How Education Secretary Nominee Miguel Cardona Works With Teachers

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 4, 2021.
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Miguel Cardona, a former teacher, school administrator, and currently Connecticut’s education commissioner, was recently nominated to lead the federal Education Department. Cardona’s selection reflects a shift from those who spearheaded education policy under Joe Biden’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

As president, Obama aligned himself with the pro–charter school PAC Democrats for Education Reform, which, as co-founder Whitney Tilson put it, was founded “to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.” Obama tapped DFER’s top choice for education secretary—Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan—and for the next seven years Duncan pushed controversial reform policies, including charter school expansion, weakening teacher tenure, and tying teacher salaries to student test scores. Unions despised Duncan, and Obama, who largely left the dirty work to his appointee, made clear he approved of the job Duncan was doing. “Arne has done more to bring our educational system—sometimes kicking and screaming—into the 21st century than anybody else,” Obama said in 2015.

While Biden didn’t go so far as picking former National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García to lead the Education Department, the choice of Cardona has nonetheless been a relief to union advocates, who knew education reformers were lobbying behind the scenes for other candidates. It’s another example of how Democratic leaders have drifted away from the Obama-era agenda and more toward a platform focused on traditional public schools and their schoolteachers.

During his confirmation hearing for education commissioner, Cardona made clear that under his leadership, Connecticut would be focusing its energy on “neighborhood schools” rather than charters. He’s also echoed some of Biden’s criticisms of evaluating teachers by standardized test scores. “Not reducing a teacher to a test score and bringing the voices of teachers and leaders into the process of professional learning. Those are the two things I really felt like I had to champion,” Cardona told CT Mirror in 2019.

As an assistant superintendent for Meriden Public Schools—located about 20 miles south of Hartford—Cardona was intimately involved in one of the nation’s most successful so-called labor-management partnerships in public education. Cardona helped lead reforms to boost student achievement in collaboration with the Meriden Federation of Teachers, at a time when educators nationally were being framed as the barrier to such efforts.

Labor-management partnerships are collaborations between executives and their unions that extend beyond traditional collective bargaining over wages and benefits. The partnerships have existed in the private sector for decades, with firms recognizing that expanding labor’s role in decision-making can lead to improvements in productivity, quality, and overall competitiveness. Some well-known labor-management partnerships include UAW’s collaboration with General Motors in the 1970s, and health care unions like SEIU working with hospital systems to drive improvements in patient care.

In public education, these types of partnerships have been more rare. But interest in the model started picking up about a decade ago, partially in response to attacks on teachers unions, and also as a way for reformers to push their preferred policies through new vehicles.

In 2010, with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rutgers labor scholar Saul Rubinstein and his student John McCarthy started researching labor-management partnerships in education. One school district stood out in particular, the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, California, which put a labor-management partnership in place in 1999. That collaboration helped drive student gains in the district, and also helped ABC Unified weather the 2008 recession with no layoffs, loss of employee health benefits, or increase in class size. This surprising success led to a 2014 paper where the Rutgers academics found “strong evidence” that such partnerships can help boost school quality and student achievement.

In 2007, Meriden’s then–teachers union president, Erin Benham, shared an article with school superintendent Mary Cortright about what was happening in Cerritos. Cortright and Benham met to discuss the piece, and afterward more regularly, in part due to the growing recession. Cortright’s successor, Mark Benigni, was eager to expand the conversations, and starting in 2010, union and district leadership began scheduling regular meetings on the first Monday of every month to discuss whatever was on their minds. Cardona would sit in on the meetings, too.

“We’d just sit there and bring up issues and use the time to hash things out,” says Benham, who retired as president in 2019 and now serves on the state education board. “We’d come up with a plan, and that just became a way of life.”

One of the biggest innovations that came from Meriden’s labor-management partnership was a push to expand the school day at three elementary schools. Research has shown that more instructional time is one of the most effective ways to boost student learning, and union and district leadership wanted to figure out how to deliver that opportunity to more students. The union applied for a $150,000 American Federation of Teachers grant in 2012, and by leveraging volunteers and community organizations, and giving annual stipends of $7,500 to staff, the district managed to offer 40 additional days of instructional time. While funding dried up after about five years, Meriden Federation of Teachers president Lauren Mancini-Averitt says they plan to bring at least one extended-learning school back after the pandemic.

A spokesperson for AFT says there are about 50 labor-management partnerships in various stages of depth and development today, but that “Meriden’s is among the most fully developed.”

Shaun Richman, a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College, says one drawback of labor-management partnerships is that union reps can end up having to do more work with management in improving the company’s product than in organizing members. Benham and Mancini-Averitt agreed the partnership was time-consuming, but defended the commitment, saying it’s proven to be the best way to actually solve problems, which is what their members want.

Richman says these partnerships sometimes draw criticism from more radical workers, who would rather spend their time fighting with management. But he said the partnerships generally tend to be quite popular, as most union members don’t want to be fighting. “For most unions, it’s this cycle where you have two years of fighting and six years of peace,” he said. “I’m a real boss hater and it’s something I struggle with, that most workers would prefer not to be fighting.”

One major initiative Cardona led as part of the labor-management partnership involved developing Meriden’s new teacher evaluation system. Unlike the dominant education reform model sweeping the nation at the time, Benham says their team wasn’t looking at teacher evaluations as a punitive tool to weed out low-performers, and instead believed evaluations should be constructive tools to help all educators improve. “We were very intentional about keeping those things separate,” says Benham. “Evaluations were about being a helping tool, not a gotcha.”

While Connecticut had some requirements to use student test scores in teacher evaluations, Meriden, under Cardona’s leadership, pushed to make those measures weigh less than they were being counted in neighboring districts. In Meriden, relevant department chairs also provided feedback for teachers, rather than just leaving evaluations to administrators less familiar with the assessed subject areas.

Cardona “was assistant superintendent for four years, and if there was any personnel issue, any really sensitive issue, he is who we would meet with,” says Benham. She praised his openness and said together they worked on areas ranging from restorative practices and professional development to improving school climate.

“He was a good partner to us, very personable, and the fact is he’s a parent,” adds Mancini-Averitt, noting Cardona has two of his own children in Meriden Public Schools. AFT president Randi Weingarten shared the enthusiasm. “There is great potential for a renaissance in public education after years and years of the school wars,” she said in a statement, adding that Cardona’s “deep respect for educators and their unions will travel with him to Washington.”

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