John King didn’t have long. It was October 2015, and Arne Duncan announced he would step down as President Barack Obama’s education secretary. Obama tapped King, a K-12 adviser at the federal Education Department with years of classroom and government experience, to fill the vacancy.
A sharp focus on equity for all children — regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation — has been a consistent theme throughout King’s career. On Monday, he will start the next chapter, as president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes equity in education for low-income and minority students.
King spoke to The 74 about his upcoming role, his tenure as education secretary, Obama’s education legacy, what the Trump administration could mean for American schools, and how he plans to continue fighting for educational opportunities for all children.
The conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
The 74: You attended public school as an orphan in Brooklyn and were kicked out of high school for acting out and skipping class. How did your personal education challenges inform your perspective as an education leader?
King: Certainly, my experience in New York City public schools as a kid shaped my belief in the power of education to create hope in students’ lives, and also the urgent importance in strengthening our public schools. I went to P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island during the period when my mom passed away. I was in fourth grade, and then I lived with my dad, who was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s, and then he passed away when I was 12. And in those schools, I had amazing, dedicated public school teachers who created a safe and supportive environment for me.
They made school a place that was challenging, engaging, and interesting, and it was only because of those teachers that I was able to survive that period. They gave me a sense of hope and opportunity, and they also exposed me to a whole world beyond my neighborhood that I never otherwise would have seen.
As I moved around between schools and family members, for me, as for many young people who have been through trauma, I certainly had anger and sadness and frustrations that were expressed through resisting authority in high school. Even though I had a great academic experience in high school, I struggled with adult authority, and in many ways I had been on my own, doing my own laundry, making my own food, figuring out how to pay bills since I was a little kid. The adults’ authority in high school, particularly in boarding school, was very challenging for me, and I acted out, and the consequence was that I was kicked out of high school. But in many ways, it helped me realize that there are consequences for behavior, and it forced me to confront some of the issues that were with me from my childhood.
I went to live with an aunt and uncle who really created a supportive environment for me, and I was fortunate, again, to have public school teachers in New Jersey who gave me a second chance, were able to look at my academic performance separate from the choices I had made in my prior school, and they believed in me and supported me and, thanks to them and to my aunt and uncle, who really were a wonderfully stabilizing presence in my life, I was able to get back on track and end up going to Harvard for college.
When you were education secretary, school discipline became one of the heated debates. Reducing suspensions was a large priority. Why do you think that focusing on school suspensions and discipline and at-risk youth is important?
First, we know that students who miss a significant amount of school do worse academically. They’re more likely to be retained in grade, they’re more likely to drop out of school, and so we know there’s a real benefit to having students in the classroom.
Two, we know there are real disparities around discipline, particularly for students of color. We know, for example, from the Civil Rights Data Collection Survey that the suspension rates for African-American students, beginning as early as pre-K, can be more than three times as high as those for white students. So we know that we have work to do to make sure that students of color are not disproportionately subject to discipline.
In particular, we know there are issues around implicit bias that impact how discipline operates, and extensive research on the ways in which implicit bias can cause more severe consequences to be given to students of color, and also the degree to which, in some cases, school misconduct can be criminalized and referred to law enforcement. We also know that educators — teachers, principals, school counselors, school staff — want to be able to create safe, supportive environments for their students without excluding them from class and want to have the support and professional development that they need to be able to create those positive environments.
For all those reasons, we invested in an initiative called Rethink Discipline that was focused on the kinds of interventions that can make a difference for keeping students in the classroom and improving academic and social/emotional outcomes.
I think too often we heard folks trying to pose a false choice between exclusionary discipline policies on the one hand or disorder, chaos, ignoring student conduct on the other, and in fact we know there is another way, with the right supports and training, where you can have environments that are focused academically and supportive of students without exclusionary discipline.
Why is an equitable education for the most at-risk youth an issue that all Americans should support?
The long-term success not only of our economy but of our democracy depends on ensuring a quality education for all of our students. Today in our public schools we have a majority of our students who are students of color; we have 10 percent or more of our students who are English learners. We can’t afford not to provide quality educational opportunities for all those students.
Our communities will be stronger if we close achievement gaps and ensure equitable access to opportunity. As I traveled around the country as secretary, wherever I went, I heard from business leaders a tremendous sense of urgency around having a diverse, well-prepared workforce. We can’t get there unless we ensure quality education.
I think the last year and a half has certainly shown us the importance of civic education and ensuring that our citizens are well prepared to engage in constructive discourse and grapple with hard choices we need to make as a society, and ensuring a quality education for students regardless of ZIP code is critical.
In all your years in education, what have you seen that has been the most promising in demonstrating that low-performing schools can be turned around?
As always with education, it begins with the interaction between teachers and students, and so from my time as a high school teacher, as a middle school principal, and then working at the state level and the federal level, I’ve always believed the key is to make sure that those interactions between teachers and students are as successful as possible, both in terms of academic skills students get and also social/emotional development.
The key in creating successful schools is creating an environment where students are acquiring strong academic skills, getting support when they are struggling so that they can overcome those challenges, creating environments that are safe and supportive for our students who are most at risk. Often, more time is hugely beneficial to them, so an extended school day, extended school year, being sure that teachers feel well supported and have access to great professional development and opportunities for collaboration is critical. Making sure that schools have good supports in place for students who are struggling with social/emotional issues or facing significant challenges in their life outside school, and making sure that schools are providing a well-rounded education.
We know, for example, that students are going to do better in reading and writing as they have access to strong social studies and science experiences. We know that students are going to do better in math if they have access to great science experiences that help show them the real-world application of their math skills. We know that art and music and learning a second language can have a powerful, positive impact on students’ long-term academic outcomes.
We can see all across the country traditional district schools and charter schools that are succeeding with high-needs student populations that have these elements in place. The question, I think, for all of us is, “How do we ensure that these strong features of successful schools are in place in all schools?” We also need to focus on the reality that schools that draw socioeconomically diverse student populations are not only likely to get stronger academic outcomes but also are able to prepare students for the diverse workforce and civic society of which they will be a part.
Not to say you can’t have a successful school with concentrated poverty — certainly there are such schools, and I was privileged to be principal of one. But it is significantly more challenging, and I think there are real advantages to working toward schools that reflect the diversity we value.
School Improvement Grants played a big part in Obama’s education agenda, a $7 billion investment to overhaul America’s worst schools. During the last week of the administration, an Education Department report found that the program failed to produce any measurable gains in test scores or graduation rates. What is the key takeaway from that report, and what can the new administration learn from the program’s results?
I think there’s been insufficient attention to some of the studies that have also pointed to the positive impact of School Improvement Grants and to some of the very powerful outcomes from some of the policy initiatives that were spurred by School Improvement Grants. For example, there’s a study of the School Improvement Grant program in California that demonstrated stronger positive results than the overall national study.
There’s also great evidence of effectiveness of public charters in Boston and New York City, both of which are places where you have very strong charter authorizing laws and very strong charter authorizers. The growth of those schools was partly driven by the attention that the Obama administration placed on improving outcomes in the lowest-performing schools.
I think the record on School Improvement Grants is mixed partly because you had a great variety of approaches. One really has to look more carefully at some of the individual initiatives that were taken in different communities around the country because of the School Improvement Grants program. That said, to the extent that folks look at where we are and ask, “Is there more to do?,” the answer for that is surely yes. Over the course of the administration, we cut the number of high schools that would be considered dropout factories nearly in half. That’s great progress, but we shouldn’t have any students who are attending schools that are dropout factories, and so clearly there is more work to do, and we need to take lessons from the initiatives that were effective.
The Education Trust opposed Betsy DeVos’s nomination as education secretary, and you were publicly critical of her nomination. Why was it important to make your opposition known, and what issues do you plan to be most vocal about?
The Education Trust made the decision to oppose the nomination before I was named as the new president, but they made very clear at the time they made that announcement that their concern was that the nominee could not clearly convey a commitment to a strong federal role in protecting the civil rights of students and ensuring progress around issues of educational equity for low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities.
They also made clear that they saw reasons to be very concerned about the nominee because of the way in which choice has been implemented in Michigan, and certainly as secretary I talked a fair amount about the problems with Michigan’s approach to choice that resulted in a proliferation of low-performing, largely for-profit charter schools. Charter authorizing is an issue I know well, having been a charter principal and also having been state chief in New York, where we were a charter authorizer. It’s clear to me that Michigan’s charter law is not as strong as the Massachusetts or the New York charter laws, and their approach to charter authorizing has not been as strong.
We know public charter schools can be a very positive force in public education where there’s a high bar to entry, rigorous oversight of operations and academics, a willingness to close low-performing schools, and a commitment to thoughtful growth. Those key elements that have led to success in Massachusetts and New York are absent in Michigan.
Those were the concerns that drove the position that The Education Trust took. My comments were focused on concerns that I had personally about what has taken place in Michigan and also some of the comments that the nominee made in the hearings, that again made me concerned about whether or not she would fulfill the fundamental civil rights mission of the Education Department. But I also emphasized when Ms. DeVos was confirmed that I hoped she would prove the concerns that I expressed, and that others in the civil rights community expressed, that she would prove those concerns wrong, and I continue to hope that will be the case.
I have to say I am discouraged by the initial signs. Certainly, I think withdrawing protections for transgender students was a profound mistake which will have negative consequences for students. But I remain hopeful that as Ms. DeVos spends time visiting public schools, talking with public school educators, she will hopefully shift her views and come to see the critical role that the department needs to play in protecting students’ civil rights and advancing equity and excellence.
What big Obama-era initiatives do you believe are sustainable and will live on? What progress are you most afraid will evaporate?
At this point, it’s hard to know where the new administration is headed beyond the steps that they have taken, which are worrisome. Retreating on the protection of LGBT students is a mistake. It is inconsistent with the law, and it is ultimately going to be harmful to students.
The actions that the administration has taken around immigration and refugees are also inconsistent with the law and, I believe, inconsistent with fundamental American values. So those are very worrisome signs.
That said, we had eight years of progress on key indicators, including the highest graduation rate we’ve ever had as a country from high school, an increase in students going to college, including a million more African-American and Latino students going off to college, and I think the federal government and states ultimately have a responsibility to build on that progress.
We also saw progress over the last eight years on access to quality early learning, including real improvements in the capacity of state systems to support quality early learning and tens of thousands of additional seats added by the Preschool Development Grants program. I think you’re going to continue to see momentum around early learning — hopefully, the federal government will do their part — but I think governors and legislators from around the country are going to continue to try to expand access to quality pre-K because the evidence is clear: There’s an 8-to-1, 9-to-1 return on investment.
On college affordability and college completion, again, there is important work that the federal government could do, including investing in the Pell Grant program, taking steps like making Pell available year-round, which is something that had bipartisan support last year, but it still wasn’t passed into law.
States are going to be empowered more than ever to set their own education priorities under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. As a former state education commissioner in New York, what advice do you have for state education leaders as they work to roll out their plans to implement ESSA?
The Every Student Succeeds Act is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was a civil rights law, and as states implement the new law, they must be true to that civil rights legacy. That means using the flexibility under the new law to advance equity, and I’m encouraged that the Council of Chief State School Officers has focused since the passage of the law on how their members can use the law to advance equity.
As they do that work, they should ensure that all students — regardless of ZIP code — have access to a high-quality, well-rounded P-12 education, and so they should be attending to issues like access to quality science, social studies, arts and music, world language instruction. We know, for example, from the Civil Rights Data Collection Survey that we have high schools all around the country, disproportionately serving low-income students and students of color, where you can’t even take chemistry or physics or even Algebra II. So those kinds of opportunity gaps need to be addressed to ensure that all students have access to a well-rounded education.
As states think about accountability, they cannot shy away from [focusing on] students graduating from high school ready for college and careers. That ultimate focus on academic outcomes and readiness for what’s next is critical. As they do that, they should take advantage of the opportunity to broaden how they evaluate that goal, and when they do that, they can look to things like chronic absenteeism, which we know is a strong predictor of student success.
They can look to things like access to advanced coursework and success in advanced coursework, AP classes, International Baccalaureate classes, early college opportunities for high school students. There needs to be a careful focus on students’ long-term success even as we broaden how we measure their progress toward that long-term success.
There certainly are people who would consider you their role model. Whom do you look up to and consider to be your role model?
First, my fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Osterweil, who had a huge impact on me, saved my life. His class was a place where I felt safe and supported and challenged. We read The New York Times every day in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. We did productions of Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland in elementary school. We went to the museum and the ballet and got to see a whole world beyond our neighborhood thanks to Mr. Osterweil.
He’s a hero to me because of his exceptional teaching and the impact that he had on me and on generations of students.
After I got kicked out of high school, I went to live with my aunt and uncle. My uncle [Lt. Col. Haldane King] was a Tuskegee Airman, and he was one of the first African-American pilots to serve in the U.S. military. He did that at a time when African Americans faced intense discrimination all over the country, but he believed fundamentally in what America is all about, believed fundamentally in the promise of equality of opportunity in America, and was willing to risk his life for that.
After he came back from World War II, he actually was not able to get a job as an accountant, which was his training, because of his race. He responded to that by becoming a firefighter and again risking his life on behalf of his fellow citizens, and then went back into the military and ultimately was a career Air Force officer, retired as a colonel. His fierce belief in America’s fundamental promise, despite the challenges that we have always faced around issues of equity, has always inspired me.
Then, of course, when I think about civil rights work and what it is to build a movement on behalf of expanding opportunity, there are so many heroes to think of, from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King to John Lewis to Fannie Lou Hamer. So many champions of equity who at great personal risk and sacrifice fought for an America more true to the promise of equality of opportunity. I draw inspiration daily from their lives.
What stood out in The Education Trust that looked like a great opportunity or a next move, and what is going to be your first agenda item?
Kati Haycock, my predecessor at Ed Trust, has led the organization over a quarter-century in a way that has maintained a laser-like focus on trying to expand opportunity for the most vulnerable students, including low-income students, students of color, English learners, and that is a tradition that sort of is at the heart of my life’s calling — creating more opportunity for the kids for whom school makes all the difference. The Education Trust is really a perfect fit for continuing the mission that I’ve always worked toward.
As I think about our work going forward, The Education Trust has always been a leader in working with states to use the Every Student Succeeds Act to advance equity and to tackle achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. So certainly that will continue to be a top priority.
We also have been very engaged in higher education advocacy, again focused on low-income students, students of color, first-generation students, and The Education Trust has led a network of colleges and universities that are focused on implementing evidence-based practices to improve student outcomes, particularly completion. There’s both a set of practices and a set of policies that would help accelerate that work to expand access to higher education and improve outcomes, and that certainly will also be a top priority going forward.
Both The 74 and The Education Trust receive funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.