In one of his first major speeches as acting U.S. secretary of education, John King apologized to teachers for the role that the federal government has played in creating a climate in which teachers feel “attacked and unfairly blamed.”
To many teachers, King’s remarks at a Philadelphia high school late last month was an astonishing and welcome acknowledgment that the Obama administration, in pushing states to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, had helped create systems that seemed as though they were designed to punish teachers instead of help them get better.
For King, it was the beginning of what he describes as an important chance — thanks to the new federal education law that President Obama signed in December — to reset the tone of conversation about teachers, teacher evaluation and the future of public schools in the United States.
“I think there’s just such an urgency around making sure that teachers feel valued in our society. It’s one of the things I worry a lot about,” King said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I want young people to see a future for themselves as teachers.”
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said she appreciates the overtures from King, a former classroom teacher and Obama’s nominee for the permanent job of education secretary. The Senate education committee has scheduled his confirmation hearing for Thursday.
“We definitely hear something new coming out of Dr. King,” she said, adding that while his words “mean a lot to us,” teachers are interested in seeing how he backs up those words with actions.
“There’s some power in making a speech. I think that actually tells people where you are,” she said. “But if that’s where it ends, we’re in big trouble.”
The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifts power from the federal to state and local governments. It also requires state and local governments to consult teachers as they implement the new law, including in decisions about teacher training and school improvement.
Eskelsen García said she wants to see King use his bully pulpit to ensure that states and school districts are living up to that part of the law. If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms, she said, then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child — not just lift test scores.
“My teachers, their hair is on fire with the possibility that this law means that we will have some real power to do what makes sense for the students,” Eskelsen García said.
King said he, too, thinks that the law offers an opportunity for a rethinking of how to define an excellent education and measure school performance, and that including the voices of teachers — as well as civil rights groups and community leaders — is “central to the spirit” of the law.
He said the department endeavors to listen to and amplify teacher voices, including through the two-year-old Teach to Lead initiative, which brings teachers together to discuss ways to change the culture of schools so that teachers play a more central decision-making role.
Jeff Charbonneau, a teacher in Zillah, Wash., who was the 2013 national teacher of the year, said there’s “definitely a feeling that teachers have been targeted” since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. But he said the U.S. Education Department has been trying to change that for the past year or two, pointing to Teach to Lead as an example.
“I think there has been a renewed emphasis on trying to lift teacher voices,” Charbonneau said.
King assumed the helm of the Education Department on the first of the year after his predecessor, Arne Duncan, stepped down to move home to Chicago with his family. Teachers unions were not happy with King’s appointment as acting secretary; as state education commissioner in New York, he had clashed frequently with teachers over new Common Core tests and teacher evaluations tied to those tests.
Peggy Brookins, the president and chief executive of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said that King’s personal story — he was orphaned at 12 and says that teachers at Brooklyn public schools saved his life — is a powerful testament to his appreciation for teachers.
But it is the rocky relationship he had with teachers as New York state education chief that makes him uniquely qualified now to reboot the administration’s relationship with teachers, and the public conversation about teachers in general. “He learned lessons, and I think he learned them the hard way,” Brookins said.
Shanna Peeples, a high school English teacher from Texas and the 2015 national teacher of the year, said that she meets young people around the country who are deciding not to go into teaching because they hear so often that it’s a job that won’t bring them respect or much of a paycheck.
Peeples said that teachers need to do a better job telling their own stories as a political tool to create the change they want to see. But she said King’s words, and his background as a classroom teacher, matter: “I appreciate anyone who’s willing to turn down the volume on the conflict we’re having and broker a civil conversation.”