The man who will succeed Education Secretary Arne Duncan has both an inspirational personal story and a record of controversy in what’s become a national debate over the Common Core learning standards.
At age 40, John King Jr. will become one of the youngest Cabinet members in American history. He’s been deputy U.S. education secretary since January, after serving as education commissioner in New York.
Duncan called him “one of the most passionate, courageous, clearheaded leaders in our field” with a “remarkable personal story.”
King grew up in Brooklyn, the son of two educators. But both parents died by the time he was 12, and King described a chaotic life of bouncing between relatives in this Huffington Post essay. He credited public school teachers, particularly at P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain junior high in Coney Island, with helping him stay on track.
Despite being kicked out of a prestigious prep school, King managed to get into Harvard. It was there that he developed a passion for education while volunteering at an after-school program in a Boston public housing project. He later taught high school social studies in Boston and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and earned degrees from Yale Law School and Columbia University’s Teachers College (a master’s and a doctorate in educational administrative practice).
King became a leader in the charter school movement when, still in law school, he co-founded Boston’s Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. It became the highest-performing urban public school in Massachusetts. From 2005 to 2009, he was managing director of the network Uncommon Schools, which runs charters in New York and Boston. In 2011, King became New York state education commissioner, where he led the transition to the Common Core.
New York was one of the first states to adopt the standards, after winning a federal Race to the Top grant, and implementation made King into a lightning rod. Many parents and teachers criticized the state for rushing the rollout without giving schools enough support. Criticism grew as the state implemented new, more difficult tests aligned to the standards. In 2013, the percentage of students deemed proficient fell to roughly 30 percent statewide, half of what it had been before the Common Core.
King responded by holding public forums, which became so raucous that he briefly suspended them. Deborah Brooks, a parent from Port Washington who attended one forum, said the crowd complained about implementing new standards and tests at the same time, but she said it didn’t seem like King cared.
“I kind of picture him sitting in the chair of the bulldozer or the steamroller, and, if you got in his way, woe to you.”
Brooks, who has a daughter in sixth grade, was among many parents who protested the new standards by opting their children out of state tests. Ultimately, some 20 percent of children statewide did not take this year’s tests.
King also earned the ire of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the teachers unions, who rarely agree. Cuomo sent a memo to King stating that the state’s teacher evaluation system wasn’t rigorous enough. He demanded to know why just 1 percent of teachers got the lowest ratings even though a large majority of third- through eighth-graders weren’t proficient on Common Core tests.
The teachers unions complained that the evaluation system relied too heavily on student test scores and urged King to resign. Upon learning of his appointment as U.S. education secretary, New York State United Teachers issued a statement calling King an “ideologue with whom we disagreed sharply on many issues” and called on its members to complain to the White House switchboard.
But King, like Duncan, also has staunch supporters who praised him for standing firm as he demanded tougher standards for all of New York’s children. Ijeoma Duru, a 23 year-old graduate of the Roxbury charter school King helped start, remembered him from when she was a sixth-grader. Now a teacher at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School in Brooklyn, Duru praised King for pushing the Common Core, which she said is better preparing her students.
“Everything he did was for the benefit of students,” she said.
New York State Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who worked alongside King, called him a true leader.
“He led work on curriculum,” she said. “He led work on access and opportunity for students in every ZIP code and every district and every corner of the great state of New York.”
She said her only regret was that she and King implemented teacher evaluations at the same time as the new standards. As states around the country, including New York, now review the Common Core, Tisch urged King and the federal government to maintain quality, no matter what.
“It would be tragic for this country to move away from high standards,” she said. “It would be tragic for this country to accept less for its students.”
King will begin the new job in December, when Duncan heads home to Chicago.