Congratulations to Dr. Santosha Oliver, 2007 Alma Exley Scholar, on her appointment as assistant commissioner for standards and instructional programs for New York State Public Schools.
What a happy surprise to run into her at the annual conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education in San Diego. Dr. Oliver’s team was presenting on a years-long initiative to revise the high school graduation requirements in New York State.
Prior to moving to Albany for her new job, Dr. Oliver had been assistant superintendent for Windsor, Conn., public schools since 2016. She began her education career as a science teacher at East Hartford High School. Subsequently, she served as coordinator of assessment, evaluation, and research for the East Hartford Public Schools; assistant principal of the O’Brien STEM Academy of the East Hartford Public Schools; and the administrator in charge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the Manchester, Conn., Public Schools.
A graduate of Manchester High School, she holds a B.S. degree in biology from Morgan State University and a Ph.D. in genetics and developmental biology from the University of Connecticut. She earned her Connecticut teaching certificate in the Alternate Route to Certification.
I’m so proud of Tosha and all she has accomplished in her illustrious educational career. She has had a big impact along the way, from the classroom to the office, and now she has the opportunity to make a difference on behalf of the 2.5 million public-school students across the state of New York.
I’m also grateful to the supporters of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program, who made it possible for us to recognize Tosha’s potential and give her a boost as she began her career in education.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of attending a speech by Dr. Miguel Cardona knows what an inspiring and compelling speaker he is. As U.S. Secretary of Education, he speaks from the heart as a devoted advocate for the nation’s students and educators.
He was in top form again recently when he addressed the graduates at the annual commencement ceremony of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.
Speaking about the state of the nation’s schools following the pandemic, he compared the education community to a wilted flower. And he urged the graduates to become master gardeners in reviving the nation’s schools.
First, though, he acknowledged the honor of receiving Columbia’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
“I accept this on behalf of Avelino and Maria Cardona, and Germana Muniz,” he said, “my grandparents who took a leap of faith and traded paradise for the projects, so their children and grandchildren could have a better life. This award is theirs.”
Great Message from a Great Educator
I’m pleased to share these excerpts from Secretary Cardona’s speech. It’s a great message from a great educator. Since we honored Miguel with our scholarship in 1998, he has served as an inspiring leader as a teacher, principal, district administrator, state commissioner, and now as our nation’s premier educational leader. All who support the Alma Exley Scholarship Program are proud of Secretary Cardona and wish him well on his journey in education in the years ahead.
The Best Profession
Secretary Cardona told the graduates they were joining or advancing in the best profession at a time when they are needed the most.
“I gotta be honest,” he said. “I get inspiration for learning from all different places…even music. In fact, there is a New Yorker whose musical catalog is a soundtrack to my journey in education. Anyone ever hear of Marc Anthony?
“Well, he sang a song that, to me, is the perfect metaphor to the role of education in this country at this time. The song is Flor Pálida, which translates to wilted flower.
Education Has Become Like a Wilted Flower
“After the pandemic, education was a Flor Pálida: a flower wilting under a storm like no other.
“Marchita y desojada, casi pálida, ahogada en un suspiro.” It was gasping for air, wilted and missing its vibrant petals.
“Like the learning of our young people, it was severely disrupted.
“Mental health needs escalated.
“Academic levels hit the lowest marks in decades.
“And opportunists who stand to benefit from framing public education as a dead end created culture wars to divide school communities in order to privatize public education—the great equalizer.
“Yes, education emerged from the pandemic as a Flor Pálida.
Educators Must Become Master Gardeners
“The thing is, graduates, to recover the strength, vibrancy, and beauty of a wilted rose, you need master gardeners.
“If our education system is the wilted rose in a garden, you are the master gardeners who will bring our garden back to life.
“You are the master gardeners whose efforts will lead to a garden of beautifully diverse flowers that will continue to grow and bring hope to this country and this world.
“The song says, toward the end, ‘Recuperó el color que había perdido porque encontró un cuidador que la regara.’
“It recovered its beauty and color because it found someone to water it.
“De aquella flor, hoy el dueno soy yo!”
“Meaning, I now am responsible for that flower.
“We now are responsible for education.
Confident in the Future
“And with the master gardeners here, whether you enter the classroom, non-profit, or administrative positions, I am confident in the future of our 65 million students in America.
“So as you go forward on your journey, Teachers College degree in hand, I encourage you to muster your will in three big ways.
Passion, Not Position
“First: keep the will to chase your passion, not position.
“Look, I know how tempting it is to see your end goal as a particular job.
“But if you wait for the position you want to demonstrate the will we need, you might miss an opportunity to make a difference for students–here and now.
“I have the same passion today to serve my students, close achievement gaps, and give them every opportunity to succeed, as I did when I was a 21-year-old fourth-grade teacher with 23 students. Today, the scope is just greater. My passion never changed.
PrioritizeSystems, Not Superheroes
“The second area where we need your willpower in education is in the will to prioritize systems, not superheroes.
“I’m sure your studies here at Teachers College have shown you: there are pockets of excellence all over this country. Name any state, and you can find a superhero principal or an all-star superintendent doing incredible things.
“With your Teachers College training, you might well become the next superheroes in education. I hope you will.
“But let’s also be clear: what we need to focus on is building systems, not superheroes. Our goal is to have the improvements we bring to education outlast us in our current roles.
“So if it’s working, sustain it. If it’s broken, reimagine it. And if it doesn’t exist, build it.
“Remember: investing in our children is no different than investing in defense–both protect our tomorrow. We can’t do that without systems that last.
Teach Kids, Not Curriculum
“That brings me to my final piece of advice about how we apply our will in education.
“It came from a special education teacher in Connecticut, Rindy Hardy.
“At the time, I was just 21, and I was getting ready to leave after finishing as a student teacher. This was back in the 1900s.
“At my farewell party, she pulled me aside and said,“Miguel, never forget – you teach kids, not curriculum.”
“I think it was her way of warning me: you’re gonna get overwhelmed with the requirements of the curriculum. All the paperwork. All the rules. All the mandates from the central office.
“But you can’t lose sight of what this is really all about: working for children. Working for families. Working for people.
“Education is a people business.
Focus on Improving the Lives of Students
“See, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have.
“It doesn’t matter what letters you have after your name.
“It doesn’t even matter if you know how to write policy.
“What matters is if you are able to use your God-given gifts to improve the lives of the students you serve. If you do, you will always be happy.
“Passion, not position. Systems, not superheroes. Kids, not curriculum. Imagine what’s possible when you put the full force of your will behind each of those priorities.
“Now more than ever, we need your courageous leadership in education.
“That means breaking the mold. It means challenging the status quo. It means being willing to get a little uncomfortable for your beliefs.
“If your bold ideas and leadership are not making some people uncomfortable, you are not pushing hard enough.
“Today, as you embark on the next phase of your journey in education, one where you serve as master gardeners responsible for cultivating a beautiful garden of learners, you will use what you learned at Teachers College to make a difference for children, and for our country.
“With you as master gardeners—our country is in good hands. Congratulations again to the Class of 2023, and thank you!”
The Alma Exley Scholarship family has followed Miguel Cardona’s career over the years with admiration and a measure of pride.
Since we honored him in 1998 as a student at Central Connecticut State University, he has climbed to the heights of educational leadership as Connecticut Commissioner of Education and U.S. Secretary of Education.
I was delighted to connect with Dr. Cardona recently in the nation’s capital, where he addressed the National Association of State Boards of Education.
He began his remarks by acknowledging the Alma Exley Scholarship Program which, he said, gave him a scholarship at the age of 21 and boosted his confidence as he was about to begin his career. How gracious of him to highlight the impact of our scholarship with yours truly in the audience.
Everyone who supports our scholarship program can feel good about helping to launch the remarkable career of Miguel Cardona–and so many other outstanding educators.
Woody Exley with Secretary Cardona at conference
Surviving COVID Through Collaboration
Speaking to board members from 20 states and territories, Dr. Cardona reflected on how the education community survived the COVID pandemic not just because of funding, but also through collaboration among educators, health professionals, labor, and government.
“In so many ways,” he said, “state boards of education have been the ones driving this collaboration. You’ve been the ones reminding us that we need to come together for our children. You’ve been the ones driving the bold policies that can transform a broken status quo in education.
“We’ve arrived at a crossroads,” he said. “We could be at the dawn of an educational renaissance in America – or in the last year of an educational ‘flash in the pan.’”
Dr. Cardona said the Biden Administration has delivered historic investments, from the $130 billion American Rescue Plan to the $2 billion investment in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to build safer, healthier schools.
“And red and blue states alike have seized this funding to raise the bar for students,” he said.
Raising the Bar
“You’re raising the bar for academic excellence . . . Like in Tennessee, which is accelerating recovery with a $170 million investment in high-quality summer learning programs and math and reading tutors, because we know extended learning time works.
“You’re raising the bar for learning conditions. . . Like in Oklahoma, which is using ARP funding to hire more counselors, mental health providers, and recreational therapists across 181 school districts.
“And you’re raising the bar for pathways to global competitiveness. . . like in Washington state, which has doubled the number of districts offering dual-language programs, giving more students the competitive advantage of multilingualism.
“You’ve raised the bar for progress in education. Now, my charge to you is: help us build the system it will take to sustain that progress, to make sure it outlasts all of us.”
Systems Superior to Superheroes
The Secretary said that, in education, we rely too much on superheroes to drive change, whether it’s a Wonder Woman principal, using a lasso to bring educators and families together, or a Spiderman superintendent untangling a web of bureaucracy to free up dollars for summer programs, or a Hulk on the state board, strong-arming business relationships to ensure students in technical schools learn in-demand skills.
“A superhero can make a big impact, but none of us will be in these jobs forever,” he said. “What happens after we’re gone? That’s why I always say, transformational change will rely on systems, not superheroes.
“We know that ARP (American Rescue Plan) funding won’t be around forever. That’s why President Biden’s new budget is about sustaining your progress for years to come
Proposing Budget Increase
“When I appear before Congress, I will be fighting for you, for a budget increase of 14 percent so that your states have the support you need to keep doing their jobs.
“The budget includes $3 billion to boldly address the educator shortage. It includes $18.2 billion for students with disabilities and another $2.2 billion for Title I schools on top of the nearly $2 billion increase we’ve already secured.
“And it includes major new commitments to finally make universal pre-K and free community college a reality in this country.
“We can’t shrink our aspirations or slow down our recovery efforts. Because how we act now won’t just determine the appetite for education funding for years to come. It’ll determine whether the transformational change you’ve started in your states is sustainable. Whether it’s built on systems that last, instead of superheroes who won’t.
“Today, I ask you to focus on building systems and mechanisms for intentional collaboration that will outlast your time in this role.”
Dr. Cardona told the story of someone who received a house plant with large leaves growing from three separate stalks. Over time, as the weight of the leaves grew, each of the stalks drooped toward the floor. They could not stand upright without being propped up.
Later, the owner of the house plant saw a plant exactly like it in a waiting room. But this one stood fully upright. No sticks, no wires, no supports.
This plant also had three stalks, but the stalks had been braided together into one stronger stalk. Each stalk alone could not stand tall. It needed to be braided with others.
“That is a metaphor for where we are in education,” he said. “What got us through COVID was not just the funding, but also what we did with it by braiding our strengths together.
“It’s time to ask yourselves: Are the seeds of progress you’ve planted going to grow into stems that bend and break? Will division and partisanship separate our plant stalks?
“Or will those plant stalks flourish because they’re braided together, in partnership with colleges and universities, labor and workforce partners, community organizations, and health care?
Collaboration on Behalf of Students
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with health providers to build Tier 1 mental health supports for students.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with labor to reimagine professional development and leadership opportunities that retain great educators… And bring pre-service teachers into the classroom with better pay.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with colleges and workforce partners to create a sense of mutual accountability on dual enrollment and career pathways… Because there’s a tsunami of great, well-paying jobs coming–and we have to be ready.
“Now is the time to braid our efforts with the science on early childhood education and effective bilingual education and push harder than ever to strengthen systems and increase oportunidades.
“Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!
Controlling the Narrative
“And now is the time to braid our voices in support of each other, so we can stand taller, speak louder, and unapologetically control the narrative on public education, and the cost of continued disinvestment.
“We are in this together! Whatever the mechanism, I hope you get creative about setting up something that can outlast you, and benefit students for years to come.
“We’re gathered here at a critical time… What we do together could mean the difference between renaissance and restoration – between transforming our education system for good or going back to a broken status quo that failed our students, and our nation.
“Our country’s success is dependent on our collective will to resist complacency and embrace bold action.
“This is not an easy task, and some of us may even put our roles on the board of education in peril, but I’m challenging you act on your love of students and educators and lead like you have never led before.
“As the late great Congressman John Lewis said in his passion to create good trouble, ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’
Delivering for Students
“We are the ones who have to deliver for our students. We are the ones who have to raise the bar. And we are the ones who have to braid our strengths together.
“Let’s not just prop up a wilting plant and call it a day. Let’s reimagine our education system as that braided plant: able to stand stronger for longer, with every stalk woven together as one. Seeing our state boards of education come together like this today, I’ve never been more confident that we can pull it off. So let’s get to work.”