NewsThe 74 Interview

74 Interview: Obama’s Chief for Black Kids’ Education Reflects on Wins, Work Left Undone

By Natasha Alford | September 25, 2016

Photo: U.S. Department of Education
See previous 74 interviews: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and current U.S. Senator and education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander. Full archive here.
The election of the first black president of the United States was always a moment bigger than the candidate himself. For many in the African-American community, there was a special hope — even an expectation — that when it came to education, the needle could be moved in fixing a broken public school system that affected black students in more ways than one.
From de facto segregated schools to inequitable distribution of resources, being black in an American school has often meant overcoming exceptional odds to achieve excellence. Perhaps Barack Obama would change that.
In 2012, Obama signed an executive order to create the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Its mission was to improve educational outcomes for African-American students by transforming policy and creating a national network of support.
David Johns, the man selected to lead the charge, was himself an example of African-American excellence, a product of public schools who went on to graduate from an Ivy League university. Johns became an elementary school teacher and a leader in education policy.
Four years later, as the second Obama term nears its end, how well did the president and his appointee rise to the challenge? The 74 recently spoke with Johns about what the initiative achieved, what will keep him up at night, and how the Obamas made being smart “sexy.”
The 74: You leave office during a time of increasing graduation rates for African-American students. To what should that be credited?
Johns: There’s no one thing, to be clear. There’s never a panacea or single solution or intervention. I think it would be a number of things: a focus on acknowledging that learning starts at birth. This administration invested a considerable amount of time, energy and resources into providing high-quality early-education programs.
This administration spent a lot of time in the K-12 space making sure that all students had equitable access to the resources to demonstrate how brilliant they are … So now you’ll hear from the secretary of education, John King, a lot of conversation around resource equity as it relates to the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act….
There’s also been a really big focus on post-secondary access and support. For example, celebrating our communities, saying to black kids “You can go to college” when really we need to be saying “You can graduate from college.” And then providing the support required to get there….
But probably the statement I should’ve started with is acknowledging the power of having a black president and a black family in the White House conspiring for the success of all children — not just communities that have been historically undersupported, but all kids.
The thing we can’t quantify is what it means to live in an environment where my 12-year-old niece only knows that it’s possible for a black family to ascend to the highest level of office in the country and to do so with an unapologetic commitment to improving the lives of those most often neglected or ignored.
You said in another interview that President Obama managed to make smart “sexy.”
Yes. [Laughs.] The whole family, I think the First Lady as well. And now I have young kids asking me about gap years because the president’s daughter [Malia] is going to take a year off to do a gap year [before enrolling at Harvard University]. So all of those things matter.
We are often able to get black children to college, but frequently there’s a gap when it comes to getting them to finish. What types of support, specifically, do kids need to finish college?
It’s important to acknowledge that we are not a monolith and the support needed is often depending upon the student, what resources he or she comes to school with, and the family responsibility he or she has.
Many are doing so at community colleges.
The group most likely to persist having gone to college but taking time off are black women once they have children. The needs there are different than a student going to a four-year university who has a different type of support.
But I think there are three things that are helpful for students no matter their circumstance. One is having meaningful connections to individuals on campus and that are a part of the school community.
The next is financial support. African Americans have a disproportionate share of student loan debt, and we need to do a better job of ensuring that we’re providing savings accounts and being thoughtful about leveraging finances to support African-American students, but also finding different types of aid.
Lastly, the language that we use to celebrate the work required to “show up and show out” in a college or university; to show up for young people doing academic decathlons or who are learning how to code — not only what comes up when you think about African Americans.
Is there any work that is unfinished that will keep you up at night?
The work on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans must continue, not only because we’re just getting started but because the data still bears out there’s a lot of work to be done to address the cognitive, social and emotional developmental needs of African-American students of all ages.
The thing that keeps me up at night is that I’ve never met a child who asked to be born. All of them are born simply wanting to be supported as they learn and grow. And the fact that access to opportunity is often predicated by ZIP code and genetic code is something that will continue to keep me up at night.
There is a lot of work to be done. Not only continuing the work of the initiative, including shining a spotlight on the experiences of and expertise of black students themselves, but to address the set of related challenges and opportunities for us to ensure that at a certain point we live up to the founding promises of this country. Which are, no matter who you are, who you’re born to, or what you look like, if you work really hard you can achieve your dreams.
This year you spoke at an Oakland Honor Roll ceremony for African-American students. What do you say to people who don’t understand why you would need an honor roll for African-American students?
For almost every challenge that a non-African American faces, when one accounts for the collusion of race and ethnicity in America, the challenges are likely more significant for or exacerbated in terms of the experience of African Americans.
There are too few opportunities for African-American students to be affirmed in their identity. Think about the fact that we sometimes spend February celebrating the contributions African Americans have made to American history or to global history. And we often do that in ways that miss entire generations of black people that don’t show up in ways that are celebrated by mainstream society.
So providing opportunities for black students to see adults, not just black adults but non-black adults, conspiring for them and being celebrated for that, which we ask them to do in spite of the obstacles that exist, is of paramount importance.
That ceremony was as much about celebrating the young people as it was celebrating and encouraging the community of caring and concerned adults who are around them and continue to do that work.
My message was, not only do we need to continue to tell young people what we expect of them, but we as adults also need to continue to do the work to change the environments that we force them to endure, to address the policies and practices that often serve as barriers to success.
Why is “Teach the babies” your motto?
I say “teach the babies” more times than I can count on any given day because it is a request, a beseechment, a plea for all adults to appreciate that for some babies — generally for privileged, non-minority babies — when they are born, we respond to them in a way that acknowledges their fragility and the infinite possibilities that exist, right? There’s a visceral response that people have to babies, wanting to protect them and nurture them and love them. And it is often the case that black children, who are as deserving of that same love, attention and care, simply don’t receive it.
Little black boys are looked at as men well before they have developed anywhere close to the level of expectation we have for how men function in society. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve encountered educators who refer to their students as young men or men, and the reality is that they’re boys who are developing.
And some of them might be 6 foot 5 and in the seventh grade, but they’re still developing, and when we don’t account for what it means for them to be developing in ways that are often belied by not only their physical presence but the way we imagine them in society, we miss opportunities to connect with them in meaningful ways.
And so it’s a reminder that all of our children are worthy of our love and support and attention. I use “babies,” but that’s not something that’s restricted by chronological age or years. It’s really about attempting to remind us all that children aren’t asked to be born. That there’s not a single one of us who’s been able to achieve any level of success without the support of somebody else.
And so it’s something that I inherited a long time ago, and being an educator, a third- and fourth-grade classroom teacher in particular, it’s just sort of continued to gain additional color and become more frequent in terms of how I use it in my work over time.
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