U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has a lot on his mind as students return to the classroom for the 2022-23 school year.
The head of the U.S. Department of Education has directed his focus on schools’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic for the past two years. Now that pandemic concerns have started to wane, Cardona is facing increased pleas for help with academic recovery efforts; advice for dealing with emotionally charged public debates over the discussion of race, gender, and sexuality in classrooms; and ideas for addressing local teacher shortages.
In an interview with Education Week on Aug. 23 in his Washington office, Cardona said greater respect for teachers, mental health and social support for students, and partnerships between parents and educators are key to navigating the complex challenges facing schools. In the past year, the Education Department has established a national parent council, launched an initiative to bring in 250,000 tutors to American schools, and released proposed Title IX changes that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal sex discrimination law.
In the following interview, Cardona talks about what he plans to do next to address all these complex education issues.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Going into this new school year, what is top of mind for you?
First and foremost, I always put my “dad hat” on. I have a high school and a college student. I want to make sure that I’m thinking of back to school from the perspective of a student. They are eager to get back to see their friends. They’re eager to get back into the rituals of school: the after-school programming, the co-curriculars, the athletics. So, I’m making sure that students regain that experience of community that schools provide. I’m really thrilled that students are feeling that back-to-school excitement the way it was before. It’s not back to school with a caveat. It’s “I’m going to see my friends. We’re going to be able to do this. This trip is being planned. The clubs are up and running.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed its guidance for schools, eliminating quarantine and test-to-stay requirements. What do you say to teachers or students who still might be a little nervous about going to school due to COVID concerns?
I recognize that. I certainly don’t want to minimize that, because it’s real. We can’t ignore the fact that the last two years we’ve suffered significant trauma as a nation. We need to make sure we’re communicating with our students what we’re doing to keep our schools safe. Not only from COVID, but also—let’s face it—school violence. Sadly, first graders across the country could tell you what they’re doing to prepare for an unwanted person in their building. That’s a reality that I know our educators are taking into account.
It is important that we continue to communicate what we’re doing to maintain a safe learning environment. It’s important for our students, but for our educators as well. We have 150,000 students coming back without a parent or guardian because of COVID-19 so we cannot ignore the impact of that.
At the same time, how do we help students feel most comfortable? Give them an environment where they can feel welcome, where they feel like they can thrive.
One of the top of mind challenges right now is teacher shortages. You’ve been a big proponent of grow-your-own programs. Why that strategy?
I’ve been in education for over a couple of decades, and it’s always been, “Do more with less.” We’ve always been fighting for respect in the profession. Then, the pandemic hit and exacerbated the challenges that we have. I’m secretary, so now it’s on me to make sure that we’re messaging loud and clear that the teacher shortage is a symptom of a teacher respect issue. That, for me, is really clear.
We are not going to take a passive role in this. We are going to take a very active role in this. We have encouraged the use of the American Rescue Plan dollars to address this issue in both short-term and long-term ways. Short term, use the money to provide incentives, signing bonuses, to ensure that we’re paying retired teachers to come back even if it’s for six months while we wait for the next graduating class. Give our retired teachers an option to come back without losing any benefits. We worked with [the U.S. Department of the] Treasury to make that happen. With the bus driver shortage, we worked with [the U.S. Department of] Transportation to make it a little bit easier for folks to get their license to drive buses without compromising safety. We’re working with the Department of Labor to talk about [paid] apprenticeships for teaching.
We talk a lot about diversifying the profession to represent the beautiful diversity of this country. We have the students in front of us. What are we doing to tap those students on the shoulder and say, “Here’s a program in your high school that could get you interested in teaching, that could get you some college credits, could get you some scholarship money and we can guarantee you an interview in this district in four years?” Those programs exist, and we’re strongly encouraging the use of American Rescue Plan dollars for this.
Sometimes we hear American Rescue Plan dollars, we hear $130 billion, what does that mean? All 50 states are dealing with some sort of teacher shortage issue. If it weren’t for American Rescue Plan dollars, it would be worse. There’d be students whose beginning of school would be delayed. While all 50 states are benefiting from it, only half of Congress voted for it. If we didn’t have the American Rescue Plan dollars, we’d be talking about which colleges are closing, which schools are not able to start because they don’t have adequate staffing, because they don’t have funding.
How do you think school districts have done so far with prioritizing and spending federal COVID relief funds? What would you like to see from school districts as we approach the 2024 American Rescue Plan spending deadline?
This is the most money education leaders have seen in their entire career. I can say that statement because I know. I’ve been in the profession. They are ensuring, number one, that their buildings are safe: making sure that air quality is better, that circulation [is better], that deferred maintenance of air quality systems is no longer deferred, that the air circulation is good, the temperature in schools is good, the infrastructure needs are being met to safely open, that they have masks and vaccines, that they have everything they need to be safe in schools.
Academic recovery is another area [where] I see a lot of focus. We’ve done some programs nationally, [including] the National Partnership for Student Success. We’ve done a program for parents. I’ve seen at the ground level, money being used for tutors, for mentors, for family school liaisons that help connect those families that, due to the pandemic, have not been engaged as much. So I am seeing the money being used to help families and students. I am seeing money being used to provide smaller class sizes in some places.
Really importantly, I’m seeing money being used for mental health support. ... The money is being used to support students, and I know that it’s going to continue to be used to support students academically, emotionally, and to ensure that our buildings are safe.
As school districts prepare to hit that 2024 funding cliff, what would you say to district leaders who are asking for more time and flexibility to spend federal COVID-19 recovery funds?
Kids need help now. When the president drafted the American Rescue Plan and when Congress passed it, it was to help the students now. For me, it’s really important that the students get support now. This isn’t a set of funds that are going to help address education for the next 10 or 15 years. It’s for students now.
In terms of flexibilities, we recognize, in particular with items that are on backorder because of supply chain issues, that we might need to be flexible with regard to that. We’re doing everything in our power to provide flexibilities where we can. However, this is an act of Congress, right? It’s not like we can override Congress’ expectations on this. But there is an issue now. Our kids need help now.
The federal government pays for about 10 percent of education in general. Ninety percent comes from state and local funding. The urgency that the president showed not only with the American Rescue Plan, but with his budget proposals over the last two years, shows that this president understands how important education is. ... Let’s have the same level of urgency at the state and local levels to increase funding in education the way the president has done. Kids need help now, and it shouldn’t just be the urgency from the federal government leading to education increases in funding. If we’re going to be competitive across the world, we need to make sure we’re prioritizing education the way the president has.
There has been a lot of media attention on state and local efforts to restrict classroom materials and curriculum content that relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation. What advice do you have for teachers in communities affected by those efforts?
I have faith in my educators. I really do. At the end of the day, when that door closes, I trust that teacher in front of the classroom. I say that as secretary of education. I say that as a parent. I told superintendents when I was commissioner [of education] in Connecticut that, as we move from COVID, the work is not going to get easier, it’s going to get different. For teachers, the challenges are different. We’re no longer talking about six feet spacing or mask requirements, what we’re talking about now is ensuring that children feel welcome, they feel supported, and that [educators] are building a relationship with students and families.
When I was a 4th grade teacher, that was the most important thing, the relationship that we had with our children and with our families. I have complete confidence in educators across the country. They know what to do. Let’s leave the politics out of the classroom. Let’s focus on what our students need right now.
There have been concerns about a division between parents and teachers over the past year. Where do you see the relationship between parents and educators going?
I don’t see it as a divide. There are people who are looking for sensationalism in education. We’re more about substance here. Parents and teachers need to work together. Any teacher worth their salary knows parents’ connection matters. You’re going to get the most out of students when you’re connected with families. For me, that’s Teaching 101, and I have confidence in my teachers.
We need to do more given the fact that these last two years have been especially difficult for parents and for students. What was important before is critical now. Parents are their child’s first and most influential teachers. We need to stay connected to them. Not only do teachers need to do this, but schools, districts, and states [do too]. At the federal level, you’ve seen what we’ve done. We need to up the ante now on engaging families authentically. There are those who are going to try to create division because it sells well for their personal campaigns. We’re not about that.
What are you going to do to ensure teacher voices are a part of the decisions being made by the Education Department?
In order for us to address the teacher respect issue, we have to provide better salaries, better working conditions for teachers, and have teacher voice be a bigger part of our reimagining of education. At the Department of Education, here in this building, I’ve had more teachers here in the last year and a half. I can’t speak for the previous administration, but I can tell you we have monthly meetings where teacher voice is at the table here. They’re here, physically here.
I’ve visited 35, 36 states, I’ve always had conversations with teachers when I’m there. Not just in front of cameras, I really want to know how it’s going with them. If you look at my team that I’ve appointed here, it’s made up of teachers too. It’s really important [educators] know that teacher voice is rampant through these hallways.
When I’m making decisions, I think about it from the perspective of “what would I do as a 4th grade teacher? What would I do as a school principal?” That’s who I am. That’s my DNA. I’m an educator. I hear that and I want to make sure that teachers know that their voice is being heard here. That’s why I’m fighting really hard to lift up the profession.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: How to Fix Teacher Shortages, Create Safe Schools