February 16, 2021

Can Dr. Cardona Rise to the Occasion?

Robert Jaycox • Math Teacher at Bulkeley High School

As Dr. Cardona prepares to meet the Senate to answer questions, he’s repeatedly had to answer the questions of an even tougher group: Connecticut’s teachers. Right now, the nation faces a severe lack of teachers who reflect the backgrounds of its students.

As Secretary of Education, I hope that Miguel Cardona will provide for the United States the kinds of programs that he did for Connecticut, expanding teacher diversity and providing greater and stronger pathways into teaching for traditionally marginalized groups. We need programs like these on a national level to provide students with teachers who reflect their backgrounds, which can only benefit our nation’s students.

Dr. Cardona, a former teacher himself, has opened the door for teacher diversity in Connecticut. During Dr. Cardona’s time as Commissioner of Education, he instructed his Department of Education to continue to build on the previous success of Connecticut’s teacher diversity push. Under his tenure, the state saw an increase in its teachers of color from 8.9% 9.6% of statewide teachers, an increase of almost more than the previous four years’ increases combined. This level of growth can only be expected to continue, thanks in part to a program Dr. Cardona stewarded in Connecticut: Educators Rising. His work spans a number of schools — but in my school, I’ve found that the diverse staff of our school directly impacts student behavior. From my conversations with students, they are able to interact, connect and engage with teachers and other staff without feeling judged in the same way the world may. It opens our students’ minds to new perspectives and allows them to express themselves in a natural and authentic way. With that in mind, I want to see a public school system that equitably meets the needs of all students, and Dr. Cardona’s work is a step in that direction.

Connecticut’s grow your own-type program, dubbed Educators Rising, was piloted in New Britain and expanded late in 2020 to 10 other districts. The idea behind the program was — similar to other states’ grow your own teaching pipeline programs — to offer students of color opportunities to engage with the teaching profession. Students who take up the coursework in participating districts will receive not only firsthand experience of the teaching profession, but also basic “micro-credentials” in teaching and credit toward a degree at one of Connecticut’s public colleges. The program, expanded under Dr. Cardona, exemplifies what he could bring to the rest of the country: teachers who reflect and serve the communities that they grew up in, who deeply understand where their students come from.

Connecticut’s push for greater diversity in teaching under Dr. Cardona shows support not only for the teaching profession, but also for student equity. On a national stage, these policies would serve to address the teacher shortage that COVID-19 has only further exacerbated. On the one hand, some may argue that these policies serve to mar professional standards for teaching certifications. With that said, however, programs like Connecticut’s Educators Rising give budding teachers a pathway into a standard certification that they may not have otherwise had. We should expect that these changes, on a national level, would only serve to bolster the professional status of teachers.

Dr. Cardona’s experiences as an English language learner and his work as both a teacher and administrator in Connecticut offer a glimpse into his commitment to providing students of color opportunities to advance themselves, as well as a commitment to expanding the teaching profession so that it better reflects the demographics of America. Educators for Excellence’s national teacher survey, Voices from the Classroom 2021, hammers home the importance of this need: “Although research shows that students benefit academically and socially from seeing teachers who look like themselves and reflect their experiences, just 31% of teachers “strongly agree” that the staff at their school reflects the diversity of their student population.”

Having experienced the education system that Dr. Cardona has helped build upon in Connecticut, I firmly believe that under his leadership at the U.S. Department of Education, we can count on a champion for both teachers and students so that our schools reflect the diversity seen in our country.

Robert Jaycox
Robert Jaycox is a member of E4E-Connecticut and a math teacher at Bulkeley High School.