Now that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has decided to step down in December, the U.S. Department of Education will be headed by John B. King Jr. And if you thought Duncan was controversial, meet his successor.
King was the New York State education commissioner, taking over in 2011 and announcing in December 2014 that he was leaving to become Duncan’s No. 2, a job officially titled “Senior Adviser Delegated Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education,” according to the Education Department’s biography. King can run the department without being officially nominated as education secretary.
Duncan is leaving amid strong discontent from all sides of the political spectrum with his tenure, during which he became the most powerful education secretary in U.S. history. He backed school reforms, including the Common Core State Standards and standardized test-based accountability for teachers, which became increasingly unpopular in states across the country. Last year, the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, called on him to resign. And Congress is now considering legislation to rewrite No Child Left Behind that would sharply reduce the federal power Duncan wielded, a direct result of Duncan’s tenure.
King was just as embattled, if not more, in New York as education commissioner for some of the same reasons as Duncan — and there were numerous calls for his resignation as well. By the time he resigned, he had lost the confidence of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) (although King was appointed by the New York State Regents).
King led a series of school reforms that included a new teacher evaluation system using student standardized test scores that critics say is nonsensical (for example, art teachers are evaluated by student math test scores) and the implementation of the Common Core standards, and aligned Pearson-designed standardized tests. King’s oversight of all of this was considered such a disaster that Cuomo last year wrote in a letter to top state education officials that “Common Core’s implementation in New York has been flawed and mismanaged from the start.”
Critics of King in New York said he did not give teachers enough time to develop lessons and forced students to take new Pearson-designed standardized tests that themselves were attacked for including unfair questions and bad scoring. King’s testing policies led to the creation of an opt-out movement in New York, in which 20 percent of test-takers statewide sat out the tests this spring.
In 2013, King started a series of forums across the state, co-sponsored with the New York State PTA, to talk about the Common Core State Standards. At a forum in Poughkeepsie in October of that year, audience members were less than polite when they were given little opportunity to speak. King’s response was to cancel other stops on his tour.
When Duncan announced in December that King was joining his department, Duncan said in a statement:
“John is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to improving the opportunities of our young people, as a teacher, a school leader, and a leader of school systems. His passion, his fierce intelligence, and his clear understanding of the difficult but vital work of education change will be an enormous benefit to this Department and to the nation.”
The statement also said:
As a leader of ambitious education change in New York State, King brings a lifelong record of commitment to improving education for all students, and especially for the most vulnerable.
The department’s description of King’s record in New York conflicted with that of his detractors, a reflection of the wide breach between the standardized test-based and pro-choice school reform movement and its opponents.
One of the strongest critiques of King came from the editorial board of the Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley. Its Dec. 12, 2014, editorial entitled, “Commissioner King’s Tone Deaf Legacy,” described the commissioner’s pattern of disregard for the opinions of those with whom he disagreed:
King’s manner is as gentle as the state’s agenda has been heavy-handed. He speaks softly, repeats the same messages over and over, and doesn’t let himself appear to be ruffled by outside forces. He forges ahead with an air of certainty about his mission to force schools to get better against their will. This attitude should serve him well in Washington, where Education Secretary Duncan is also impervious to critics of reform (like those “white suburban moms” he went after last year).
King was, to be sure, supported by school reformers, including New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and representatives of school “reform” groups, such as the Democrats for Education Reform.
But in January 2014, the board of directors of the New York State United Teachers, a union with more than 600,000 members, passed a resolution declaring “no confidence” in King’s policies after thousands of New York principals, teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens signed a letter written by New York principals that attacked his teacher evaluation system, which is known as APPR. It said in part:
As building principals, we recognize that change is an essential component of school improvement. We continually examine best practices and pursue the most promising research-based school improvement strategies. We are very concerned, however, that at the state level change is being imposed in a rapid manner and without high-quality evidentiary support.