by David Ruff
Politics and education are never far apart. Costs for public education are paid out of tax dollars, and governance of school districts is led by public boards, which are typically comprised of non-educators. Schools serve a pivotal public role and as educators, we need to do a much better job engaging with our communities to build upon the unique circumstances and challenges of each student, their families, and their communities.
But we can’t forget that effective teaching is built on an extensive research base and requires personal qualities and technical skills to do well. Designing systems that can support the learning of unique students at scale requires even more understanding and knowledge. Quite simply, while public education is a collaborative public endeavor, creating learning systems out of this collaboration requires deep professional knowledge within the field of education.
Recognizing this, I am excited to see President-Elect Biden nominate Dr. Miguel Cardona, current commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut, to be the next U.S. secretary of education. Dr. Cardona is an educator who understands what it means to stand in a classroom with 25 eager students looking to you for help in their learning. As an educator, he knows that great teaching combines sharing knowledge, helping students discover and develop skills and understanding, demanding high quality, using “failure” as a learning step, and personalizing all of this for each student. Unless you have stood in the shoes of an educator, no amount of reading, talking, or watching enables you to emotionally understand the responsibility.
I think there are many roles in education that can be filled by non-educators. Researchers can provide great insight into the philosophy of instruction without having been in a K-12 classroom. Human resource leaders can ensure quality working conditions for teachers. Building managers can ensure healthy learning environments. But all of this has to build from the relationship teachers have with students and their learning. And all decisions about the system have to build from this understanding.
At the same time, not all great teachers make great systems leaders. Leadership requires skills beyond being a great teacher. It requires recognizing the needs of the full population of students and knowing how to build capacity. It requires making hard decisions that may require tradeoffs, and being willing to take a principled stand that can often leave you alone. Dr. Cardona has demonstrated this capacity through his work as a district leader and as the commissioner of education for Connecticut. His work as a district leader—overseeing teaching and learning—was pivotal in creating better learning for students in his district. An effective U.S. secretary of education needs to emotionally and intellectually understand teaching while also knowing how to move a system forward. Dr. Cardona has demonstrated both these qualities.
I am a white man in America, and my personal experiences as a student, teacher, and educational leader have all been seen through this lens. Intellectually, I recognize that over half of public school students in America are students of color. Intellectually, I am committed deeply to educational equity that raises marginalized voices, challenges historic positions of power and privilege, and ensures just outcomes for each student. But I have not lived the impact of racism that has plagued American education since it was created. Dr. Cardona’s experience has been quite different. Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived the racism built into our educational system, learned deeply despite it, and emotionally understands it. He understands the unfair struggles faced by students of color when they are confronted with barriers placed in front of their learning by the exact system intended to assist them. His perspective is crucial to helping create and lead a new equitable learning system in the U.S.
Our educational system—as fine as it is and as hard as so many educators within it are working—is not fair. Creating educational equity will require more than emulating and refining past practices; it also requires fundamentally rethinking learning, recognizing the value of each student and their families, creating a multitude of learning pathways, and finding new ways to recognize student learning beyond simple testing regiments. It will require educators to collaborate more openly with families and community members. And it will require strong leadership from a practicing educator. I am pleased to see Dr. Cardona nominated to be the next U.S. secretary of education.