Obama Education Secretary Calls for Closing Racial, Economic Gulf in Educational Outcomes

John B. King Jr. visited GW to discuss improvements and remaining challenges under 2016 education act.

John King
John B. King was a high school social studies teacher and middle school principal before being appointed by President Barack Obama. (William Atkins/GW Today)
February 09, 2018

By Ruth Steinhardt

Despite improvements in academic performance across racial and economic groups in recent years, significant equity gaps still exist and must be addressed, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said Wednesday.

“If you look over the long sweep over the last couple of decades, what you see is a story of progress,” Dr. King told an audience of educators, academics and activists at the George Washington University Wednesday. “But you also note that despite that progress, equity gaps remain, and they are large.”

Dr. King was hosted by the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the National Council on Measurement in Education for a discussion of education, assessment and equity under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Passed in 2015 just before Dr. King began his tenure under President Barack Obama, ESSA was an attempt to remedy some of the perceived drawbacks of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. One of its goals was to increase school accountability by improving transparency and data collection around state and federal testing.

“Assessments have a critical role to play in helping us understand where we are succeeding and where we are struggling—where schools are serving students well, where schools are serving students poorly, and in particular where schools are serving groups of students poorly,” Dr. King said.

ESSA is implemented by individual states, which can choose to track a number of indicators—such as math and reading proficiency, chronic absenteeism and college and career readiness—to measure their schools’ performances. But not all states choose to separately measure those indicators for the most vulnerable subgroups of students, including English-language learners, students with disabilities and students of color.

Dr. King is himself a product of the New York City public school system, after which he earned degrees at Harvard University, Yale University and Columbia University. He was a teacher, principal and state education commissioner before being tapped to lead the U.S. Department of Education in 2016, and now is president and CEO of The Education Trust. He credits his own public school teachers with his success.

But Dr. King said not all public high school students graduate prepared for college or a career. Many, especially the most vulnerable, do not graduate at all.

“Ten percent or fewer of our low-income students are, in the end, ending up with a meaningful post-secondary credential,” Dr. King said. “The reality of our current economy is that in the end, without post-secondary training—and that doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year undergraduate degree, it could mean a two-year degree or a career credential—but without that, your prospects in the 21st-century economy are quite dim.”

Dr. King said education policymakers should take a more holistic approach to closing achievement gaps—one that doesn’t focus narrowly on any one subject or single methodology. Attempts to increase reading proficiency, for instance, can be ineffective without support from other curriculum areas.

“When it comes to improving student outcomes, especially in literacy, the entire curriculum matters because reading success depends not only on ability to decode and reading fluency but on content knowledge and vocabulary, which happens through well-rounded instruction,” Dr. King said. “All children must have access to a rich, well-rounded and well-resourced education beginning with high-quality preschool that includes time for learning, play and exploration.”

He said policymakers should also take into account issues in the community outside the classroom, without losing sight of what happens in schools.

“Too often in academic policy discussions we’re trapped in this false debate—should we tackle the stuff outside of school or should we talk about what’s happening in the classroom? Actually, kids are in both places, so they need both,” Dr. King said.

“We have to have a conversation about how we make school and instruction as strong as possible, and we also have to have a conversation about issues of housing and food insecurity and access to health care and access to employment opportunities and violence in the community. We have to reject the notion that we have to choose between those.”

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