but rather count how many of the students who begin as ninth graders complete the coursework necessary for graduation. For example, some innovative public high schools hold Saturday classes with actual teachers instead of plugging kids into computer programs. The applause should be given to high schools who deliver a quality education to all the students who begin their high school education in the school not to the schools who either give credits without the academic content and skills or who dismiss those who won’t make for a good statistic.

With a new vision, the statistic to calculate is to follow up on the students six years after their high school graduation to see how many hold jobs and/or have graduated from college. Then we can know how successful their high school education was and how meaningful it was that they graduated from their high school. Increasing graduation rates, as it has been addressed in the past, gets us nowhere.

New vision for closing the achievement gap

Closing the achievement gap is a hackneyed expression that needs a new vision. That vision begins with redefining “achievement” and redefining “gap.”  Achievement, since the publication on A Nation at Risk, has meant the attainment of good standardized test scores.

Standardized test scores are always correlated with the income of the parents of the students taking the test. The test scores tell us nothing about the quality of the teaching and learning in the school. We can raise test scores most efficiently by getting wealthier kids into the school.

The other way to raise those scores is to teach to the test. All commercial test prep courses and online free test prep courses claim that taking those prep courses will improve test scores. And they do. They do because standardized tests measure only one skill: the ability to take a standardized test. But that is not achievement.

A new vision for learning in the 21st century can mean that students are engaged learners who are able to think critically, problem solve, collaborate with others, demonstrate initiative, speak and write effectively, access and analyze information, explore their own questions, and use their imagination as described in The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner of Harvard University. No standardized test has ever, or can ever, measure those skills.

The goal of “closing the achievement gap”, based on standardized test scores, will serve only to highlight the disparity between the affluent and the poor. Even more importantly, the goal of “closing the achievement gap”, as measured by standardized test scores, guarantees that the students who most need a quality education will be relegated to test prep in a school’s efforts to raise its standardized test scores and will continue to suffer from their lack of real teaching and real learning long after they leave our schools.

As for the “gap,” the gap that we should be addressing is not the gap between the standardized test scores of the kids in affluent towns with the standardized test scores of the kids in struggling cities, but the gap between what all kids can do before we teach them with what they can do after we teach them. We should be working our brains full-time exploring how to help each student to reach further, to know more, to try harder, and to accomplish what that student never thought possible.

That’s the gap our schools should be closing: the gap between students’ current assumptions about their possibilities as thinkers and learners and their eventual accomplishments. That is a goal with a vision that is worthy of our energy and investment. That goal can be measured by high quality, teacher-created, and externally-validated performance tasks and can never be assessed by standardized tests.

A new vision for creating equity

And what are those “opportunities and advantages that children need to succeed in life?”

We know exactly what they are because they are the opportunities and advantages of many of the students in our affluent, largely white schools. They are the opportunities and advantages denied to other students due to poverty and racism. The new Secretary of Education could take on these underlying problems of poverty and racism that affect children for every minute they are in school and which any school cannot prevail against without appropriate funding, personnel, academic resources, and social services. Looking at the big picture of poverty and racism with its complex causes beyond the classrooms will take vision and strong political action. It will switch the narrative from one of “failing public schools” to one of how can we adults and taxpayers not fail our public schools.

Miguel Cardona?

So where is Miguel Cardona with this proposal to rethink his goals and implement the vision and actions suggested here?

I don’t know. What I do know is that I will send this post to my Senators and hope that they ask him during his confirmation hearing.  I suggest you do the same with your senators.

We, as a nation, so desperately need a new interpretation of old goals and a new vision and a new plan of action for our schools. Only then can our schools be all that they are meant to be. Only then can our children be all that we know they can be.

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year 

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