My Experience with Sec. Cardona and Why He Must Continue His Legacy of Centering Students

Sophia Hala Chin

Dr. Miguel Cardona has just been confirmed as President Biden’s Secretary of Education in the most diverse cabinet in United States history. I applaud President Biden for shining a spotlight on a nominee like Dr. Cardona who has accomplished groundbreaking work in his field. Few Americans know what he has done and what kind of person he is. However, I have a unique, firsthand perspective of Dr. Cardona’s commitment to young people—and a few calls to action for him as he assumes this important national role.

At the beginning of his tenure as the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, Dr. Cardona appointed two high-school seniors to serve with him on the State Board of Education (SBOE), one of whom was me. Together, we navigated the waters of state education policy, which was a shock compared to our previous environments: me being a senior in high school, and he an educator and assistant superintendent from the small district of Meriden, Connecticut.

When I first began working with him, he made promises to better my learning experience and that of my fellow students. From my perspective, he utilized his position in state office to deliver on those promises in the time that he served. Now, with the platform and resources to make tangible change at the national level, I am hoping to see him deliver on the promises he first made to myself and Connecticut students, along with the new commitments he is making to all of America’s youth.

In some of our early conversations, we discussed the essay I wrote to apply for this student leadership position, in which I argued that the lack of diverse perspectives in curriculum and in teaching was the most prominent issue facing the Connecticut public school system. Dr. Cardona and I both know what it is like to not have teachers who look like us in the classroom. As a biracial (white and East Asian) female, I have not had consistent experiences with Asian or mixed-race teachers with whom I can identify, and I am not alone in feeling this way. I have heard Dr. Cardona reminisce about his school days and the lack of recurring Latinx educators throughout his life to give him guidance.

Dr. Cardona listened to young people’s stories and frustrations about this and several other issues by attending student panels across the state and having our State Student Advisory Board present to the BOE. Many of us noted our fatigue with having white teachers for “cultural studies” who relied on stereotypical, one-sided perspectives of race and culture. We wanted a curriculum that featured not only Black, Latinx, and Asian studies–we wanted those classes to be taught in a manner that properly reflects the strengths and nuances of their unaltered history.

After listening to these insights, Dr. Cardona decided to pursue a curriculum for minority studies. In December of 2020, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require all high schools to offer a curriculum on Black and Latinx studies, and Dr. Cardona helped make the law a reality by leading the Connecticut State Department of Education in a collaborative effort to develop the curriculum.

In the words of Dr. Cardona, “The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all. This [happened] due in large part to the strong advocacy of students from around the state.”

Simply the thought of having a teacher who looks like me—a multiracial, multiethnic, woman of color—genuinely inspires me to consider becoming an educator in my future. We want such students to go into teaching because they will help and inspire not only children of color but also students who come from dissimilar backgrounds. Dr. Cardona knows what it is like to be that rare educator of color and knows what it means to listen to young people—and act on what he hears.

In addition to championing the curriculum revision, Dr. Cardona and I spent time in countless Board meetings discussing the necessity of implementing affordable housing and better pay for educators of color to ensure proper compensation and retention. These types of changes, however, are difficult to encourage without the proper resources. Despite the challenges, Dr. Cardona and his team made notable progress on this front because he is the type of leader who listens and takes direct action. It was rare to see him behind closed doors dictating policy to his team. In fact, he often eliminated the constraints of doors and walls. Specifically, Dr. Cardona had revolving, open-door office hours during which he set up office in random cubicles on different floors and in different departments, and his employees and student advisors could grab a seat next to him. This openness and direct connection to students allowed us and other team members to speak with him one-on-one about new ideas or improvements to current policy.

Moving forward, I am calling for Dr. Cardona to carry this openness, willingness to listen, and commitment to equity with him as he assumes the role of U.S. Secretary of Education. Dr. Cardona and the Biden administration must do more and do better for teachers and young people, particularly teachers and young people of color. In order to make these and other necessary changes, the U.S. Department of Education must listen to youth perspectives. I challenge Dr. Cardona and his team to continue walking the walk when it comes to youth voice by establishing a Student Advisory Board comprised of young people from all different backgrounds to provide the most diverse perspectives. Since this department is the pinnacle of education policy in the country, it is extremely important that decisions are made with guidance from the primary stakeholders—students.

Americans want to see a Department of Education that translates words into action. We want to see an approach that encourages students to become well-rounded individuals capable of seeing different sides of the world through intellectual and emotional development. This starts at the Department of Education with Dr. Cardona’s lead. Now that he is confirmed, innovation with and for students can begin. I am confident in Secretary Cardona’s character and leadership, and challenge him to enact real change with the help of young people like me.