Dr. Miguel Cardona on Skill Development and Educational Equity

January 31, 2024

"This week's very special guest is the US Secretary for Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona. Secretary Cardona is one of three children, whose grandparents moved from Puerto Rico in the 1960s for better opportunities in the mainland United States. That experience, and his bicultural upbringing, have helped shape Secretary Cardona's passion to serve all students and improve their opportunities for success. Secretary Cardona began his career as a fourth-grade teacher at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden Connecticut. In 2003, at the age of twenty-seven, he was named principal of Meriden's Hanover School, making him the youngest principal in Connecticut. In 2019, Governor Ned Lamont appointed him as commissioner of education, the first Latino to hold the position. During his tenure, he helped oversee state schools' response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where he expressed concerns over the long-term mental health impacts of remote education on students. In March 2021, Secretary Cardona joined President Biden’s cabinet as the 12th US Secretary for Education. Secretary Cardona's focus throughout his career has been on raising the bar for equity and excellence in education for all learners. This focus guides his leadership of the U.S. Department of Education, in service of the nation's 65 million students, ranging from pre-kindergarten to adult learners.

Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him and welcome to the next episode of Here to Help. For accessibility I'll give a quick visual description: I'm a middle aged man with a salt and pepper beard. I'm wearing a dark blue sweater and behind me is a collection of books and records. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength and hope inspires people to want to help others. My very special guest today is the US Secretary for Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona. Secretary Cardona is one of three children whose grandparents moved from Puerto Rico in the 1960s for better opportunities in the mainland U.S. That experience and his bicultural upbringing have helped shaped Secretary Cardona's passion to serve all students and improve their opportunities for success. Secretary Cardona began his career as a fourth grade teacher at Israel Putnam Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut. In 2003, at the age of 27, he was named principal of Meriden’s Hanover School, making him the youngest principal in Connecticut. In 2019, Governor Ned Lamont appointed him as the Commissioner of Education, the first Latino to hold the position. During his tenure, he helped oversee state schools response to the COVID 19 pandemic, where he expressed concerns over the long term mental health impacts of remote education on students. In March of 2021, Secretary Cardona joined President Biden's cabinet as the 12th U.S. Secretary for Education. Secretary Cardona’s focus throughout his career, has been on raising the bar for equity and excellence in education for all learners. This focus guides his leadership of the U.S. Department of Education in service of the nation's 65 million students, ranging from pre-K to adult learners. Secretary Cardona, thank you so much for joining me today.

-Chris, I'm glad to be with you. It's great to have a conversation with you again and look forward to it. Thank you.

-Fantastic. Well, we always start these conversations with the same question, how are you doing right now?

-I'm doing great. I always say I'm doing great. I'm blessed. I have a wonderful family. I have an opportunity in my career to help children, so you won't hear complaints from me

-Fantastic. Well, at Indeed, our mission, as I said, is to help people get jobs. And I'm always curious how people got their start. Can you tell us a little bit about your first job?

-My first job? Wow. I, I was literally flipping burgers back when we flipped the burgers. I worked at McDonald's at 15 years old, and I often share that and I share with pride. I learned a lot of the skills, organization, teamwork and managing a group because I was able to move on into different leadership positions. And to this day, when I see my first boss, who still owns his own restaurant, I see him and I talk to him and and we we talk about the good old days. But that was my first job. My first job in education after graduation was a fourth grade teacher and once a teacher, always a teacher. I served 21 nine-year-olds and I was like 22. So I think I was like 12, 13 years older than them. But it was just an amazing experience to get into the teaching profession.

-That's incredible. My second job out of college, I had one job for about six months. I was working in an adolescent psychiatric hospital, working with young addicts and alcoholics, and then I took a job substitute teaching. My wife and I moved to a small town in rural Vermont. I substituted for about three months, and then I taught special education in public high school for two years. But during substitute teaching, I started out in high school and then I got put in fourth grade for a week, and that was so much harder than anything else I had done. So, very impressed. So you spent your whole career as an educator after McDonald's and are now at the helm of the US Department of Education, and your experience shapes the decisions that you make every day to create a more equitable system for learners in the U.S.. Can you talk about what are the most important items on your agenda as Secretary for Education?

-Sure. You know, I think it's important to to ground what I say. In my lived experience, not only as an educator. I was a school teacher. I was a school principal, I was a district leader and then state leader before becoming Secretary of Education. So for me, it's the values, the goals are similar, regardless of position, to provide opportunities for students to reach their God given potential, and reduce gaps in opportunities and outcomes between different groups of students. So that's been the goal and making sure that excellence is is for everyone, not just for some. So that's always been the goal at the Department of Education. We work really hard to try to frame it around key goals. We call it raise the bar, lead the world, right. I think we've normalized in our country not leading an international ranking list on reading and math. And quite frankly, I believe we need to be at the top. We need to push ourselves to continue to perform at what I believe is at the highest levels. So what does that mean? A strong focus on literacy, numeracy and STEM, a very strong focus on reimagining schools. Our schools are designed the way they were two pandemics ago. We have to evolve our schools’ mental health supports undergirding our systems. It's not enough anymore to have an emergency room model of mental health supports in our schools. Also making sure that our teachers, our educators have really, in my opinion, over the last decade have been subject to a lot of disrespect. I want to make sure that we're respecting the profession, we're honoring our educators, and we value what they bring to the table. So I'm really pushing for highly qualified teacher support for educators because as a student’s need changes, we need to make sure we're supporting our educators who are meeting their needs. And then the last two buckets, and this is only K-12. I'll get to the higher ed later. But the last two buckets is promoting multilingualism and giving students an opportunity to learn another language or maintain their native language. Because many times our schools almost, you know, whether intentionally or unintentionally, just kind of erase their native language and culture, only to then offer prestigious electives in high school for another language. And then making sure that we're providing better pathways to career and college for our students developing skills. And I know Indeed is really focused on skills. So for me, we need to make sure we're developing skills in our students so they can have choices when they graduate. That's the K-12 agenda. Higher ed, very simple. Affordability, accessibility into higher education.

-Fantastic. Well, so, you know, one of the things that we explore in these discussions is a little bit, like you said, how that lived experience informs what it is, and inspires you to do that, what you're doing. As I mentioned, your grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland for better opportunities. Can you talk about how that experience shaped your perspective on the role of education in society?

-Absolutely. I mean, I think the best way to kind of describe how I think about that is, you know, my grandparents, when they came here, they came with very little. And they came with the intention of giving their children a better opportunity. I always say they traded the paradise of Puerto Rico for the projects in Connecticut, for the cold. But they did it because they knew that opportunities existed and those opportunities became available for my parents and for me through public education. We had only what the public schools provided. So that means that they knew they sacrificed a lot so that the doors of public education could open for their children and grandchildren. And in just two generations, I'm now advising the President of the United States on education for all students. I think that's the power of education. That's the power of public education. That's why I always say it's the best profession. But I look at their story, right? What they had to give up so we could have access to education. And I see they had the potential to. They had the potential. You know, I look at my grandmother, my grandfather, hard workers and all that, but if they had the same opportunities I had, they could have continued as well. So, you know, they do inspire me. And they remind me also that there are many first generation families that are moving in here who have the same potential and drive and ambition and desire that my grandparents had. And we need to look at those folks as future Secretaries of Education, too. You know, it just it to me, it really comes full circle.

-Fantastic. So you had mentioned a couple of minutes ago about this idea of raising the bar. Can you talk about why it's so important, what you mean by that?

And then talk maybe a little bit about this back to school bus tour in 2023 called Raise the Bar?

-Sure. So, you know, for the educators that are paying attention and seeing what we're doing, you know, I've been in education for about 25 years, and I know that at the federal level, there's always a desire to create something shiny and new and say, this is the way we fix education across the country. And often times these strategies go away when the person bringing them in goes away. For me, raising the bar means doing what we know works better. It means being serious about addressing those things that we know our students need. I mentioned them before: strong literacy instruction, strong numeracy instruction, schools that are innovating, right? So you'll see a lot of our grants go toward those things. I mentioned Raising the Bar includes a better continuum of mental health supports for students and educators. Right, highly qualified teachers and teacher support and teacher professional development. That to me is raising the bar. It’s not a shiny silver bullet that's going to come out of left field. This is what we know works. And then it's providing multilingualism and pathways to college and career for our students, but doing that better so that all students have access, so that all students can graduate, if they want, high school with 12 college credits. So that's the Raise the Bar formula. All right. And then the Raise the Bar bus tour, we visited five different states in the Midwest. I've been on three amazing bus tours where we get to talk to educators and parents and students about what it means and what we're doing and really elevate the best practices that are out there. You know, it's funny because you don't need the answers in D.C. We have them across the country. But what we have our pockets of excellence and it's my responsibility to lift up those districts, those educators, those schools that are really defying the odds, closing gaps, providing opportunities for students, meeting students mental health needs by being innovative. And these bus tours, man, they give me the opportunity to go through different states and pop into schools and talk to students directly. And it's just really one of the highlights of my my job as secretary of education is to get out there and see what's actually happening in our schools. That's the best part of the job.

-So I know that one of the key areas of focus is really just recruiting more teachers. And in August of 2022 Indeed was very proud to join the White House and others to help support filling open roles in schools across America. We launched our own program, Indeed for Education, and we committed $10 million to help school districts fill their open positions. And it was an amazing experience to get to partner with so many public schools and districts around the country. And I want to talk about some of the challenges and goals for hiring teachers. But first, we have a PSA, a recent PSA for Teach Dot Org and 1 million teachers of Color. And I'd love to have us run that first.

-Teachers are dynamic leaders shaping a new generation, innovating to prepare students for our fast changing world. They're skilled experts, discovering a universe of solutions, telling stories, inspiring, mentoring, connecting cultures, leading by example. Teaching is a journey that shapes lives. Are you ready to begin? Explore teaching at Teach Dot Org.

-So we currently have a shortage of educators across the U.S. Can you talk about what makes the field of education such a rewarding career? Why should more people become teachers?

-First of all, you're being modest Indeed, has really stepped up across the country. And I want to give you credit where credit is due. We appreciate the $10 million investment. We also appreciate the spotlight you're putting on this Chris. You recognize the importance of education. Your whole team does. So, you know, we're standing at the White House and having conversations. You know, everybody agrees there we need to do more. You've stepped up Chris. Indeed has stepped up. So thank you. It is the best profession. It is by far the best profession. I feel blessed as I said earlier, that I am able to work with students and families and help them. You know how many people I've talked to that, you know, later on in their career, they're like, you know, I want to I want to give back. I want to get into education. It's an extension of your life's purpose. And that sounds a little hokey, but it is an extension of your life's purpose, of your values. But for far too long, the profession has not gotten the respect it deserves. And when we talk about teacher shortages, to me that's a symptom of a teacher respect issue in this country. So what I talk about is bringing back the ABCs to teaching. You know, everybody loves acronyms in education. We need more, right? For me, the ABCs of teaching are Agency, making sure that we respect educators as professionals. They're trained in this. Most have Master's or more, and we need to make sure that we recognize and respect the agency that they bring to the profession. And B stands for better working conditions. And by better working conditions, I mean ensuring that teachers who are working really hard to help their students academically have in their schools colleagues that could help students with mental health needs. Better working condition means that you have reasonable class size and that there's appropriate supports, high quality materials. Better working condition means making sure there's professional development opportunities for teachers to continue to grow and pathways for them to grow in the profession, even if that means not leaving the classroom. Maybe they want to stay in the classroom, but they have additional opportunities to continue to grow. Bettter working conditions during COVID meant you had clean air, you had appropriate materials. You're not in classrooms that are 95 degrees in the summer without air conditioning. You know, better working conditions, thus respect to educators. And then C, ABC. Remember! C is competitive salary. In this country we have normalized the fact that teachers make on average 24% less than people with similar degrees. I'm standing up and saying enough is enough. You know, when teachers are advocating for competitive salaries so they don't have to drive Ubers at night or bartend on the weekends, you know, people often say, well, geez, you know, they're not student centered if they're asking for more. No, we want a highly qualified workforce to give our students the best. They deserve a competitive salary. So those are the ABCs of teaching. We're not just talking about it. We're doing something about it. We've committed billions of dollars for teacher professional development. You know, the president, within months, President Biden ushered in the American Rescue Plan that provided $130 billion to help recover and provide supports, which include making sure that our teachers are supported as well. And we're seeing some progress. I mean, we're seriously working with states and putting pressure to make sure that salaries are competitive. We've seen 29 states include in their last budget an increase in teacher salary. And we're going to keep pushing that because we know, you know, when we when we support our educators, our students are going to get the best. You know, I always say, because you'll appreciate this, we want Finland results, but we're not putting in the Finland investments. Right? So for me, we're really working on it. Another thing that I think I'm really proud of and we're working on is, you know, name another profession where you have people working for free for four months. That doesn't exist.

But we expect it from our student teachers. Maybe that's part of the reason why we're not getting people and teachers of color coming into the profession. So we're working on a teacher apprenticeships. Three years ago there were zero states that had them. Today there are 29 states that have them. But because we've been pushing really hard. So those are the types of things that we're trying to do to make sure we're lifting the profession because it is the best profession.

-So in that PSA that we showed, one of the organizations mentioned there is 1 Million Teachers of Color. Can you talk about the importance of diversity in the teaching profession?

-Absolutely. You know, I said the ABCs of teaching. If I were to add a D there, it would be diversity. You know, over 50% of our students identify themselves as students of color, and I think it's around 20% of our educators. I want to make sure that our students see themselves as educators as well. And it helps when students see and learn from people that have similar backgrounds as them. It just it helps their learning. It helps with them feeling connected, a sense of connectedness and makes the the pedagogy culturally appropriate where we're needed in order to engage students and keep them connected. So, you know, the 1 Million Teachers of Color and Teach Dot Org and Indeed and the Department of Education, we're all on the same page that we need to make sure that the diversity of the profession reflects the diversity of our country, or else we're sending a message that this profession is not for you.

So we have to be intentional about that. And we are, you know, at the Department of Education, we have grants that are specific for pipeline programs. So when we work in our communities of color, predominantly students of color, we need to have pathways that connect them to a teaching program and then bring them back into the same community. Like me. I went to school and I became a teacher and a principal, an assistant superintendent in the same district that my parents moved into from Puerto Rico. And that gives me a connection to that community and an understanding of that community that helps students achieve. And I think across the country, it's not just my opinion. There's empirical data that supports when students have teachers of color, they all achieve better. And for Black and Brown students, the achievement rates increase significantly. So we need to make this an intentional focus.

-I think you've covered a whole range of things that we need to be doing. Can you talk about what are some of the specific things the Department is doing right now to address teacher shortages and diversity?

-Definitely. So, you know we have billions of dollars going toward teacher professional development. We, you know, it seems indirect, but when we fix the public service loan forgiveness program, and I'll speak maybe 10 seconds on that, if you're a public servant and you've served for ten years and you've been paying your loans for ten years, you're eligible for loan forgiveness. It's that simple.

When we came into office in the last four years, there was only 7000 people across the country that benefited from that. Okay? 98% of the people were rejected. We got that number up to $50 billion in debt relief. Over 750,000 people have gotten, I was in an airport today and I was stopped by someone that got public service loan forgiveness. Teachers, school principals, para educators, all are eligible. Law enforcement, military service members, firemen. They're all eligible now. So, you know, when you think about having debt, we want to make sure that teachers, district leaders, their debt after ten years is discharged. So we're working on that. We also have the SAVE program, which is kind of an indirect as well. Right. So if you go into the teaching profession, you have undergraduate debt and you're going into a profession where you don't want to spend so much of your money paying off college loans, you can sign up now for the save plan, which wasn't here a year ago. This is brand new. The Save plan will take undergraduate student loan debt and cut it in half this July. It's going to be cut in half. So it's only 5% of your disposable income versus 10%. And we're doing that to give more people an opportunity to say, I want to go to college and I'm going to be able to afford it. We have the Augustus Hawkins Grant. We put things like $30 million to have pipeline programs to increase diverse teachers. All total there’s about $2.6 billion in teacher support programs, teacher quality programs, professional development programs

For the teachers that are paying attention and just watching right now, historically, you know, we tell you we need you to be trauma informed in your instruction, right? We tell you to understand how the needs of the child have changed, and then we give you 15 to 20 minutes of professional development and they expect you to be experts. We're trying to stop that. We're investing in professional development to give teachers the tools that they need to be successful. As a former fourth grade teacher and a school principal, I know these are critical to make sure we're supporting our educator workforce and ultimately supporting our students.

-So, I know that we're talking specifically about the teaching career, but you're also working on helping ensure that all students have access to a variety of career pathways, and this is a key priority of your administration, specifically through the unlocking career success that you use to help young people prepare for careers of the future with access to well-paying jobs in innovative industries. Can you tell us a little bit about this initiative?

-Sure, and I’ll frame it kind of thinking, you know, the pandemic disrupted education. And I think we'd be failing our kids if we built it back the way it was in 2019. Our schools are designed, as I said earlier, for two pandemics ago. The same way they were two pandemics ago. So I'll give you a quick vignette. 2021 I was serving as Secretary, I was transitioning to Secretary role. My own children, I had two teenagers in high school at the time,

were going to school three days a week on Week A and then learning from home two days a week. And then they would flip it. The following week they would go to school two days a week and learn from home three days a week. It was a hybrid version to reduce the number of people in the hallways to reduce transmission rates.

When the pandemic ended, everything went back to normal the way it was before. And I'm thinking to myself, why can't we give students who are high performing and able to do this, an opportunity to learn outside the school walls and go to an internship or learn by getting experience in a high skill, high paying career that interests them, instead of going back to the same model that we had. We have launched the Unlocking Career Success strategy with the intention of evolving. I don't use the word reform, evolving our high schools to give students an opportunity to get career advisement, to get up to 12 credits in college, in high school, in a connected career that they're interested in. To give them workplace experience through an internship or externship, and to make sure that they're able to get credentials while in high school. It could be a CNA credential, it could be an OSHA credential. It could be computing If they want to go into cybersecurity. Let's give them some skills, some credentials that they could walk out and start thinking about their future in a way that's tangible. You know, those days of why am I learning this?

Well, we want to reduce those, right? We want to give students pathways to careers. So the Unlocking Career Success strategy is really having high schools, two year colleges, four year colleges and industry partners sitting at the table together to program and plan to give students options when they graduate. And one one last thing about this. Look, I'm excited about this, but I'm also feeling that excitement alone is not going to do it. I have a sense of urgency because the Invest in America work of our president, to get CHIPS and Science Act passed, the infrastructure plan and the climate provisions under the Inflation Reduction Act, there will be millions of high skill, high paying careers available. We gotta get moving here. We can’t do business as usual. The careers are going to be there. There are billions of dollars in commerce intended to help develop workplace pipeline programs. I want to make sure that our schools our two year colleges and our four year colleges are connected to that unlocking career success. If you visit Ed Dot Gov, ED dot gov, you'll find it there under our Raise the Bar Strategies. I'm really excited about it. It's time we make sure we skill up our students so they have more options when they graduate.

-Fantastic. Well, our time flew by here. I know you're a very, very busy man, so I'll just very quickly ask the last question that we always ask, which is, with all the challenges that we've been through as a nation, as a world over the last three, four years, what gives you hope for the future.

-Children. That's a simple one. Children. I was in Parkland, Florida, earlier this week for very difficult conversations. And I spoke to students and they inspired me. They gave me hope for our future. I visited a Pathway program in Washington, DC on Wednesday, and I spoke to high school students that were talking about their future with such excitement. I visited fourth grade students at a bilingual school or a school that's teaching multilingualism, and they give me hope. Our best days are ahead of us. Our best days are ahead of us. We need to respect the profession. We need to lift the profession. Thank you Indeed for what you're doing and for folks who are interested, check Teach Dot Org, check out the Department of Education website. It's all over Indeed. We need you in this profession. Our students are waiting. Thank you.

-Secretary Cardona, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you so much for everything that you're doing for all students all over the country and everywhere.

-Appreciate you, Chris. Thank you.