Miguel Cardona, first education secretary of Puerto Rican descent, calls for more cultural awareness in U.S. schools

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke to CBS reporter and former NAHJ board member Ed O’Keefe in a live session during the 2021 NAHJ national conference. SCREENSHOT/LATINO REPORTER

The U.S. secretary of education addressed Latino journalists who gathered virtually for the 2021 annual conference of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on Saturday, where he discussed a wide range of topics from his own Latinidad to what the nation’s return to school will look like this fall after many schools were closed for more than a year as the nation reckoned with a deadly pandemic.

Miguel A. Cardona, the first-ever education secretary of Puerto Rican descent, was interviewed via Zoom by Ed O’Keefe, a White House correspondent for CBS News and former NAHJ board member. Here are five takeaways from their conversation:

Cultural competency in schools

Since he joined the Biden administration in March, Cardona came in with a mission of building a positive culture and bringing unity to a bitterly divided country.

“This transition happened when this country was in particular pain,” Cardona said. “I really believe part of our role that I’m fortunate to be a part of, is really to heal, learn and grow together.”

On Saturday, he stressed the importance of focusing schools on curriculum that will help Black and brown students feel more included, adding that students of diverse backgrounds often don’t see themselves reflected in the textbooks and coursework assigned in most American public schools.

Cardona said all students would benefit from learning about people from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and racial groups. 

“When we talk about student engagement and when we talk about making students feel like they belong there, it really starts with ensuring that they have access to quality content that is diverse in nature,” he said. 

The son of Puerto Rican parents

Cardona’s parents moved away from Puerto Rico before he was born, seeking a better life in Connecticut, where Cardona was born. He said, like many migrants, they sacrificed a lot for him to be able to live the American dream. Growing up, Cardona spoke Spanish at home and learned English in school. 

“I’m an educator at heart, and I’m honored to serve as education secretary knowing that at this critical time in our country’s history, we need to really raise the bar in education. Our students deserve it, especially our Latino students who have historically been underserved in our system,” Cardona said. “Me siento orgulloso de estar aquí con ustedes.” 

Still recovering from hurricane devastation

Cardona discussed his most recent visit to Puerto Rico in June, which focused on rebuilding schools on the island after the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and subsequent national disasters that have hit the island. But the trip was about more than that, too, he said. It was also to create a relationship with the Puerto Rican people.

Cardona said he saw schools with cracked walls, shaky foundations and weak internet connections. These schools will benefit greatly from the $4 billion in relief aid his office announced in June, he added.

“There’s a lot of work ahead,” Cardona mentioned. “I did see a group of folks, leaders from different parties, parents, educators, that are willing to work with us and really want to support.”

A nationwide return to schools

As the nation begins to emerge from the worst ravages of a deadly pandemic, schools have grappled with questions over how students will ultimately return to the classroom.

Cardona expressed concern over the super-contagious Delta variant, which was first identified in India and has been spreading across the globe. The variant poses a critical threat to the unvaccinated and has already begun to spread in the United States.

“You know, this should be further behind us,” Cardona said. “There are places that are — for political reasons — discouraging mask use and even quarantine, which is unbelievable.”

Cardona urges leadership at every level to heed the guidance of health experts so students can go back to classrooms safely come the fall.

Last year was difficult for educators, Cardona said, but “we’re going to come together for our students.”

On “critical race theory”

While Cardona was the Connecticut commissioner of education, he helped create a mandatory class for high schools statewide that focused on the experiences, struggles and legacy of communities of African American, Black, Latin and Puerto Rican histories. Cardona credited this effort as one of the crucial parts of his career that ultimately helped him ascend to his position in the Biden administration.

While critical race theory and the study of communities of color in the U.S. is a topic that has become increasingly politicized and the subject of ongoing national debates, Cardona spent a relatively short amount of time during the interview on Saturday discussing the topic.

Critical race theory is a framework that recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow racism to flourish. It has become a national debate, as some states have passed bills to limit the teaching of the concept.

When O’Keefe asked the secretary about the political controversy, Cardona said he wasn’t too concerned. 

“I just think it’s become politicized and I think we are very careful not to add fuel to that, because we want to keep the politics out of it,” he said. “Closing achievement gaps includes making sure curriculum provides cultural diversity so that students can see themselves in it, so they can be engaged in school.”

He said, ultimately, what is going to be taught in school will be driven by students themselves.

“They’re not dumb,” he said. “They know what’s happening. And they’re going to be the ones that are going to help determine where we go with this.”

Maya Brown is a senior at Stony Brook University, where she studies journalism and political science. She is an intern on the social team at NBC Universal and has previously worked for CNN, WSHU Public Radio and the Long Island Herald. She hopes to pursue a career in political reporting. Reach her at mayaabrown10 [at] aol [dot] com and on Twitter @mayaabrown10.

Denisse Quintanilla is a senior at Monmouth University, where she studies Spanish and communications with a concentration in media studies and production. She is an intern at CNBC En Español and is pursuing a career in broadcast journalism. Reach her at denissequintanilla9 [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @denisseqtv

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