Miguel Cardona remembers how overwhelmed he felt when he walked into school for the first time as a student.
The son of parents who moved to Meriden, Conn., from Puerto Rico as children, he lived in public housing and didn’t speak English as a young child.
“I remember my first day of kindergarten at John Barry School,” the nominee for U.S. secretary of education said at a virtual farewell celebration with Meriden leaders earlier this month, referring to an elementary school in his home city. “That day, I ended up in the nurse’s office crying, and I had to go home early. I never wanted to go back. Here I am, 40 years later, and I’m having mixed emotions about leaving the place I love.”
Last month, President-elect Joe Biden announced Cardona, now Connecticut’s education commissioner, as his pick to be the nation’s top education official. Less than two years ago, Cardona was an assistant superintendent in his hometown’s 8,000-student district. If confirmed by the Senate, he could be a cabinet member within weeks.
He’s able to lead with an equity agenda without alienating the people who don’t understand it quite yet.
It’s a rapid ascent for a man who is known more by his long-time colleagues for solving problems than for standing on soapboxes.
Cardona, 45, is preparing to step into the role after the hot seat has been warmed to white-hot temperatures by former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who left office Jan. 8 as the most high-profile and divisive education secretary in history. Making things more intense: a presidential transition marred by national turmoil, a deeply divided nation, and an ongoing public health crisis that puts schools front and center.
In selecting Cardona—a former teacher, principal, and district administrator—Biden fulfilled his campaign pledge to appoint a public school educator to the role. His choice was met with enthusiasm from education groups across the ideological spectrum.
But Cardona’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it should affect official judgments of schools’ performance could quickly erase that friendly reception.
Cardona’s peers paint him as a leader who seeks out every chance to collaborate and to find solutions by looking at the bigger picture. In conversations with those who know him, he comes across as someone who wants consensus, not confrontation. But one person who’s watched his career up close expressed concerns that such an attitude, along with his relatively short tenure leading a state education department, could make him susceptible to pressure in Washington.
His experience as a child who learned English at school and code-switched between the culture of his Puerto Rican community and that of his white peers has helped him build bridges and value relationships in his work, his colleagues also said.
“He’s able to lead with an equity agenda without alienating the people who don’t understand it quite yet,” said Robert Villanova, a former superintendent and education professor at the University of Connecticut, who worked with Cardona when the nominee was still a graduate student. “Some people may be wondering ‘Why him?’ And I think that’s legitimate because he’s an early-career leader. … But he has all of the right inclinations.”
He has deep roots in the community
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request to interview Cardona for this article.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, appointed Cardona to serve as his state’s education leader in August 2019, a tenure that has been dominated by the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He has spent his life and most of his career in Meriden, a city of about 60,000 people midway between New Haven and Hartford. Cardona and his wife, Marissa, a middle school family liaison, have two children who are students in Meriden schools.
His father, Hector Cardona Sr., was a police officer for many years and famous for his distinctive handlebar mustache and for building relationships between law enforcement and Meriden’s Puerto Rican community.
Cardona Sr., who is honored in the Meriden Hall of Fame, often played traditional Puerto Rican music in a band with his son Hector Cardona Jr., a fellow police officer. Miguel Cardona sometimes accompanied his family on the bongo drums at events like the city’s Puerto Rican festival, where his father served as chairman.
Today, his wife and children also perform music together.
“I joke with Miguel: Your kids, your wife, they have the real music talent. They let you join their band once in a while,” said Mark Benigni, the superintendent of Meriden schools who was Cardona’s colleague for many years.
Overcoming his early anxieties and the awareness that he was different from many of his peers, Cardona eventually became a first-generation college graduate and developed the confidence and people skills that helped him feel comfortable in places “from the barrio to the boardroom,” he told his Meriden colleagues at the farewell celebration.
After completing his bachelor’s degree at Central Connecticut State University in 1997, Cardona took a job teaching 4th grade in Meriden, where it’s not uncommon for alumni to return as teachers. After five years in the classroom, he became the state’s youngest principal, leading Hanover Elementary School at age 28.
In 2001, Cardona told the Associated Press his office shelves were lined with books about different cultures, including one: Growing Up Bilingual.
As a principal, he oversaw a bilingual education program in his school. When he earned his doctorate from the University of Connecticut in 2012, his research focused on addressing “achievement disparities” between English-language learners and their peers.
His dissertation defense was so powerful that it brought some people to tears.
“He gave a very scholarly presentation but at the end, he talked about his own family and his upbringing in Meriden. He just wanted people to understand how [concerns about English-language learners] became a part of who he was,” said Villanova, the professor.
A mentor of other school leaders
Current Hanover Principal Jennifer Kelley remembers when Cardona hired her as an instructional assistant, a job that essentially made her an assistant principal, in 2012. She had been a teacher for 15 years before that.
Cardona was skilled at creating an inclusive culture, and he helped her sharpen her problem-solving skills by considering the bigger picture, she said.
In her first year, Meriden expanded from half-day to full-day kindergarten, and Hanover took kindergarten students from other schools as part of the shift. It created an unusual situation: There were about 200 5- and 6-year-olds in the building, compared to about 400 students in the older grades.
Kelley recalls being overwhelmed at lunch one day, trying to supervise a whole cafeteria of the school’s youngest students, who were just adjusting to being there. Seeing her frustration, Cardona helped her rearrange the schedule of teacher’s aides to bring in more support.
“He is passionate and caring, and people know that about him. And he’s good at the details.”
Meanwhile, Benigni, the Meriden superintendent, recalled being impressed with how Cardona responded calmly but thoroughly to a disconcerting incident in which a student brought bags of marijuana to school in his jacket: “That day was when I said, ‘You know what, I have someone here who’s going to be steady under pressure, and someone who’s going to give clear information to the staff and to the community.’”
But Cardona also excelled at the light-hearted parts of the job. He charmed the young students by dressing as a train conductor on “Polar Express Day” when they all wore pajamas to school.
Along the way, Kelley felt like Cardona was giving her tools to grow in her position.
“He told me I would work harder than any other [instructional assistant] because we are preparing you for the next step,” she said. “You have me as a safety net, but you are going to really learn.”
Paul Freeman, the superintendent in Guilford, Conn., remembers observing Hanover as part of a superintendents’ leadership group when Cardona was principal there. Good principals lead their schools’ logistical and instructional efforts, and they also play a huge role in shaping the climate, Freeman said.
“It was clear that he could be skillful in all of those areas,” he said. “He is passionate and caring, and people know that about him. And he’s good at the details.”
Someone whose ‘integrity is beyond question’
Cardona was tapped to lead several statewide education efforts, including a 2011 task force charged with making recommendations for closing the academic achievement gap between student groups.
The committee was “a broad group of powerful people,” including legislators, university deans, and district administrators, said Freeman, who was a member. It took on some politically tricky topics, making recommendations in a 2014 report that touched on housing policy, hunger, and social services as part of the systemic conditions that stifled some students’ achievement.
Jason Rojas, a state legislator who served on the committee, said he and Cardona had similar childhoods, which gave them personal insights into some of the issues they discussed.
“I remember him being so sincere about the pain he was going through in seeing what was happening in our communities,” Rojas said.
Seven years and several transitions in state leadership after it released its final report, many of the task force’s recommendations have not been put into action. In October, Cardona emailed the group about “putting the band back together,” attaching a new study on housing policy and educational outcomes.
After serving on two state task forces with Cardona, one about teacher evaluations and another on what testing requirements there should be for students, Joe Cirasuolo came away impressed by Cardona’ knowledge and ability to explain “complex truths.”
“I came to respect him. His integrity is beyond question,” said Cirasuolo, a district superintendent for 23 years who used to lead Connecticut’s superintendents association and is now retired.
A record of collaborating with the teachers’ union
Cardona’s experience navigating state-level politics as commissioner might be limited, but that doesn’t mean he’s avoided dealing with common snares in school leadership.
Erin Benham, now a member of the state board of education, first encountered Cardona when she was the leader of the Meriden teachers’ union and visited his school to discuss potential layoffs as a result of budget cuts. Rather than talking about overall positions, Cardona talked about individual teachers, lamenting that any of them may lose their jobs.
“He said ‘Is there anything I can do to keep this person?’” Benham recalled. “He felt as glum about it as we did. You don’t always see that.”
In 2013, Cardona moved into a new role as the district’s performance and evaluation specialist, where he served as a bridge between the labor union and the district’s administration, helping to carry out a new Connecticut requirement for evaluating educators. Such efforts can be highly fraught and fragile.
Benham, Cardona, and other district leaders traveled to observe evaluation systems in other states. They piloted a model in elementary schools, encouraging lower-scoring teachers to observe their higher-performing peers’ teaching to improve their own.
And they refined the system, scaling down the role of student test scores in the overall evaluation, differentiating between teachers of different levels of experience, and encouraging teachers to be concerned with whole-school performance, not just student test scores in their own, narrow subject areas.
Meriden’s work won praise from the American Federation of Teachers as a model of labor-district collaboration.
“We were adamant that this was not a gotcha tool,” Benham said. “This was a tool that would show a teacher an area where they need assistance and who they needed that assistance from.”
That’s consistent, people say, with his overall approach.
“If you’re looking for someone who’s going to kick and scream, or going to pound his fist, that’s not Miguel,” said Benigni, Meriden’s superintendent. Rather, he said, Cardona is “comfortable in his own skin” and knows how to reach a goal without making the process all about his desires. “Don’t think for a minute he doesn’t have strong convictions,” Benigni added.
But not everyone views Cardona’s approach to controversial education issues as encouraging.
Gwen Samuel, the founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she’s been unable to pin down what Cardona truly thinks about key issues over the years, and that he’s demonstrated a reluctance to stake out clear positions and stand by them.
That’s a sign, in her view, that he “doesn’t do well under pressure.” Although she said she likes Cardona on a personal level, Samuel worries that tentative approach, along with the fact that he’s never been a district superintendent and hasn’t been state education commissioner very long, could lead him to be pulled apart by nasty Beltway fights. She cautioned that “his learning curve could be a learning catastrophe for families.”
“His neutrality concerns me,” said Samuel, whose group has sued the state over access to magnet schools. “Because he’s going to have to take positions on things. I know him personally. He plays it safe.”
The pandemic proved a leadership test
When Cardona was appointed as state commissioner, it surprised some people who hadn’t paid attention to his work in Connecticut education circles, said Freeman, the Guilford superintendent.
His reputation as a bridge builder was quickly tested by the coronavirus pandemic. As schools rapidly closed in the spring of 2020, Cardona asked Freeman to help manage a massive task: using philanthropic dollars to distribute standards-aligned learning materials, wireless hotspots, and 60,000 laptop computers around the state, prioritizing students in high-need districts.
But some of the challenges went beyond numbers and logistics, and tested Cardona’s ability to be thoughtful while also acting swiftly.
When Fran Rabinowitz began discussing with Cardona how Connecticut should respond to the pandemic’s earliest phase, she thought the two of them had agreed to support a statewide plan for schools. But not long afterwards, Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, received a call from Cardona that he was having second thoughts, and that he believed local circumstances should ultimately determine local school district decisions, not the state.
She wasn’t pleased at first, but that changed.
“I was certainly bent out of shape. I was like, ‘Really? We worked on that,’” Rabinowitz recalled. But thanks to Cardona’s arguments, she said, “I really came to understand that going with the local context was far better.”
Meanwhile, in March of last year, Greg Florio was worried about feeding students. As schools entered the first stage of the pandemic, one of Florio’s main concerns as the executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council in Connecticut’s Hartford region was ensuring that students in the region who rely on schools for at least two meals a day didn’t go hungry. He said that starting on a Friday, Cardona worked with him over the weekend to address the challenge.
“The issue was critically important, and we can’t wait for Monday morning to solve that problem. Kids need to eat on Monday. Working with Miguel and working with his staff, the urgency and the desire to get to a solution was just so evident,” Florio said. “We needed his help to get to an answer, and he did an incredible job, as did his team.”
This school year, Lamont, Connecticut’s governor, has stressed the importance of opening schools for in-person learning, and Cardona has sought to make that happen while still respecting the state’s emphasis on local control.
He made videos, social media posts, and took part in virtual events emphasizing the importance of having students in schools, and he shared information about ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in school buildings. Some teachers have criticized his approach, saying he’s put lives at risk by putting too much emphasis on in-person instruction and not enough on remote learning.
And his push for schools to administer mandatory state exams despite the pandemic won’t sit well with some if he makes that a priority at the Education Department.
A big step onto a national stage
Cardona’s speedy rise from district administrator to state chief to potential cabinet official took some in Connecticut by surprise.
In addition to K-12 education, the federal Education Department has the massive task of overseeing the nation’s student aid system and addressing other difficult issues in higher education, a broad portfolio that would challenge any administrator. Then there are the unprecedented challenges for education stemming from the pandemic he’ll have a role in addressing, as well as other issues that predate COVID-19.
In a speech after Biden announced him, Cardona listed problems in education that have persisted “for far too long,” including students graduating from high school “without any idea of how to meaningfully engage in the workforce,” a lack of respect for the teaching profession, and the use of “Band-aids to address disparities” instead of broad, systemic solutions.
Cardona’s opinions about big issues aside, Samuel, of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she was taken aback by the news that Biden had picked him.
“To be honest, if he doesn’t have a nice team around him, I think he’s going to be in for a challenge,” she said. “I’m just concerned about the experience, or lack thereof. … I think he’s a goldfish in shark-infested [waters].”
Others who’ve worked with Cardona throughout his career are more optimistic. “I don’t just think he’ll calm things down. I think he’ll move things forward. He will be a champion of public schools” without being an “enemy” of school choice, Rabinowitz of the Connecticut superintendents group said.
“I don’t think that he’s just a pragmatic, nuts and bolts guy,” said Freeman, the Guilford superintendent. “He loved supporting those kids and watching them come up as he had come up in that neighborhood. Take that and zoom out, and he will apply that to every child in every classroom across this country.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Miguel Cardona’s Hometown Experience Shaped Him for Education’s Biggest Stage