Stop Trashing Joe Biden’s Cabinet Picks

Especially his choice for Secretary of Education—but lay off the nit-picky nastiness around the others, too. Yes, YOU might have chosen others. Your favorite candidate may have been left behind. But much of Cabinet-choosing is inside baseball, beyond the ken of Joe Citizen. Stop bellyaching.

Biden’s selections all seem pretty experienced, professional and well-known to Biden or people he trusts. And hey—given what he’s got on his plate, and the worrisome lack of information coming from some quarters—I’d be reaching for the tried and trusted, as well.

There are always Cabinet members who don’t pan out, who are gone in a year—and there are people Biden wants who give me serious pause, too. Biden was far from my favorite Democratic candidate, but he displayed qualities which made him President-elect in the most contentious election in modern history. It doesn’t serve us well to flyspeck untried and unconfirmed Cabinet members, because there’s someone we imagine might be better. I’m taking a wait and see approach.

Frankly, 90 per cent of the people who are raking prospective Cabinet members across specific, overheated coals don’t know much about any of the nominees. But they’re willing to retweet some old error, a comment from years ago– or speculate about just how bad someone will be, based on some pretty limited evidence, or a single issue.

Here’s the thing: we’re not dealing with an ordinary transition, where progressives can realistically hope for big-transformative-ideas Cabinet members. We’ve got a pandemic to deal with, for at least six more months, in addition to a dozen political crises that are raw and bleeding—and dangerous.

Not every advisor and policy chief will be anxious to break new ground. Some of them are going to try to please multiple constituencies. Most of them will be lucky to reverse a stunning amount of damage, a lot of which has yet to be unearthed. They also have to pass through a confirmation process with a hostile Congress.

What is important right now is remembering whose policies and advice left us with the mess we’re in, and working to right the ship. I still have hope for an FDR-level change, eventually, but there’s work to be done first.

Like most teachers, I’d never heard of Dr. Miguel Cardona until about four days before he was nominated. But unlike many teachers, I was reluctant to name ‘my’ preferred candidate for ED Secretary. I have seen utterly inappropriate people elevated as ideal candidates–most of whom, thankfully, understand the range and scope of the job, as well as the politics, and said so.

Both Dr. Cardona and Dr. Leslie Fenwick, the other rumored finalist, seemed like good bets, people who had worked across the range of K-12 education and had deep understanding of how well-meant policy initiatives actually played out in public schools.

I heard Cardona’s acceptance speech on the radio and it felt sincere, even inspiring, to me. Biden appears to be honoring his pledge to nominate someone with classroom experience. And frankly, I don’t think there is a magic number of years in the classroom that makes a person qualified to be EdSec. Cardona enthusiastically trained to be a teacher via a public university—he didn’t come into education as a temp. To me, that’s enough.

Dr. Cardona has been a teacher, a school administrator at multiple levels, and a state superintendent during a pandemic. He’s been embedded in public education–as object of policy, administrator of policy and creator of policy.

Scrolling back through all the Secretaries, in Republican and Democratic administrations, he seems pretty close to what teachers have always said was essential, and what they wanted: someone who believes in the critical importance of public education and understands the people who do the work. Cardona will be only the 12th Secretary of Education, but compared to the previous eleven, we’re getting closer to that ideal.

Some folks disagree with Cardona’s prioritizing face to face education during the pandemic, especially for children in poverty—and others agree. He led a state with only 24 charter schools, involving less than .02% of CT students, so his mild remark about schools that serve children well hardly paints him as someone who supports destroying public education in favor of charters or choice. The question isn’t whether you like everything he’s said and done—it’s whether his CV shows him to be dedicated to the core principle of an equitable education for all children.

The Secretary of Education has little control over policy decisions that belong to states—but the rise of federal power in education policy has undeniably been steady, and onerous, for the past two decades. Cardona, as advocate for equity in public education, could be a powerful voice in reducing unnecessary (federally mandated) testing and creating conditions that make it safer for a return to in-person schooling. This might begin with federal oversight over real—not ‘alternative’—CDC recommendations, or, say, rolling out priority vaccination clinics for teachers as first step toward getting kids back to school.

My personal take on this: way too many people do not understand how inequitable virtual schooling is. There are high percentages of public school kids who do not have access.  And when I say ‘access,’ I don’t mean an internet hotspot via a bus parked near the projects. I mean enough devices in the home, some privacy and quiet, someone to help you when you run into trouble, and—most of all—adequate bandwidth to run all the programming.

There are plenty of pressing needs right now, around public education. It’s in crisis—and there’s even limited evidence that some of the strongest advocates of choice and standardization are now claiming that the pandemic has laid bare all the inequities and petty rule-making that have bedeviled public schools since NCLB sent us down the ‘accountability’ path.

Biden seems to have mostly sent us nominees that will be able to get through the confirmation process. There is SO much work to be done. I might eat my words in a year or two (Ghost of Arne Duncan floats into view), but for right now, I don’t want to waste time wishing someone else was president-elect, choosing candidates whose perspectives mirror my own. As someone once said, it is what it is.

Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 23, 2020.

8 Comments

  1. Please realize that everyone has an opinion … that is not a change, but now the news “organs” search through the myriad posted responses to fit the ones that fit their agendas and relay those on.

    Plus, even if people have a negative reaction to one or more of those appointments (as they should), when was the last time the government paid any attention to the desires of the voting public. Ordinary voters/citizens have, as they say, no standing to bring their grievances into play, so it is hardly surprising to find us out here shouting into the wind.

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    1. I do realize that, Steve. I am lucky that I have an outlet for my opinions–and readers. I fully get that shouting into the wind thing–but I also know that lots of people drew up slates of senators, public opinionators and previous presidential candidates who they thought would make excellent Secretaries of Whatever and then started acting disappointed when they weren’t on any lists. These are the kinds of people who think Oprah would make a great president. In fact, it’s this kind of shallow thinking that got the star of Celebrity Apprentice into office, for the first time.

      I guess–if we’re going to trust Biden to shepherd us through what I see as the rebuilding of a shattered democracy and economy, we probably have to trust him to pick out a reasonable, if not perfect, Secretary of Education. And you’re absolutely right that news outlets (and their funders) have agendas. As I was writing the piece this morning, I was reflecting that, once again, media literacy should be our first educational priority.

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      1. I concur with you. Indeed, as you mentioned, “media literacy should be our first educational priority”, though I would like to add that information literacy be included as well, given the state of affairs and chaos sweeping the nation across all age groups. I have discussed some of the issues concerning both media literacy and information literacy in my post entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity” and published at http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2020/12/19/misquotation-pandemic-and-disinformation-polemic-mind-pollution-by-viral-falsity/

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  2. Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education may well be his least objectionable one. The rest are predictable selections from the Obama/Clinton regimes and/or corporate power players. This is just 2008 all over again. I don’t know why Biden’s picks should get any more slack that Trump’s or Obama’s or George W. Bush’s or Bill Clinton’s. For starters.

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  3. Biden was not my first choice either which makes it easier to find fault with picks. My main objection is only that many are, as Micheal pointed out, holdovers from the Obama era. Those of us wanting a fresh start are understandably frustrated when it appears that we will not be moving forward – only working to undo the myriad of messes being left behind by the current regime.

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    1. Yeah. I get that–responded to it, in the blog–and it’s not my ideal, either.

      But I think the un-do is where we’re at. I read ‘The Fifth Risk’ a year ago, in which Michael Lewis explains all the hidden damage that’s been done. And the 11th hour (11:30, actually) position-filling by Trump means his minions are busy lighting still more fires. And we really can’t move forward until the stables are cleaned out, a shovelful at a time.

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  4. He could be a powerful voice in reducing pointless federal standardized testing. Yet he has not spoken out against it. You can say it’s pointless. I can say it’s pointless. Three quarters of the nations actual educators can’t stop saying its pointless. But Cardona does not have a long record of doing so. Not a promising sign. And why? There isn’t a valid argument for it, as any educator knows, at least not one speaking to the benefits of students. So why would someone fail to speak out against standardized testing as an educator? Either they support it, which is troubling to say the least, or they do not publicly take positions on any contentious issues. In other words, they are a coward. I think this is likely, given that sort of thing is exactly what’s needed to have a rapid rise in school administration like he has had.

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    1. Why would someone fail to speak out against standardized testing, as an educator?

      Well–as an school administrator, your job is supposed to be following direction from state and federal policies. There have been a handful of school principals and superintendents who have made strong blanket statements against standardized testing, period, and some have paid for that with their jobs and their reputations. Most stick to the idea that standardized tests should be modified or reduced and the data used in different ways. Why wouldn’t you stand up for eliminating them? Because it’s likely YOU could be eliminated. You can do some good by keeping your job, and influencing your district Board—or keeping your job and showing up at the Statehouse steps to protest unfair policies. Most school administrators think they can do the most good by modifying policies or turning a blind eye to opt-out initiatives or using test data to evaluating teachers. Incremental change.

      As a state Commissioner or Superintendent, the job is infinitely more complex. Once again, depending on how policy is made in your state, you are following direction given by the state legislature or Board of Education. Presuming you wish to keep your job (because you think you know more about the value–or lack thereof–of standardized testing), jumping out in front of the moving pro-testing train (funded by hundreds of grants and non-profits and testing houses) would probably find you out of a job, once again.

      I personally know more than a couple State Superintendents/Commissioners. And keeping their jobs is important if they want to have INFLUENCE over policy-making. They are most interested, especially at first, in incremental change that the field sees as a move in the right direction. Cardona has been Commissioner for about a year, right? During a pandemic? When lots of kids are undeniably struggling with the conditions of learning. (Notice I didn’t say they’re learning less, only that conditions are stressful–and, surprise, surprise, some tests, like the NWEA’s, show only a small increment of learning loss–so it’s possible that test data could actually encourage people to stop panicking.)

      It’s no wonder he’s not been terribly forthcoming. He wants the job. It’s not fair to say he’s a ‘coward’–he may well be judiciously holding his tongue until he gets the job, as pretty much every single Cabinet nominee since forever has done.

      Now–teachers who speak out against testing are easily pigeonholed: They’re afraid of the results. They’re not good teachers, and are failing students. Blah, blah, blah. We know that’s baloney, but it’s what the press expects teachers to say, and what policymakers use as reason to keep tests in place.

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