John King (Freddie Allen/NNPA)
John King Jr., the new deputy secretary for the Department of Education, wants to reform the No Child Left Behind Act. (Freddie Allen/NNPA)
John King Jr., the new deputy secretary for the Department of Education, wants to reform the No Child Left Behind Act. (Freddie Allen/NNPA)

By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – John King, Jr., a highly-respected educator from New York City, says that teachers saved his life and in his new post as the deputy secretary at the Department of Education, he wants all children to have the support in school that he had growing up.

Both of King’s parents were life-long educators. His father, John King, Sr., was the first Black principal at an integrated school in Brooklyn, N.Y. and also served as a the deputy superintendent for New York City schools after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education banned “separate, but equal” practices in public schools.

In elementary school, King used to ride to work with his mother, Adalinda, who worked as guidance counselor at the middle school. When King was in the fourth grade, his mother suffered a heart attack at work. That night he went to the hospital with his father and the next morning, his father broke the news to him. His mother was gone. She was just 48. It was hard for the younger King to understand at 8 years old.

“Losing my mom in a lot of ways was the moment when school took on this much larger importance in my life,” said King. School became the safe harbor from the turmoil in his home life that slowly deteriorated after his mother passed away.

His father, then in his 70s, started to forget things.

“I didn’t know why he would forget things,” King recalled, though he later learned that his father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. “I didn’t know why he would be upset one moment and not upset the next.”

In an environment where there was a lot of instability, King said school was a source of stability, structure and support and for three years, from the fourth grade to the sixth grade, Alan Osterweil’s classroom anchored that stability.

In that class, King read the New York Times every day, memorized the capital and leader for every country in the world and performed Shakespeare. King said he felt free to be a kid.

“He set very high expectations for us,” said King. “Sometimes people think that kids will be overwhelmed by higher expectations, but I think that kids rise to higher expectations and one of the things that I experienced in his classroom was that his high expectations were motivating and encouraging to all of us. He also paid a lot of attention to a full range of subjects.”

King said that Osterweil saw his role as a teacher wasn’t just about conveying knowledge, but it was also about mentoring and supporting students.

John, Sr. died at 79, when John Jr., was 12 years old. He then lived with a half brother on Long Island and later, an uncle and aunt in Cherry Hill, N.J.

King said that he carried the lessons he learned in Osterweil’s class with him when he taught his own social studies class and co-founded a charter school in Boston, Mass., after attending Harvard University and earning a master’s degree at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

Following in his parents’ footsteps, King dedicated his life to education, rising through ranks to become the first New York State education commissioner of African American and Puerto Rican descent in 2011. King was recently selected to become the deputy secretary of the Department of Education.

“Not only am I here doing this today because of that teacher, but I’m alive, because [Osterweil] provided stability during that period in my life,” said King.

In his new role, King will manage the agency’s major initiatives that includes working to revise President George W. Bush’s 2002 “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law.

King noted that, by some measures, student achievement has improved since NCLB updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally signed into law in 1965.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school graduation rates for Black students (measured as the average freshman graduation rates) increased from 59 percent in 2006 to 68 percent in 2012, compared to White students who saw their graduation rates rise from 80 percent to 85 percent over the same time period.

The 2014 study “Building a Grad Nation” reported that when researchers began analyzing the effects of “dropout factories,” defined as schools where less than 60 percent of the students were graduating, almost half of all Black students attended one of them. By 2012, the report said, the number of Black students attended one of those schools had been slashed in half to 23 percent.

King said ESEA is really a civil rights law that was intended to ensure equity for all students across the country and there is still a lot of work to do.

“One of the problems with the NCLB law is that it focused just on absolute performance,” said King. “What we’ve tried to do at the department with the ‘waiver process’ is to focus on growth.”

Through the waiver process, the Obama administration freed more than 30 states and Washington, D.C. from NCLB’s stringent testing requirements, which often faced sharp criticism from educators and school administrators. Exempt school districts tracked the individual progress of students independent of how they ranked against other students on a standardized test.

More than a decade since NCLB was enacted, civil rights groups and Washington lawmakers are now focused on improving it.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, recently issued a draft proposal aimed at reforming NCLB.

He suggested shifting more responsibility for designing programs that measure student achievement to state and local jurisdictions and also proposed limiting the Education Secretary’s ability to craft guidelines that direct instructional material, evaluation systems and “definitions of teacher, principal, or school leader effectiveness.’’

While Senator Alexander’s proposal shifts responsibility for targeted funding for at-risk students and teacher evaluation tools back to the states, civil rights groups want more federal oversight.

Nearly 30 civil rights and education advocacy groups united to express their concerns about the reauthorization of the ESEA in a joint statement.

The coalition recommended that each state provide annual assessments for all students in the third grade through the eighth grade and high school and that targeted funding be used to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in our nation’s schools including youth in juvenile and criminal justice system. The group also said that states should expand data collection and reporting to parents and the public on student achievement, course-completion and graduation rates.

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said his organization is deeply opposed to Senator Alexander’s approach to reauthorize ESEA.

“When President Johnson signed ESEA into law he said that the bill represented ‘the commitment of the federal government to quality and equality in the schooling we offer our young people,’” said Morial in a statement. “Yet, with this draft, Chairman Alexander moves our nation in the opposite direction and strikes at our most cherished civil rights principle: that every child has fair and equal access to a quality education regardless of family income, ZIP code, disability, language or race.”

Morial said that lawmakers must rewrite the bill and commit to strong federal oversight in education and equity in access to high quality instruction and resources for all students.

Morial continued: “This partisan bill, drafted with little input from civil rights partners, cannot be tweaked to meet the needs of the communities in which we serve. We believe that Chairman Alexander’s ESEA draft moves us backwards—it ignores equity, guts federal accountability and shifts resources away from children in most need.”

King echoed Morial’s concerns and said that the fear is that some of what has been proposed would be a step backwards from equity and opportunity.

“We know that for our kids, their best shot is if they have a high quality education that prepares them to be successful after they graduate from high school,” said King. “We have no future as a country if we don’t ensure that African American students get a high quality education, that Latino students get a high quality education, that our English language learners get a high quality education. Our future depends on ensuring that every student has the full range of opportunities.”

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