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Change at the U.S. Department of Education: What Dr. John B. King, Jr.'s Tenure May Hold

Thursday, November 5, 2015 -- Dave Adams

With U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s announcement that he will be exiting the Obama cabinet in December, we took time in last week’s post to reflect on his successes, failures, and probable legacy. In the second and final installment of this series, we’ll shift our focus to the future of the U.S. Department of Education and one very important question: Should we expect impending change or more of the same? All that we know at this point is that Duncan’s successor will be his current deputy, Dr. John B. King, Jr. To understand what may lie ahead in education, let’s start by looking at the background of the new leader of the Department of Education and how his background does or does not align with his predecessor’s policies.

Background 

King is truly an educator from an education family. His mother was a career-long school guidance counselor. His father was first a teacher, then Brooklyn’s first African American principal, and eventually, New York City's executive deputy superintendent of schools.  King began his career in education in the classroom as a high school social studies teacher and middle school principal. He was also a founder and director of the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and, later, Uncommon Schools, a charter organization that runs 42 nonprofit public charter schools focused on closing achievement gaps in low-income urban schools and preparing students to enter and graduate college. 

In 2011, King was appointed New York State commissioner of education, where he served until 2014, when he moved over to serve as Secretary Duncan’s senior advisor and deputy secretary of education. As New York’s commissioner of education, King was instrumental in the state’s successful Race to the Top (RTTT) application and initiated an implementation of reforms in the RTTT plan. As the commissioner of education, King focused on a number of important reforms, including:

  • Investing in high-quality early learning
  • Raising standards for teaching and learning
  • Supporting teachers and school leaders through strong professional development, access to rich instructional resources, and innovative educator career ladder models
  • Expanding career and technical education (CTE) in high-demand fields
  • Increasing educational opportunity for students in the highest-need communities

King’s time as New York’s commissioner of education was not without controversy, such as the launch of a new teacher and principal evaluation plan that was met with criticism. King is a strong advocate for Common Core and rigorous standardized testing, which received significant pushback from teachers and parents, even going so far as the state teacher’s union calling for his resignation in 2013.

Policy

As the next U.S. secretary of education, King is likely to continue focusing on increasing equity, improving educational outcomes, and closing achievement gaps. We are also likely to see a continuation of Duncan administration policies like:

  • Rigorous standards (including Common Core)
  • Next-generation assessments
  • Accountability systems including principal and teacher evaluations based on test scores
  • Turning around low-performing schools
  • Supporting charter schools

Beyond 2016

Of course, no one knows what the outcome of the 2016 election will be, and I’m not going to predict; however, here are some possible scenarios around education policy that may be worth considering:

  • Standards will continue to evolve over time, growing more rigorous as the demands of the 21st century global economy continue to require more educated workers with well-developed problem solving and strategic and creative-thinking skills. Keep in mind that after the 2016 election, the controversy of Common Core will be largely behind us, and we will have the best part of the standards, along with more academic rigor, securely in place. But, the Duncan administration’s goal of some consistency across states will likely be lost regardless of political outcomes.
  • Assessment is more of an unknown after 2016. We will continue to have some degree of federal and state requirements in place to measure student achievement, but there are a number of new directions being considered by both political parties. We could move away from the single, end-of-year standardized testing snapshot and, instead, move toward more continuous measuring of learning throughout the school year, including performance- and project-based assessments. It is likely that we will continue to see movement toward technology-based online assessments, as well as adaptive assessments.
  • Accountability is a complete unknown and will likely be very different depending on the outcome of the election. If the Democrats retain control of the White House, we are likely to see continued emphasis placed on achieving consistency across states for improved reporting and interpretation of student data at the national level. If Republicans win the executive office, we are likely to see a movement emphasizing much more flexibility for states to define their own accountability measures without federal approval, leading to data and systems that cannot be easily compared nationwide. One direction that does seem clear is the move away from proficiency-based accountability systems toward growth-based models. These models have the potential to more fairly measure individual students’ academic progress over time regardless of socioeconomic or other structural conditions.
  • While I understand many education reformers’ concerns around charter schools and school choice, I believe that the current environment will see this experiment through for some years to come—at least until we have more data to understand the positives and negatives. My caution here is that we must very carefully watch and report on the impact on public schools, especially in regard to minority and disadvantaged populations, as we also look at the data around charters.
  • Technology has hit its stride, and we are over the tipping point. We are moving beyond traditional textbook approaches to teaching and learning with accelerating velocity. Today, blended learning and personalized learning are hot topics as schools adjust to the power of technology-based teaching and adaptive learning, but within the next five years, these methods will be simply how we teach and how kids learn. My personal plea here is that technology educators and reformers continue to demand more ubiquitous access. To keep pace with today’s fast-paced society, all students and all teachers need continuous access to high-quality technology and to the Internet!

In summary, I don’t expect huge changes from King during this final year of the Obama administration. But, beyond 2016, I not only expect but believe that we must demand more rigorous teaching and learning practices with accountability systems that are fairer and more equitable and access to technology that is both powerful and adaptable.