A look at the home page of the U.S. Education Department confirms that Arne Duncan, education secretary for the past seven years, is officially gone and his successor, John B. King, Jr. is now in charge. But King, who joined the department in early 2015 as “senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education” does not have the same exact title as Duncan. King is “acting education secretary” — and there are important reasons for that.
One is that he became a lightning rod in his last job, from which he was given a push by the governor of New York. As a result, it is likely it would be harder than usual for President Obama to secure Senate approval for his appointment, and so the “acting” designation allows King to do the job without it.
King came to the federal department via New York, where for 3½ years he had been the state’s education commissioner during a critical time in the state’s school reform efforts. King’s résumé is impressive. From his official biography:
Prior to his arrival at the Department, Dr. King had served since 2011 as the commissioner of education for the state of New York. In that role, he served as chief executive officer of the State Education Department and as president of the University of the State of New York, overseeing the State’s elementary and secondary schools (serving 3.1 million students), public, independent and proprietary colleges and universities, libraries, museums, and numerous other educational institutions. Dr. King was one of the nation’s youngest state education leaders at the time of his appointment and the first African-American and Puerto Rican to serve as New York State education commissioner.…
Dr. King earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Harvard University, a Master of Arts in the teaching of social studies from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a Doctor of Education degree in educational administrative practice from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dr. King was a 1995 Truman Scholar and received the James Madison Memorial Fellowship for secondary-level teaching of American history, American government, and social studies. Prior to joining the Department, in February 2011, Dr. King was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission. In addition, Dr. King served on the board of New Leaders for New Schools from 2005 to 2009, and is a 2008 Aspen Institute-NewSchools Entrepreneurial Leaders for Public Education Fellow.
Dr. King’s life story is an extraordinary testament to the power of education. Both of Dr. King’s parents were career New York City public school educators, whose example serves as an enduring inspiration. Dr. King’s parents both died from illness by the time he was 12, and he struggled to cope with their loss as he moved between family members and schools. He credits New York City public school teachers — particularly his teachers at P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain J.H.S. in Coney Island — for saving his life by providing transformative educational experiences and giving him hope about the future. His belief in the centrality of educational opportunity to the American Dream and the vital necessity of second chances for our young people has its foundations in his own experience of overcoming so many challenges and going on to graduate from Harvard, Yale and Columbia and become a teacher and education leader.
There is no hint in the official biography of what happened during his tenure as commissioner. The headline on a December 2014 story in the New York Times announcing his departure from New York is a signal: “John King Jr., New York State’s Education Chief, to Leave Many Policy Wars Behind.”
Duncan left office after exercising more power than any previous education secretary, while also attracting more opposition than any other. His school reform program, which included pushing the Common Core State Standards and standardized test-based accountability for teachers, became unpopular in states across the country, and in December, Congress rewrote the federal education law — eight years after the job was supposed to have been done — in large part as a reaction to what many saw as Duncan’s overreach in education policy.
King was as embattled in New York, if not more, for some of the same reasons as Duncan. He had been given a public shove by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), although the commissioner is appointed by the New York State Regents and does not answer directly to the governor.
Cuomo in a letter to top state education officials said “Common Core’s implementation in New York has been flawed and mismanaged from the start,” preceding King’s departure.
Why was it such a mess? Critics say King dove into key reforms so quickly, schools did not have time to prepare for them. In fact, his development of a teacher evaluation system that was linked to student standardized test scores was so rushed, it was likened by award-winning New York principal Carol Burris to “building a plane in the air.” Never a good idea.
King was so enamored with test-based “accountability,” he pushed new Pearson-developed tests aligned to the Common Core before teachers had enough time to learn the standards and develop new curriculum and lessons. The tests were slammed for including unfair questions and repeated scoring problems — and the whole enterprise sparked an opt-out movement in which 20 percent of students who were supposed to take the tests last spring refused to do so. (Ironically, King is now in a position to sanction his former state for its test participation rate — which he just may do.)
In 2013, King scheduled forums around New York, co-sponsored with the state’s PTA, to talk about the Common Core State Standards, but this exercise didn’t turn out so well, and after audience members who were given very little to speak became belligerent at one forum, he canceled the other stops on his tour, though some were rescheduled later.
The embrace of King by the Obama administration — and by school reformers in the state — is in sharp contrast to the view of him held by his critics, including 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 King’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).
In December 2014, Burris wrote the following in one of her many posts on this blog about King’s reform efforts:
John King was optimistic that great things would happen under his watch. In an Education Next article, which gives a fairy tale account of [the former New York State Commissioner David] Steiner’s tenure, King talks about what he believed would happen next:
“In the first couple of years there will be what I characterize as process wins. You’ll see an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with student achievement built in as a meaningful component.… You’ll see the rollout of a statewide data system that will give a lot more useful information to teachers and principals about student performance and a lot more useful data for policymakers.… Three and four years out you’ll see real change in the percentage of kids achieving college-ready standards. You’ll see more students enrolling in college, fewer students in remedial courses, more students staying in college all the way through to graduation.”
King’s optimism, however, proved to be unfounded. Let’s reflect on the predictions one by one.
“You’ll see an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with student achievement built in as a meaningful component.…”
The teacher evaluation system quickly came under fire from an unlikely group—principals—who recognized the negative consequences for students that would result if their teachers were evaluated by test scores. Their concerns were explained in a letter, which was eventually signed by over 1/3 of all of the principals in New York State, along with thousands of parents, teachers and administrators. That action, which was characterized in the New York Times as the principals’ rebellion, began the pushback against the new evaluation system known as APPR.
It was also the first test of the new commissioner. He failed it. He did not engage with the principals, but simply dug into a defense of APPR—a defense that would continue even when the flawed metrics of the system were exposed. Meanwhile, savvy superintendents who realized the flaws, created evaluation plans designed to shield teachers from inequities. Those who took the plan seriously, created disparate and embarrassing evaluation results, some of which are now being contested in court.
The disastrous rollout of the Common Core and its tests pushed the legislature to pass a moratorium on consequences for teachers resulting from the test score component of APPR—a moratorium opposed by John King. The legislature plans to reform APPR this session, although whether the system can be improved without a radical restructuring remains to be seen.
“You’ll see the rollout of a statewide data system that will give a lot more useful information to teachers and principals about student performance and a lot more useful data for policymakers.”
In the above quote, King was referring to the implementation of inBloom, funded and created by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. Its purpose was to amass an extraordinary amount of confidential student data with the intent of sharing it with private software developers to create personalized educational products. Despite public outcry, John King continued to support inBloom until the legislature stepped in and pulled the plug during the spring of 2014. Shortly thereafter, inBloom itself shut down. Leonie Haimson led the fight against inBloom in New York State and beyond. In reflecting on John King’s stance, she said:
“New York was the only state out of the nine that the Gates Foundation said were participating in the project not to pull out because of parent protests alone. It needed to pass a state law to do it. This was despite the fact that the inBloom fight started in New York, which had the best organized opposition in the country. The vast majority of New York parents, legislators of both parties, the governor, Assembly Speaker Shelley Silver, the majority of school board members and superintendents, along with the state teachers union, came out against his plans to share highly sensitive personal student data with inBloom and through inBloom with an array of for-profit vendors—but it made absolutely no difference to him. King stood fast and refused to pull out.”
This unwillingness to respond to the concerns of parents, teachers and citizens was on full display when the commissioner decided to hold forums last winter to justify his reforms to the public. At the first of such forums in Poughkeepsie, New York, the audience became both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak. The miffed King then cancelled upcoming scheduled forums claiming that the audience was taken over by “special interests.” Although the forums were eventually reinstated under local legislator control, the tone and substance were not much better. New Yorkers made it clear that they were disgusted with the rollout of the Common Core and the excessive testing of students. King had lost his moral authority and it would never be regained. The NYSUT union called for his resignation, individual legislators called for his resignation and all but one of the candidates for governor publicly stated that they wanted him gone.
“Three and four years out you’ll see real change in the percentage of kids achieving college-ready standards. You’ll see more students enrolling in college, fewer students in remedial courses, more students staying in college all the way through to graduation.”
It has been 3½ years since John King made that claim and none of it has come to pass. Graduation rates in New York have increased by less than 1 percentage point, the Common Core proficiency rates are a disaster, the longitudinal measure of college readiness, which is the percentage of students earning the Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation, has remained flat. The available state data on college remediation shows no improvement. Even when one combines his record with that of his predecessor Steiner, there is no discernible benefit to students from the reforms. Were King’s expectations too ambitious? Perhaps. But that does not absolve responsibility. It is the job of leaders to establish achievable goals, build capacity and support, modify when needed and then focus resources on their accomplishment. That is how real progress is achieved.