Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Miguel Cardona Deserves a Chance to Prove His Mettle

By Rick Hess — January 25, 2021 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In his inaugural address last Wednesday, President Biden spoke movingly about the need to heal our bitter divides, to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature.” I found it a heartening start to Biden’s tenure. I hope and expect that his nominee for secretary of education, Connecticut schools chief Miguel Cardona, will approach his role in that spirit.

While Cardona is a safe bet to be rapidly confirmed by the Democratic Senate, the truth is that we don’t yet know much about him. Cardona’s had a long career as a classroom teacher, principal, and administrator in a smallish district and has spent the past 18 months as head of Connecticut’s education agency, but he has said little in public on the issues that divide Democrats. Cardona’s lack of a paper trail allowed Biden to sidestep internal Democratic fights over testing and charter schooling. Indeed, if Cardona were a Supreme Court nominee, he’s what would be termed a “stealth” nominee.

What we do know is that Cardona’s a likable figure who doesn’t obviously rub anybody wrong. He has a heartwarming personal story. He grew up in a housing project, learned English as a second language, attended public colleges, and went on to be Connecticut’s youngest principal. He says it’s vital to get kids back to school, speaks passionately about supporting vulnerable kids, and waxes enthusiastic about public education. There’s something there for pretty much everyone. The teachers’ unions (which were going to have to sign off on any Biden secretary of ed.) have welcomed his appointment. So have charter school advocates, who were relieved that Biden didn’t name someone openly hostile to school choice.

Cardona seems like a good guy and a committed educator. Quite appropriately, he’s met with a genial, respectful reception (pretty much the opposite of the one accorded Betsy DeVos, who was subjected to blistering attacks before she’d said a word). Now, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona, with a background as an assistant superintendent in a small system and with a short tenure running a small state bureaucracy, has the management experience to run the U.S. Department of Education, with its thousands of employees, billions in outlays, and sprawling higher education responsibilities.

Indeed, relying on the DeVos standard, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona ought to be held responsible for the abysmal performance of Connecticut’s urban school systems (true, he’s only been state chief for a year and change, which makes it ridiculous to blame him for New Haven’s longtime struggles; but DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan and yet was routinely faulted for the troubled plight of Detroit’s schools).

I’m not inclined to be churlish. I don’t think being so would serve any purpose. I do think DeVos, whatever her shortcomings or missteps, was met with unhinged and venomous attacks from the moment she was nominated. But that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy or constructive for those on the right to engage in payback. While I do worry that turning a blind eye to double standards may only encourage them, I also think the culture of tit-for-tat has led us to a destructive place.

Instead, I’d like to see Cardona judged by a more measured and fair-minded standard—and then see that standard applied uniformly to other education officials, left and right. Is Cardona up to the rigors of leading the U.S. Department of Education? We’ll see. Did a brief stint heading up Connecticut’s K-12 bureaucracy prepare him for the role? We’ll see. Are his views “extreme” or “out of the mainstream”? We’ll see.

Most of us don’t yet know enough about Cardona to make an informed judgment. That’s fine. Cardona’s “stealth” status has an expiration date. His hearings will shed some light. Eventually, stances will be taken, and decisions will be made. Blanks will be filled in. Over time, we will all begin to make up our minds based on what he says and does. But there’s no need to rush to judgment based on scattered quotes or anecdotal accounts. There’s nothing wrong with waiting, watching, and then deciding.

Social media and the 24/7 news cycle tempt us to spew certainties as fast as we can type them. That’s caused us no end of trouble, robbing us of room to find our way, forge trust, or convince our skeptics that we’re operating in good faith. It turns everything into an amped-up grudge match, whether or not it needs to be.

In his inaugural address, President Biden said, “Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.” That’s a powerful reminder, especially for those who’ve chosen to make education their life’s work. I don’t yet know what I think of Cardona. But I intend to heed Biden’s call. I’m going to listen to Cardona, watch him, and respect him, and see where things go from there.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Q&A Ed Research Isn't Always Relevant. This Official Is Trying to Change That
Matthew Soldner, the acting director of the Institute of Education Sciences, calls for new approaches to keep up with classroom tools.
5 min read
USmap ai states 535889663 02
Laura Baker/Education Week with iStock/Getty
Federal Which States Have Sued to Stop Biden's Title IX Rule?
A summary of all the lawsuits challenging the Biden administration's Title IX rule that expands protections for LGBTQ+ students.
3 min read
Misy Sifre, 17, and others protest for transgender rights at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, March 25, 2022. On Tuesday, July 2, 2024, a federal judge in Kansas blocked a federal rule expanding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students from being enforced in four states, including Utah and a patchwork of places elsewhere across the nation.
Misy Sifre, 17, and others protest for transgender rights at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, March 25, 2022. On Tuesday, July 2, 2024, a federal judge in Kansas blocked a federal rule expanding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ students from being enforced in four states, including Utah and a patchwork of places elsewhere across the nation. The case is one of eight legal challenges to those expanded legal protections contained in new Title IX regulations issued by the Biden administration.
Spenser Heaps/The Deseret News via AP
Federal The Topic That Didn't Get a Single Mention in Biden-Trump Debate
K-12 schools—after animating state and local elections in recent years—got no airtime.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, right, and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.
President Joe Biden, right, and former President Donald Trump, left, face off on stage during a presidential debate hosted by CNN, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. Not a single question was asked about K-12 education and neither candidate raised the issue.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Federal Social Media Should Come With a Warning, Says U.S. Surgeon General
A surgeon general's warning label would alert users that “social media is associated with significant mental health harms in adolescents.”
4 min read
Image of social media icons and warning label.
iStock + Education Week