Federal

Miguel Cardona Came in as a Teacher Champion. Has COVID Muted His Message?

By Andrew Ujifusa & Madeline Will — January 20, 2022 11 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks to students at White Plains High School in White Plains, N.Y. on April 22, 2021.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona had a clear message to teachers and others working in schools when he took office almost a year ago: I am one of you, and I’m here to support you.

That message resonated with much of the nation’s education workforce. Yet as the pandemic continues to disrupt schools and unsettle educators, Cardona has drawn the ire of those teachers who say he hasn’t pushed their concerns hard enough amid the Biden administration’s call for in-person learning.

“What causes me great frustration is we know Secretary Cardona has an education background, but we don’t really see him truly empathizing with teachers and fighting for us,” said Patrick Harris, a middle school teacher in Detroit, adding that he hasn’t seen much concrete action from the U.S. Department of Education to support teachers during a grueling school year. “I need him to call out the crisis that we are experiencing.”

The Education Department, which did not make Cardona available for an interview, insists that the secretary is standing up for educator concerns.

Under Cardona, the department has opened civil rights probes into states it says have jeopardized the health of people in schools by banning mask requirements in local districts. In August, he pledged that his agency would use “every tool in our toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators.”

Cardona has also highlighted how K-12 leaders can use federal COVID-19 relief to address acute issues such as staff shortages. And so far, he hasn’t publicly condemned administrators who have shut down school buildings when they’ve deemed it necessary.

Yet a vocal subset of teachers online say some of the education secretary’s messaging—particularly on Twitter, which draws a sizable number of engaged teachers—has seemed to ignore the stresses and anxieties educators on the front lines are grappling with.

While this is not indicative of widespread discontent among teachers, it highlights the fine line Cardona has to walk between advocating for the administration’s priorities and representing teacher voices. It’s a difficult task, and some teachers say Cardona is missing the mark.

Some teachers, who say they want schools to be open just like Cardona and President Joe Biden do, are worried about how they’re going to keep instruction going with surging COVID-19 case numbers and large numbers of students and staff absent at any given point. They’re not sure if Cardona fully appreciates that reality.

And many teachers say they feel their concerns about a lack of proper safety measures have been ignored by policymakers for too long, whether it’s by Cardona or their local officials. Condemning bans on school masks is one thing, while not doing more to ensure schools have enough masks is another, in their view.

“It feels as if the messaging [from policymakers] has become increasingly blunt and really lacking empathy for those who are feeling vulnerable at this time,” said Christie Nold, a high school social studies teacher in Vermont.

Federal officials insist they’re listening and acting

Department staffers said Cardona and the Biden administration have demonstrated in words and actions that educators are at the top of his priority list. Among other things, the department cited the administration’s move to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccinations at the start of the president’s term, and Cardona’s constant contact with union officials and district leaders about on-the-ground concerns.

They also say that the secretary has made it clear in a steady wave of public appearances that educators are the ones who have helped keep the vast majority of school buildings open, and has shared what teachers and others need for that to continue.

“He still sees himself as an educator. You listen to him talk, you’re listening to a teacher talk,” said Christian Rhodes, the chief of staff in the department’s office of elementary and secondary education. “If you talk to teachers, to a person, they all recognize that our students, who are ultimately our primary responsibility, have suffered greatly from being out of school.”

Observers say Cardona must navigate how to speak to educators’ concerns without seeming too parochial or straying from the Biden administration’s position that schools can and should be open, as most are. Throughout much of the pandemic, Cardona has tried to strike a collegial tone and talked up collaboration as a priority.

Still, Cardona could use his standing to visit schools more often and speak out more frequently to acknowledge and legitimize the concerns of educators in addition to other groups, said Pedro Noguera, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

“I do see a vacuum here,” Noguera said. “It can’t just be that the only constituents we hear from are unions or angry parents or mayors.”

But given current tensions and the “huge balancing act” he faces, it’s smart for Cardona not to make a public example of anyone or any school district, and instead have conversations behind the scenes or informally when necessary, said June Atkinson, who served as a Democratic state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina for three terms.

“If it is not advantageous for parents and children and educators, then perhaps [he] should remain silent. It’s not necessary to comment on everything,” said Atkinson, who thinks Cardona’s done a very good job on the communications issue in the current conditions.

At the same time, “I would ask him to remember that educators are scared and stressed” and dealing with child care difficulties and other issues like the rest of the population, Atkinson said.

Cardona falls short of some teachers’ high expectations

Some teachers say they’re disappointed in Cardona in part because they had such high expectations when his nomination was announced. Cardona taught for five years before becoming a principal, which stood in stark contrast to his predecessor Betsy DeVos, who was deeply unpopular among teachers.

“We finally got advocates for teachers in the administration, and teachers have not benefitted from that,” said Harris, the Detroit teacher, who wants to see action on things like more personal protective equipment in schools and raising teacher pay, which was one of Biden’s campaign promises.

Then there’s Cardona’s Twitter messaging in recent weeks, which some teachers say has been tone-deaf to the stressors of the moment or even shown disregard for teachers’ concerns.

One example: On Jan. 8, Cardona tweeted a picture of himself in conversation, under a multicolored balloon arch, with Hope and Wade King, former teachers who are the co-founders of the Get Your Teach On conference. Replies to his tweet quickly flooded with teachers questioning why he wasn’t meeting with people currently in the classroom, and what he was going to do to keep them and their students safe.

“The tone was a little too perky compared to the reality of what public education is like right now,” said Corinne Altham, an elementary school librarian in South Portland, Maine. “We were reacting to the pastel balloons and joyful presentation that the secretary of education was sitting in. That is not our reality right now.”

Yet the next day, Cardona tweeted, “Having a lazy Sunday? Use this time to make your vaccination or booster appointment,” drawing hundreds of angry responses from teachers whose stress levels have skyrocketed this school year.

“The messaging of, ‘It’s a lazy Sunday,’ when [COVID-19 case] numbers are off the charts ... and when educators are expressing frustration, concern, and fear—it feels remarkably out of touch,” said Nold, the Vermont teacher. “That is hard to make sense of, and makes me wonder who he may or may not be in conversation with.”

There are signs that some of the criticism is getting through to Cardona, or his communications team. Cardona’s official Twitter account—which at one point followed only fellow administration members and government accounts—now follows several educators, including some state teachers of the year. He also tweeted photos of himself talking with current teachers during the Extra Yard for Teachers summit, hosted by the College Football Playoff Foundation and sponsored by Get Your Teach On.

And on Jan. 12, Cardona tweeted that he’s spoken with teachers and families across the country, and that, “I have been listening and acting on what you’ve told me.” Cardona has promoted the White House’s Jan. 12 announcement that it will be deploying 10 million COVID-19 tests to schools every month—along with other resources—more than once. And he’s also touted how schools can use American Rescue Plan money to operate safely.

In the last several weeks, Cardona has visited schools in Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, and Vermont; some of those visits overlapped with the omicron surge. Those kinds of public visits, department staff said, are just one example of how Cardona isn’t content to be passive and pretend teachers are fine.

“We know that there have been challenges and changes that have [arisen] as the pandemic has evolved. But we have been very aggressive in taking action where we can to support educators and staff, as well as students,” said Rachel Thomas, the department’s acting assistant secretary for communications and outreach. “There are others who may be taking up oxygen on this, but he has been very active in this space.”

Asked about concerns around Cardona’s approach to social media, Rhodes said the department does not want the public to lose sight of the role educators have played in the pandemic, even amid ongoing frustrations.

“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do and more,” Rhodes said of teachers.

Getting the ‘benefit of the doubt’

Despite some of the misgivings from teachers online, Cardona has allies in the two national teachers’ unions.

“I think he gets a lot of benefit of the doubt, and he is well-liked, and people know that he’s working very hard,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in an interview, citing his experience as a teacher, a principal, a state commissioner, and a parent. “He’s been out all throughout the country [this year] basically having people’s backs and trying to not just cheerlead, but help make sure that we are working on the recovery of kids as much as possible.”

Cardona’s strength, she said, is that he can see the education issues from different angles. Once schools get past the current upheaval caused by the omicron variant, Weingarten expects him to focus more on social-emotional and academic initiatives to help students recover from the pandemic’s disruptions. In the meantime, she said, she appreciates that he’s using Twitter to directly communicate with people, even though that can sometimes lead to negative responses.

“You’re not going to be able to please everybody all the time, and people right now are scared,” Weingarten said. “The administration has not moved as fast as we would like on the issue of masks, on the issue of tests, but look what they’ve done in the last two weeks.”

In a statement, National Education Association President Becky Pringle noted the stressors and anxieties teachers and parents are battling in year two of the pandemic, and said, “We appreciate Sec. Cardona’s continued efforts to communicate with all audiences in this rapidly changing landscape.”

Teachers who have interacted with Cardona say he seems to care deeply about what’s happening in the classroom. Tabatha Rosproy, the 2020 National Teacher of the Year, spent a lot of time with Cardona during the Extra Yard for Teachers summit. She said it felt like he was present and eager to hear from educators.

“In my experience, he has been nothing but a listening ear,” said Rosproy, who is an early-childhood support teacher near Kansas City, Kan.

Still, Rosproy said while the conditions in schools during the omicron surge are largely determined by local policies, it would help if Cardona spoke out more on teacher safety and “kept some pressure on schools to keep employees safe.”

“I think he’s in a really difficult position as the secretary of education,” she said. “He tries to be encouraging, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the issues.”

Not alone in the messaging challenge

COVID-19’s persistence means Cardona and other leaders must be sensitive to practical challenges and limitations educators are facing, said Monica Higgins, a professor of education leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Right now, given COVID, we are all working to minimize disappointment in education—for our students, for our teachers and staff, and for our communities. Not an easy job, that’s for sure,” Higgins wrote in an email.

Throughout the school closure debates, Cardona has used mild and encouraging rhetoric and hasn’t made himself a big story, said Nat Malkus, the deputy director for education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Most importantly, the majority of teachers are in classrooms and therefore doing what Cardona wants, said Malkus.

“I don’t think he’s talking terribly pointedly about the issue,” Malkus said of Cardona’s approach to the pandemic. “He’s pushing downhill.”

Malkus also said he doubts any teacher frustration with Cardona will get the kind of traction that backlash to former education secretaries like DeVos or Arne Duncan did in the Trump and Obama administrations, because his strategy has basically been “palatable to all but the biggest skeptics” of reopening schools.

“He was in part hired because he did a pretty good job of getting kids back” in school in 2020, Malkus added, referring to Cardona’s work as Connecticut’s education commissioner. “He did it without amplifying discord when he did it.”

Overall, educators are exhausted, said Nold, the Vermont teacher, and they need support and listening more than anything else.

“It has been an incredibly challenging time [for those in schools], and I think for no other reason, that’s a call to lead with empathy,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Miguel Cardona Came in as a Teacher Champion. Has COVID Muted His Message?

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