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NEA News

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona: “Time to End Toxic Disrespect”

Cardona tells NEA’s Representative Assembly that he is committed to a national detox of those who seek to destroy public education.
Secretary of Education Cardona Addresses 2023 NEA RA
Published: July 3, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. Cardona said it’s time detoxify those who seek to destroy public education; to detox them from ignorance, racism, and hate.
  2. The Department of Education budgeted $3 billion in teacher development, recruitment, and retention programs, and much more in salary increases through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
  3. After his speech, Cardona met with NEA delegates about actions to raise educator pay, to move from standardized testing to instruction-driven assessment, and create better working conditions.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona began his address to the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly with a shout out to Florida educators.

“I see what you are going through and what you do for kids, and we appreciate you,” he said, encouraging them and all attendees to make enough noise for everyone in Tallahassee to hear.

“But despite the divisive drama many want to create in education,” he said, “You change lives!”

He shared how his own life was changed by his high school art teacher, Linda Ransom, in Meriden, Connecticut. She saw a mural he was painting about racial justice and suggested he put it up on in the school cafeteria bulletin board.  He did, and he was even featured in the local newspaper.

“That lifted me up,” Cardona recalled.

But later, when Ransom tapped him on the shoulder and told him that he, too, could be a teacher, it put him on the path to actually becoming one. That was the beginning of a journey that led him to become the U.S. secretary of education and an educator fighting for educators.

“Ms. Ransom saw something in me that I did not even see, and when I look out at this room, I don't just think of it as a room of 6,000 incredible people,” he said. “You represent tens of millions of taps on the shoulder, just like the one I got from Ms. Ransom... You change lives!”

Toxic disrespect

Cardona said the country owes our educators a debt of gratitude and respect for not only changing, but saving lives. Yet America’s teachers and school support staff ‘have gone from pandemic to persecution in a culture of toxic disrespect.”

"Educators, do not let our advocacy for competitive wages be reduced to being anything but protecting public education."

“That disrespect comes from so-called leaders that complain about public education, but sleep well at night knowing their teachers are making less than $40,000 a year. [It] comes from those who want to privatize education and starve public schools of the resources they need..and from those seeking to divide our nation by politicizing equity and inclusion.”

“There is a toxic disrespect from demagogues who attack the safety and belonging of LGBTQI+ students and students of color, banning books and whitewashing our history,” he said.

“There’s a toxic disrespect from those that want to [perpetuate] privilege by standing against affirmative action, he added, [and from those] who have gotten millions in debt relief, but throw a tantrum when we try to give teachers $10,000.”

Sadly, Cardona added, “there is even toxicity creeping in from those who would rather ban books than assault weapons.”

Time for a detox!

“The time has come for us, as a nation, along with the NEA, to fight unapologetically against toxicity,” Cardona said.

He said “it’s time detoxify those who seek to destroy public education; to detox them from ignorance, racism, and hate.”

“It’s time to detox them from privatizing the great equalizer [of public education],” he said. “You see schools are the best intervention to fight ignorance, and educators are the antidote, or dare I say in Florida, the vaccine against vitriol.”

Ending the shortage begins with respect

“I keep hearing talk about a teacher shortage issue. When are we going to talk about the national teacher respect issue?” Cardona asked. “Better yet ... let’s see action.”

He called it the ABCs of education, joking that we always need more acronyms in education.

A stands for agency, where educator voices are woven into the school’s work.

B is for better working conditions, where we are not normalizing schools built for the last century.

He said educators need planning time and professional development during the work day. Let’s also ensure there is a positive culture in schools, he said.

He said we also need to reflect the beautiful diversity of our students in the education workforce.

Finally, he said C stands for competitive salaries.

“Let’s pay teachers what they deserve!”

“When we invest in the profession, we invest in our students – and we invest in our nation,” he said.

The Department of Education budgeted $3 billion in teacher development, recruitment, and retention programs, and much more in salary increases through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

“We’ve also pushed out $400 million for teacher pipeline programs already,” he added. 

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Focus on comprehensive education 

Cardona emphasized the need for education that is strong in the arts, music, and hands-on learning; that values college and career; and that includes strong pedagogy, high standards, and authentic assessment.

“We must stop teaching to the test,” he said to thundering applause. “Too many generations of students, particularly Black and brown students, missed out on STEM, hands-on learning, experiential learning, or project-based learning because teaching was reduced to test prep. Enough is enough!”

“We must take steps in this country to recognize the power of formative and curriculum-embedded assessments that drive instruction and curricular decisions,” he said.

“Assessments need to be flashlights to drive instruction and support, not hammers that put a scarlet letter on teachers or schools, he said, and the Department of Education is proposing $100 million in that to get the ball rolling. We’re not just talking about it, we’re being about it.”

“I want to thank NEA for all the work it’s doing to develop principles of authentic assessments,” he said, referring to NEA's Principles for the Future of Assessment, available at

“This is an area I will continue to focus on—one where my experience as an educator matters, one where your voice matters.”

Cardona committed to engaging, listening, and standing side by side with NEA members as we fight for the soul of our nation and work to detoxify those seeking to harm public education.

“Along with our students and parents, there is nothing we cannot accomplish if we work together,” he said. “Together, we will lift public education to greater heights. We have to! Our kids are watching.”

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Cardona Conversation with RA Delegates 

After his speech, Cardona met backstage with educators from around the country, including education support professionals, higher education members, specialized instructional personnel (SISPs), K-12 teachers, and aspiring educators, for a free-ranging conversation that centered on community schools, better working conditions and assessments. 

Multiple attendees raised concerns about standardized tests, including NEA Task Force on The Future of Assessment member Becca Ritchie and NEA-New Mexico president Mary Parr Sanchez, who gave the example of New Mexico’s High school capstone project, which was designed and developed to provide more equitable access to graduation for students across the state through community-centered, hands-on projects, according to Future-Focused Education. 

 “The standardized testing and all the testing that leads up to the standardized testing continues to suck the creative joy out of the room," said  Parr Sanchez, who asked Cardona to create a pilot program that would free educators to “design, develop and test new approaches.” 

The way it runs currently isn’t working, Cardona agreed. “For 25 years, assessment has driven instruction. We need to have good instruction, and we need that instruction to drive assessment.” 

Two Aspiring Educators members also were in the room with Cardona. Alanna Rigby, of Florida, just completed her student teaching experience, she told him. It was unpaid. “Nobody can afford to spend these hours in the classroom, spend 10 grand on tuition, and not get paid,” she said.             

“We need to stop that,” Cardona agreed, and told Rigby that he is working with the Department of Labor to fix that issue, and has a goal to work with NEA and others to grow apprenticeships from 17 states to 50 states There were just two states when the Biden Administration began. 

Pay is also a huge problem, especially for the nation’s paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other education support professionals (ESPs), said Pamella Johnson, a social emotional behavioral interventionist who is the NEA 2023 ESP of the Year.  

“You have so many opportunities to get better pay,” Cardona said. But where would schools be, if ESPs left for better pay? “Our schools would not function without ESPs. Who is the first face that students see, every day? It’s you. When I talk about educators lifting up the profession, I am including ESPs.” 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.