The word was that John King would remain an acting U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s administration. In January, Lyndsey Layton reported for the Washington Post, “King… will retain the ‘acting’ modifier for the rest of President Obama’s time in office. He has not been nominated by the president, and he will not undergo the confirmation process required of Cabinet-level officers under the Constitution.” But just over a week ago, another report in the Washington Post announced, “President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year. Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination.”
It will be surprising if John B. King, Jr.—whether confirmed as secretary or continuing to serve as a mere acting secretary— accomplishes earth-shaking policy while he serves for the next few months. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized late in 2015 while Arne Duncan remained the Secretary of Education, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act is significant for unbuckling—at the federal level—teachers’ evaluations from their students’ test scores. This is a significant correction by Congress, whose members reached bipartisan agreement to reduce Duncan’s overt attack on school teachers, and John King has said he will try further to repair that breach that attacked the millions of professionals we count on to fill our nation’s classrooms. It’s unlikely, however, that King will further reduce test-and-punish, and he won’t have the power to undo the teacher blaming across the statehouses that Arne Duncan set in motion when his Department of Education conditioned the receipt of federal waivers on states’ passing their own laws to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores. Pushing back that wave of legislation will require months and years of effort by advocates across the states.
But John King’s confirmation hearing has now been scheduled in the Senate on this coming Thursday afternoon, February 25. So who is John King?
Carol Burris was an award-winning New York high school principal when John King was New York state’s Commissioner of Education. Burris, now a retired educator and currently serving as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, summarizes some of the milestones of John King’s career: “John King was a teacher for a total of three years—first in a private school and then in a charter. For a brief time, he served as a co-director of Roxbury Prep (he was never a principal as he claims) a Boston charter middle school that had about 200 students when King was there. He left to become Managing Director of the Uncommon Schools charter chain, which is regularly criticized for its high rates of student suspension. While a doctoral student at Teachers College, King met classmate and Board of Regents member, Merryl Tisch. In April of 2009, Tisch became the Chancellor of the Board of Regents. In September 2009, John King was appointed deputy commissioner. Two years later he was appointed commissioner… King was appointed senior adviser to Arne Duncan in 2014, and Acting Secretary of Education when Duncan left in December of 2015.”
Burris recounts what has become the well-known story of King’s mishandling of the roll-out of much harder Common Core tests in New York at the same time King and Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed New York’s legislature to enact evaluation of teachers by their students’ test scores: “By October of 2013, opposition to the Common Core and testing had grown so strong that King was encouraged by the State PTA to hold forums, the first of which took place in Poughkeepsie, New York. King lectured for an hour and a half. By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak. King then cancelled the rest of the scheduled forums… After continued pressure, some forums were re-scheduled; however, there were restrictions placed on who could attend, and the format was tightly controlled.” Burris shares an assessment from the Lower Hudson Journal News characterizing John King as “tone deaf.”
During King’s tenure as New York’s deputy commissioner and his time as New York’s education commissioner, New York spent over $28,000,000 to develop its Common Core curriculum—and used its federal Race to the Top grant for this purpose. Burris, a high school principal during the roll-out of the new curriculum, is scathing in her criticism: “(T)he curriculum was a ‘breakout flop.’ Teaching strategies, often presented as scripts, were confusing. The time allotted for each lesson was longer than the instructional time allotted by most districts, resulting in rushed pacing… Romeo and Juliet, which has been a classic part of ninth-grade English curriculum in most high schools, was reduced to excerpted readings in the modules, crowded out by non-fiction, which included Wizard of Lies: the Life of Bernie Madoff.”
King launched Common Core testing across the state before the curriculum had been fully rolled out, and to make matters worse, cut scores were set too high. Predictably test scores plummeted everywhere. Burris adds: “Perhaps the most reckless error made by the NYSED (NY State Education Department) under King, however, was setting the graduation standard on the Common Core math and English tests so high that the graduation rate, based on historical data, would have plummeted to about 35% when it was imposed. In response to growing public resistance to the Common Core and its tests, the Board of Regents put off the unrealistic graduation standard from 2017-2022.”
As he heads toward a confirmation hearing and the rest of this year leading the U.S. Department of Education, John King is reported by the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown to be “trying to repair the Obama administration’s frayed relationship with teachers.” “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.'”
Brown, however, also interviews Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, who declares that officials at the Department of Education need to listen to teachers as they develop rules that will implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act. Whether the Department consults professional educators will matter more than the acting secretary’s words of apology: “If policymakers truly listen to teachers in classrooms… then they will craft policies to teach and nurture the whole child—not just lift test scores.”