Teaching Profession

Teachers Are Facing an ‘Intentional Toxic Disrespect,’ Secretary Cardona Says

By Madeline Will — July 04, 2023 5 min read
Miguel Cardona
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Teachers should be thanked for their hard work throughout the pandemic—but instead they’re facing an “onslaught of disrespect,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told union delegates in a rousing speech July 3.

“You went from the pandemic to persecution,” Cardona told educators at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly here. “In some parts of this country, they’ve developed an intentional, toxic disrespect against teachers in public schools.”

Cardona, a former teacher and principal, and the Biden administration in which he serves, have long been friends of the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The NEA already endorsed President Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee for re-election, and the president—and first lady Jill Biden, an educator and NEA member—virtually addressed delegates on July 4.

“Educators have champions in the White House,” the president said, pointing to $190 billion in federal pandemic relief aid that went to schools, the education department’s revamp of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and his administration’s commitment to apprenticeship programs that pay aspiring teachers for on-the-job training. “Our job is to make sure you have what you need to do what you do best.”

Union leaders are urging delegates to gear up for a competitive presidential election next year, especially with schools at the center of so many political and cultural debates.

Cardona spoke to delegates the day after the conservative “parents’ rights” group Moms for Liberty concluded their own annual gathering. During that convention, Republican presidential candidates and other speakers assailed a “woke ideology” they claim is being taught in schools and accused educators of “indoctrinating” students.

Cardona dismissed that type of rhetoric as “divisive drama,” slamming conservative policymakers who have pushed for book bans, restrictions on instruction about racism, limitations on the rights of LGBTQ+ students, and school choice policies that divert public money to private schools. (Lawmakers in 42 states have introduced bills to expand school choice through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, which give families public funds to spend on private school tuition or other education expenses. Fourteen of those bills have been signed into law.)

Those “so-called leaders,” he said, “complain about public education but sleep well at night knowing their teachers are making less than $40,000 a year.”

He also criticized the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that struck down affirmative action on the basis of race in higher education, and President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief plan that would have forgiven about $10,000 per borrower.

“There’s a toxic disrespect from so-called leaders who have gotten millions in debt relief but throw a tantrum when we’re trying to get teachers $10,000,” he said, adding, “We’re not done with that.”

The education department is now pursuing an alternative path to debt relief by issuing new rules under the Higher Education Act. That process will require extensive public input via hearings and a public comment period.

“The time has come for us as a nation, along with NEA, to fight unapologetically against toxicity,” Cardona said. “Schools are the best intervention to fight against, and educators are the antidote—or dare I say in Florida, the vaccine—against vitriol.”

Bringing respect back to the profession

A recent nationally representative survey found that just about half of teachers say they’re respected and seen as professionals by the general public, down more than 20 percentage points from 2011.

Cardona proposed a solution for returning public respect to the profession—the “ABCs of teaching,” he said, which stands for agency, better working conditions, and competitive wages.

Teachers need to be able to have a voice in school decisions and the autonomy to do what they think is best for their students, he said. And they need more collaborative planning time and high-quality professional development provided within contract hours, Cardona said.

“It’s not fair that you have to choose between professional growth or seeing your family,” he said.

He added: “Let’s make sure there are pathways for career growth so you don’t have to leave the classroom to lead. And let’s end the professional learning practices that expect you to be trauma experts after one hour-long meeting.”

Cardona also called for teachers to be paid more. The national average teacher salary for the 2022-23 school year was $68,469, according to an NEA estimate, but that varies significantly across the country.

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Forty percent of school districts—employing a half-million teachers—pay a starting wage of less than $40,000, according to the NEA’s analysis.

“I’m here to say that you can fight for competitive salaries and be student-centered,” he said. “In fact, I believe fighting for professional wages and benefits is fighting for students.”

Raising teacher pay has been a bipartisan priority among state lawmakers and governors this year, but Cardona took aim at states like Arkansas that attached salary increases to a school voucher plan.

“Do not let our advocacy for competitive wages be reduced to being anything but protecting public education,” he said. “Do not mistake our selflessness with submission.”

Cardona calls for less ‘teaching to the test’

The education secretary also called for more comprehensive education, with a focus on arts, music, and hands-on learning. There should be, he said, “strong pedagogy, high standards, and authentic assessments.”

“I’m going to say it here: We must stop teaching to the test,” Cardona said to perhaps the loudest applause of his speech. Teachers’ unions have long opposed test-based accountability, with the issue dominating discussions at past NEA representative assemblies.

When “teaching is reduced to test prep,” students—especially students of color—miss out on experiential learning, he said. And bilingual students’ work is “reduced” to “the percent of mastery on the standardized test.”

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Close up of a student holding pencil and writing the answer on a bubble sheet assessment test with blurred students at their desks in the background

“You can have high-quality assessments that connect to high-quality standards taught by highly qualified professionals,” Cardona said. “I was a teacher and a principal during the era of ‘bubble kids'—you know what I’m talking about—and we don’t want to go back.”

The so-called “bubble kid effect” refers to the belief that the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions forced schools to neglect both the lowest- and highest-performing students in favor of getting students near the test cutoff point over the hump.

“Assessments need to be flashlights to drive instruction and support, not hammers that put a scarlet letter on teachers or schools,” Cardona said.

The federal education law requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Cardona’s comments reflect a shift in thinking about test-based accountability, but federal requirements make innovation difficult, and a pilot program designed to stimulate experimentation in testing has proved unpopular among states.


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