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New Education Secretary: Bold Agenda. Just 10 Months To Get It Done

LA Johnson

John B. King Jr was recently confirmed by the Senate as the new U.S. Secretary of Education for the remainder of President Obama's term, succeeding Arne Duncan.

With a slew of pressing issues from pre-K to college debt, I wanted to find out what King thinks he can get done in such a short window of time. Here's our conversation.

You've got just 10 months left in President Obama's term to help close the equity and achievement gaps, promote access and opportunity, and implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. Good luck with that!

We definitely have an ambitious agenda for the next 10 months. But, you know, the president often tells us big things happen in the fourth quarter. I think that's exactly right. So we expect to get a lot done over the next 10 months.

Well what, specifically, are your top three priority goals in the next 10 months that you think are realistic and achievable?

We're very focused on implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.We've got to put in place regulations and guidance for states and districts as they work to implement the new law to try close achievement gaps and provide better opportunities for our students who are most at risk. We're very focused on that work.

We think there's an opportunity to build on the work of the last seven years, to expand access to high-quality preschool. The president has a number of budget proposals focused on that.

We're doing a lot of work around lifting up teaching and quality teaching. We've got an initiative called Teach to Leadwhere we bring together teacher leaders from around the country and try and highlight their good work and support their projects to improve outcomes in their schools and districts. The president has proposed significant advancements in teacher preparation, professional development and career ladders, which we want to work together with Congress to implement.

On the higher education side, we continue to work to try to expand access. This year the FAFSA , the Federal form that needs to be completed for financial aid, will be available earlier, Oct. 1. And we'll also allow students to use their family's prior-prior year's tax returns, which should make the process much more efficient for students.

And the president has a number of proposals focused on accelerating efforts to improve college completion, so students don't just start but finish.

Again, an ambitious agenda for the next 10 months, but we're hopeful that we can get a lot done together with Congress on these issues.

That's a lot. That's more than three. How much, realistically, will you be able to get done especially with implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act?

With Every Student Succeeds Act, we will be laying a foundation for the work that states and districts will do really over the next few years so we'll put in place essentially guard rails for the new flexibility that is available to states and districts, trying to make sure that their implementation honors the Civil Rights legacy of the law. You know the Every Student Succeeds Act is a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was adopted as a Civil Rights law. And so our frame for state and district implementation will be that they need to use the new flexibility to improve equity and close achievement gaps.

President Obama announces his nomination of Deputy Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (center) to be the next head of the Education Department, replacing Education Secretary Arne Duncan (left).
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Obama announces his nomination of Deputy Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (center) to be the next head of the Education Department, replacing Education Secretary Arne Duncan (left).

In New York State, as education commissioner you took a lot of heat. You saw firsthand the frustration of some teachers and parentswith the implementation of Common Core and new teacher evaluations. What lessons do you bring from those battles in New York into the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Well, you know, I think we've seen across the country, as folks have worked to implement higher standards and new systems for support for teachers and principals, the importance of stakeholder engagement. And we certainly are very committed to that in the implementation the Every Student Succeeds Act. We've done already a couple of public hearings. We've gathered public comment from nearly a thousand individuals and organizations. And we also know that we've got to be willing to make adjustments along the way based on feedback. That's certainly something we tried to do in New York.

ESSA certainly devolves more power to the states. But critics say, among other things, that it doesn't do enough to de-emphasize testing. Do you think we're still testing students too much in the United States?

The president announced a testing action plan in the fall and the key themes were, A: We need good information each year for parents and teachers about how students are progressing and that's important to make sure that we're addressing student's needs and closing achievement gaps. But, B: That we've got to acknowledge in some places around the country, there is too much testing.

And there are areas where districts and states have adopted additional assessments beyond those required at the federal level to such an extent that those assessments are crowding out good instructional time. And that's a problem.

We've put out guidance to states and districts on how they can use existing federal resources to audit their assessments, eliminate ones that are redundant or unnecessary and also improve their assessments so that where they're giving, you know, low-level bubble tests, they can replace those with more performance-based assessments like essays and science experiments and research projects and social science.

Right. But overall some folks are arguing we're still relying too much on standardized tests as the main evaluation metric. And I'm wondering your thoughts as Secretary whether you think we are still relying too much on testing?

One of the opportunities that the Every Student Succeeds Act creates is a path to a state-level discussion in each of the states on the role of state tests and their accountability system. We do worry that under No Child Left Behind, the focus on English and math assessments alone sometimes resulted in schools de-emphasizing science and social studies, and art and music. That's a problem. And the Every Student Succeeds Act tries to address that by saying to states, bring together stakeholders and figure out how you develop a vision of educational excellence that is genuinely well-rounded. Of course, literacy skills, math skills are necessary for success, but they're not sufficient for college and career readiness and there's an opportunity for each state to bring together their stakeholders around that conversation.

Speaking of college readiness: My Bother's Keeper — the president's initiative to help level the education and life playing field for young men of color. How will you be involved in that in the final months of the Obama administration?

You know, in my role as deputy I was leading the cross-agency work on My Brother's Keeper. We've got a number of projects underway that we're excited about. One is focused on identifying mentors to work with students who have been chronically absent to make sure that they are in school. We know that students who are chronically absent are more likely to be retained, more likely to end up dropping out and getting in trouble. And we've seen very good evidence around the country that strong mentoring programs focus on making sure that kids are in school every day, learning, can make a big difference. So we've got that initiative underway as well as a national campaign to reduce chronic absenteeism.

We expect to announce in the next few months more than a hundred higher ed institutions that will be able to partner with prisons to ensure that folks who are incarcerated have the opportunity to take advantage of higher education through Pell Grants so that folks can leave prison with new skills and the possibility of succeeding and returning productively to the community.

We've got work that we're doing with schools to rethink discipline, to try to reduce the number of students who are subject to exclusionary disciplinethrough programs like Restorative Justice that keep kids engaged and positive and safe.

College debt has, finally, become an issue in the presidential race. And Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has pressed you about how you plan to use your office and power to help protect student loan borrowers from what she called "fraudulent colleges" and "shady institutions." What's your answer to her and concerned student borrowers out there?

It's a top priority for me as we move forward. We just launched a new enforcement unit at the department led by an enforcement lawyer from the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] who is going to work aggressively to make sure that we are taking action where higher ed institutions are deceiving or short-changing students. [ Secretary King announced findings of fraud against 91 separate campuses of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges at a press event in Boston yesterday]

We are working to expand participation in income-based repayment programs, which allows student borrowers to cap their payments on their federal loans at 10 percent of their income. We've seen tremendous growth in that program and think that's a good path forward for many borrowers. We're working to improve the quality of servicing that students receive from our loan servicers and making sure that students are getting good advice about how to manage their debt.

Then, we continue to work to try to ensure that we lower the cost of education. The president has a proposal called America's College Promise that would guarantee two years of tuition-free community college for hardworking students. We are hopeful that Congress will act on that. That we think will create a new path to higher education opportunity for many Americans.

Are you enjoying your new job?

I am. It's an amazing opportunity. You know, growing up as a kid in Brooklyn I never would have imagined a path that would lead me to have the honor and privilege to serve this president and to serve the country in this role. So I'm enjoying it. Also as a high school social studies teacher, it's amazing to be a part of government at this level and to have the chance to try and do for other kids what New York City public school teachers did for me. They saved my life. They're the reason I'm alive today. They're the reason I'm doing this work, the reason I became a teacher and principal and I just want to make sure the kinds of great opportunities I had in New York City public schools are available to all kids.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.