Education Secretary Details Plans for Equity, Better Teachers, and ESSA in Interview with LFA

By Joetta Sack-Min

John B. King, Jr. has a compelling personal story: Orphaned at age 12, it was public education and his teachers who saw him through a tumultuous period in his life and in turn inspired him to become a teacher, school administrator, and now the nation’s top education official.

Dr. King, who is serving as Acting U.S. Secretary of Education as the Obama administration enters its final year, recently spoke about his ambitious agenda with the Learning First Alliance: He plans to push for student equity and excellence, a better equipped teaching force, and strategies to improve the college completion rates. He also will be responsible for regulations for the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The 41 year old already has faced critics and skeptics who feel his leadership will merely mirror the tenure of his predecessor, Arne Duncan, who sometimes was seen as polarizing for creating competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top and other policies. Dr. King came to the Department of Education in January 2015 after a stint as New York’s Commissioner of Education, where he oversaw a federal Race to the Top grant, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and new teacher evaluation policies that took student test scores into account, all of which put him in a tough position between teachers unions and their advocates, the governor and other elected officials, and other critics calling for more substantive reforms.

Other stakeholders are more hopeful but concerned about the limited time he has in office.

In addition to his focus on ESSA regulations, Dr. King is spending his first few weeks in office visiting schools across the country and discussing equity issues. “Our core work in this new year and moving forward must be measured by the progress we make toward educational opportunity for all—so that no child’s fate is left to luck, no student’s destiny defined by circumstances,” he says.

Both of Dr. King’s parents were educators: his mother, who died when he was 8 years old, was a school guidance counselor, his father was a retired school administrator. While the years following his parents’ deaths were unstable, he managed to graduate high school and then earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master’s degree from Columbia University Teachers College. He spent three years teaching social studies and helped found Roxbury Charter School in the Boston area, where he served as its co-director and became a nationally known advocate for charter schools. Dr. King also holds a law degree from Yale University and a doctorate in education administration from Columbia University Teachers College.  

LFA’s Communications Consultant Joetta Sack-Min recently interviewed Dr. King, who also met with LFA’s member organizations’ executives in January.

LFA: What will be your top priorities as Secretary? Given that there is only a little more than one year left in the Obama administration, what do you realistically expect to accomplish?

Dr. King: My first priority is to build on this Administration’s strong focus on equity and excellence at every level of our P-20 education system, in every school. Across the country, we have made tremendous progress in education over the last seven years. Recently, the Department of Education announced that our nation’s high school graduation rate has reached another all-time high—at 82 percent. And, since 2008, college enrollment for black and Hispanic students has increased by more than a million.

But we have much more to do. While we’ve helped to cut the number of high school dropout factories in half, there are still schools in this country graduating fewer than 50 percent of students. And while almost all states have raised standards for student achievement, we know that many of our students need additional supports to meet and even exceed those standards. Although this work is hard, I am optimistic because of the incredible efforts of educators, school leaders, communities, families, and students themselves. Our nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides new tools to expand opportunity and improve education for every child. ESSA reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was first adopted in 1965 to advance our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all students. Over the coming year, I am looking forward to maintaining the civil rights legacy of the law while supporting states’ implementation of their new flexibilities to advance equity and excellence. 

My second priority is to lift up the teaching profession and to ensure that our educators have the preparation and support they need for the realities of today’s diverse classrooms. Every teacher should be equipped to work with English learners and students with disabilities. Every new teacher should receive strong mentoring during the first years in the profession. Every teacher should receive meaningful professional development and have opportunities to lead from the classroom.  And we need to do more to ensure a diverse pipeline of future educators.

Finally, I believe it’s critically important to focus on access, affordability, and completion in higher education. Over the past seven years, the Administration has reformed our student loan system to improve college affordability, increased Pell funding for students with the greatest need, simplified the process of applying for financial aid, and increased transparency around higher education costs and outcomes to better inform students’ decisions. However, there’s still a great deal of work to do to ensure that the United States again leads the world in college completion and  that all students can complete high-quality degrees or post-secondary credentials that do not saddle them with unmanageable debt and that help launch them on the path to a bright future.

We know that access to a high-quality education—from preschool to college—is more important than ever before, both to individual success and the prosperity of our communities and our nation. Everyone has a role in helping to improve outcomes for our students—from educators, to families, to communities, to partnerships like Learning First. Over the next year, I want to create more opportunities and encourage solutions that drive equity and excellence at every level. Working together, we can accomplish great things for our children.

LFA:Many observers believe your service will be very similar to your predecessor Arne Duncan’s tenure. Is there anything that you plan to change?

Dr. King: I am grateful for Arne, who set a fantastic example of leadership for all of us. He always asked how we could get further, faster, and kept his focus on doing the right thing for kids. I’m honored and humbled to build on his accomplishments, the efforts of this Administration, and the tremendous progress that has been made over the last seven years in states throughout America.

Perhaps most importantly, I’m looking forward to accelerating our collective work on educational equity. President Obama signed our new education law, ESSA, because of his strong belief that this bipartisan measure builds on the civil rights legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and creates opportunities to ensure all children—regardless of zip code, race, background, native language, or disability—can access an education that helps them achieve their full potential. Many aspects of ESSA have the potential to be equity-enhancing, including the ability for states to design accountability systems that incorporate new measures of equitable access to opportunity and the ability for states to implement evidence-based interventions in struggling schools that leverage lessons learned from programs like Investing in Innovation (i3) and research from the Institute of Education Sciences. ESSA also enhances equity by ensuring a more nuanced examination of the performance of student populations that traditionally have been underserved, such as English learners with disabilities and homeless students. 

Second, I am interested in continuing to build support for local innovation. Importantly, ESSA includes competitive grants similar to many of this Administration’s signature education initiatives, including a program to identify, replicate, and scale local evidence-based solutions that can improve outcomes for high-need students, similar to the i3 program, and a program to develop comprehensive cradle-to-career, wrap-around services by investing in partnerships between schools and communities modeled on Promise Neighborhoods.

There’s also an incredible need for local innovations that increase diversity in our schools. All students can benefit from a learning environment that reflects the diverse world in which we live. Yet, we know in many places throughout the country, students in poverty are concentrated in schools with unequal access to advanced coursework, effective teachers, and necessary funding and supports.  Voluntary initiatives at the local level to encourage solutions that promote diverse schools can be a powerful tool in the effort to accelerate educational equity and excellence. 

Like Arne, I’m also committed to lifting up teachers through efforts like Teach to Lead and the Department’s forthcoming regulations that will help to ensure teacher training programs prepare new educators to be successful from their first days in the classroom.

LFA: You’re the first Secretary who actually has experience on the ground as a school principal, as well as experience in the classroom and in many different levels of administration. How will this field experience impact your tenure and decision-making?

Dr. King: My experiences as a student and as a teacher have been invaluable in informing my work.    

Education always has been a focal point in my life—both my parents were NYC public school educators. But education—and school particularly—also became a safe haven for me at a young age. My mother died when I was eight.  After that, I lived with my father who suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease and passed away when I was twelve. I then moved around between family members. Home was an unpredictable and, often, scary place. My teachers could have seen me as a bundle of “disadvantaged demographics”—an African American, Latino, urban male in a NYC public school with a family in crisis—and chosen to lower their expectations. Instead, they set the highest standards and created conditions that helped me excel, despite the struggles I faced outside of school.

My mission today is to prove that, where there are strong teachers, visionary principals, equitable resources, and schools that foster a culture of excellence, my story need not be exceptional. That’s the reason I chose to teach high school social studies, to become a middle school principal, and to serve as New York state education commissioner. And it’s why I’m humbled to serve as Acting Education Secretary.

Through my experiences, I’ve learned that teachers need strong preparation, grounded in the real-world demands of the classroom; ongoing support and mentoring; time for meaningful collaboration with peers; and opportunities for real career growth that don’t require them to leave the profession they love.

I’ve learned that states, districts, and schools need flexibility to respond to local needs. The No Child Left Behind Act was much too prescriptive; but flexibility is fundamental to ESSA, which creates great new opportunities to explore evidence-based local solutions to unique, local challenges.   

Now, as never before, excellence in education is central to preserving our nation’s basic, and powerful, promise—which is that you can go as far as your dreams and hard work will take you. And it’s that incredible sense of what’s possible—and what every child deserves—that drives great educators and great schools. I’ve learned that schools that operate at the center of communities can be the difference between life and death, and hope and despair for kids. That’s why efforts to promote community schools and wrap-around services that meet the social, emotional, health and learning needs of both children and families are so important.

I’ve also learned that it’s critical to make sure students attend school regularly, despite the many barriers they may face—including being homeless, highly mobile, living in an unsafe neighborhood, or involved in the juvenile justice system. About one out of every 10 students in our country is at serious risk of falling behind in school due to being chronically absent, which equates to missing approximately 10 percent of school days in a school year. This past fall, the Department of Education launched the first-ever national, cross-sector effort to eliminate chronic absenteeism with the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice. The initiative calls on states and local communities to take immediate action to address and reduce chronic absenteeism by at least 10 percent each year. This is incredibly important work, and I’m looking forward to continuing it in partnership with states and schools over the next year.

We know that education can only fulfill its promise as the great equalizer—a force that can overcome differences in privilege and background—when we can greatly reduce the number of children who are out of school and ensure that the children who are in school receive the supports they need to learn and thrive.

LFA: We know that lack of diversity within the teaching field is a growing problem, as a greater percentage of public school students are minorities but the percentage of teachers of color remains small. How big a problem is this? Will you have plans or specific initiatives to increase diversity within the teaching force?

Dr. King: Over the last two decades, the proportion of students of color in our public schools has risen from 35 percent to over 50 percent. Although the percentage of teachers who represent diverse racial backgrounds has increased somewhat over that time period, today, only 18 percent of our nation’s teachers are non-white. Less than two percent of our teachers are African-American males. Working to increase the diversity of our teaching workforce is an essential element of our efforts to close educational opportunity gaps. Diversity of race and background are important; so, too, is language diversity, and ensuring that we can recruit and retain more talented bilingual educators. Teacher quality and diversity are not two parallel objectives. They are deeply intertwined.

States and districts experience very real challenges in recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of teachers each year. And the problem is not self-correcting. Solving it depends on states, districts, and schools creating strong pipelines into the profession—and then robust mechanisms of support—for all people who are interested in becoming educators. Local leadership is key. The good news is that there are programs doing this work very thoughtfully now. For example, the Call Me MISTER program of the Eugene T. Moore School of Education at Clemson University in South Carolina aims to increase the number of black male teachers working in the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The program selects participating students from socio-economically disadvantaged communities and provides tuition help, academic counseling, and other supports until the students graduate, prepared to succeed as novice teachers. Among graduates of Call Me MISTER, a large number have remained in the field as teachers or principals. This program—and others like it—show what’s possible in ensuring our classroom teachers reflect the great diversity of our students.  

President Obama has proposed funding for innovation in teacher preparation, and we will continue to seek that funding in our work with Congress. The Department of Education also promotes efforts to support great teachers and teaching, including Excellent Educators for All. This initiative, which will continue under ESSA, aims to help states and school districts ensure that all students—especially students from low-income families and students of color—have access to outstanding teachers and that all teachers have the support they need to succeed. States have committed to undertake a variety of actions—from developing and implementing teacher shortage predictor models to improving workplace conditions and compensation in hard-to-staff schools.  

We’ve also worked to ensure that teacher preparation programs are providing teacher candidates with the knowledge and tools to launch into teaching, equipped and confident to be the best they can be for their students. We believe this work can help more people—from all backgrounds—see teaching as a viable career choice in which they can envision being successful in today’s diverse classrooms from the start.

LFA: Some stakeholders felt that Secretary Duncan did not listen to their concerns about issues such as charter schools and Common Core, and while the Department has most recently tried to mend relationships there is still some distrust. Do you plan to address this, and how do you plan to work with a range of educators, pundits, and groups that oftentimes have competing interests in education?

Dr. King: Our nation has made incredible strides in education over the past seven years. Nearly every state in America has raised standards for teaching and learning and our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. Dropout rates are at historic lows. We must remain more focused than ever on shoring up these successes and addressing unmet needs. The bottom line is that we still have far to go to ensure that all students in this country receive an excellent education that sets them up to succeed in college, careers, and life—and getting there means that all of us must play a part.

This work is hard. There undoubtedly will be healthy disagreements about how to achieve our goals and all of us must continue to learn from each other along the way. The Department has made some important adjustments to its policies based on understandings from the field, including our recent Testing Action Plan. This plan is comprised of a set of principles and steps to correct the balance in student assessment; protect the vital role that good assessment plays in guiding progress for students, schools, and educators; and provide assistance in unwinding some practices that have over-burdened classroom time or that have not served students or educators well.

We also learned useful lessons from our experience with ESEA flexibility, the Department’s waivers from No Child Left Behind, which will inform our work to support states in implementing our new education law. Importantly, if implemented well by states, ESSA will deliver on the promise of education as a fundamental civil right—true to the intent of the original legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson.  At the federal level, as we support states in implementing the new law, we will work to create guardrails to enforce its critical civil rights protections for all students and ensure new flexibilities around accountability systems and interventions in struggling schools are equity enhancing.        

Despite sometimes differing opinions among stakeholders about how to improve education for every student, there are some truths about which we can all agree. We know, for example, that millions of our children start kindergarten far behind their peers because they lack access to high-quality preschool. We know that the outcomes of our education system continue to reflect unacceptable inequities in the distribution of resources, funding, high-quality teaching, and access to rigorous coursework. Together, we can work to change these dynamics and fulfill America’s promise of equality of opportunity.

LFA: Is there anything that you would like to add?

Dr. King: Our core work in this new year and moving forward must be measured by the progress we make toward educational opportunity for all—so that no child’s fate is left to luck, no student’s destiny defined by circumstances. In the weeks to come, I’ll be traveling across the country to drive attention toward this vital goal we all share, visiting with students, parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders to highlight what is working and to hear about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I’ll also be asking you to help us accelerate progress in more classrooms.

Schools can, and should, play a strong role in teaching our students—especially our most vulnerable young people—the full range of skills that they will need to be successful.  A well-rounded, quality education must include not just strong foundational English language arts and math skills, but also science, social studies, the arts, health and physical education, and the opportunity to learn a second language.  I also believe that socioemotional skills including “learning mindsets”—skills like perseverance and resilience—are among the most important skills young people can develop. When students have a learning mindset, they can pursue more challenging learning goals, invest more effort, develop passion and interest in meaningful academic and extracurricular pursuits, demonstrate adaptability in the face of failure, and achieve higher academic outcomes.

The Department’s new Skills for Success program, announced this past fall, aims to help districts and schools explore and refine an array of approaches to help educators enhance students' learning mindsets and skills. The Department’s Mentoring Mindsets Initiative, a partnership with City Year, MENTOR, Stanford University's PERTS Lab and the Raikes Foundation also is piloting evidence-based tools that enable mentors to teach learning mindsets and skills to their mentees. Together, these initiatives are promoting new approaches to ensure more young people are prepared to succeed in college, careers, and life.

Even as we work to strengthen our students’ resilience, we must at the same time intensify our efforts to address the structural barriers to our children’s success, such as lack of access to quality early learning, inadequate housing, nutrition, and healthcare, and the devastating impact of trauma. We also need to create thoughtful measures of how students develop and grow their socioemotional skills, including learning mindsets, to inform educators and families as they support students. This is an area where we need new, evidence-based ideas, and I would welcome the Learning First alliance to help us in discovering them, in partnership with local educators. 

Photos courtesy of U.S. Department of Education