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Secretary John King on raising education standards and changing the college admissions caste system

"The effort to raise standards is really about ensuring that all students graduate ready for what's next," says Education Secretary John King. Hari Sreenivasan sits down with King to discuss challenges for the Common Core, investment in early education, the resegregation of public schools, plus how how teachers saved King's life as a young orphan.

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  • PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate:

    Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Education Secretary John King has only been officially in his position about a month-and-a-half, taking over for Arne Duncan, who served for the first seven years of President Obama’s administration.

    But King has inherited a very full plate, including the successor to No Child Left Behind, increasing resegregation of public schools, and a higher education admissions process he likens to a caste system.

    I sat down with him earlier today as part of our Making the Grade series on education.

    While the majority of the states are implementing Common Core, it hasn’t been without resistance. There are still hundreds of thousands of parents out there who are having their children opt out of some of these tests.

    And my question is, doesn’t that structurally defeat the system if, at a certain threshold, you can’t get good data anymore because people are opting out?

  • JOHN KING, Education Secretary:

    So, the effort to raise standards is really about ensuring that all students graduate ready for what’s next.

    As you said, we have 40-plus states that are working on higher standards. There are challenges, for sure, in raising standards, changes that need to be made to instruction, to classroom materials, and to assessments. And states are making smart adjustments along the way.

    I think we generally have positive momentum. We have the highest graduation rate we have ever had as a country last year. But it’s not surprising that there are going to be challenges along the way, and states are going to need to be responsive to what they’re hearing from parents and educators, make adjustments, while staying focused on raising standards.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    No Child Left Behind, we all now in hindsight know that we didn’t reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. But one of the things that that did do for us is give us a little bit of visibility into how specific schools and specific subgroups were performing.

    So, now, with the Every Student Succeeds Act, it seems that you’re letting possibly thousands of schools who were underperforming off the hook by focusing on just the 5 percent that are really going to get — be targeted the aid.

  • JOHN KING:

    The structure of the Every Student Succeeds Act is to give states and local districts more flexibility, but within clear civil rights guardrails.

    There is a very clear requirement for states and districts to intervene when schools are struggling, as you say, in the bottom 5 percent, but also schools that have chronically low graduation rates, schools that have significant achievement gaps, where subgroups, African-American students, Latino students, English learners, if those subgroups are underperforming, states and districts also have an obligation to intervene.

    The president signed the law because he believes it builds on the civil rights legacy of the law, which was first adopted in 1965 as a civil rights law. And so those civil rights guardrails are key, we think, to successful implementation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It actually takes a significant amount of power out of this very office and gives it back to the states in several ways. So, you can’t actually impose any specific guidelines about Common Core or about things that states have to do.

    So, I’m trying to figure out, what’s the right balance between the federal government’s involvement and state governments’ administration of education?

  • JOHN KING:

    Well, we think, on standards, that that’s a good example of where we have tried to strike the right balance.

    So, the law requires that states adopt standards that will ensure that, when students graduate from high school, they’re ready for college and careers, they’re ready to do credit-bearing course work in college. That’s good, because it means every state has to have high standards.

    That said, the specific details of those standards are left to states. We think that’s right. That’s what we have always thought, that states should be the ones determining their standards. On accountability, it’s clear states and districts have a responsibility to intervene where schools are struggling or where there are achievement gaps, but the exact nature of those interventions, they can design based on local circumstances.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the things that people are concerned about structurally is that there almost seems to be a resegregation of education in America right now, that, in the last three years, two things have changed primarily, that minorities now outnumber whites in the nation’s public schools, and the majority of public school students are poor, and that they qualify for free lunches.

    How do we change this narrative about almost two separate education systems?

  • JOHN KING:

    It’s a huge problem.

    We know that we have tons of research evidence over decades showing that students do better in diverse schools, and yet 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, we still have racially isolated, economically isolated schools.

    What’s encouraging — the Century Foundation just did a report on this recently. What’s encouraging is, you have efforts all over the country, locally-led voluntary efforts, to create socioeconomically integrated schools.

    And we want to — we want to accelerate that work, so we have made school diversity a priority for investing in an innovation grant program. The president’s proposed an initiative called Stronger Together, $120 million in his 2017 budget that would support local efforts to create socioeconomically diverse schools.

    Schools — you can imagine an art school that might draw students from across different communities, a dual-language school where native English speakers and English learners would together have the opportunity to learn two languages.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Even in terms of higher ed, you have said before that there’s almost a caste system of colleges and universities in the admissions process. So, how do we change that?

  • JOHN KING:

    I think of a place like Franklin & Marshall that’s committed to enrolling low-income students, has raised their academic standards at the same time as they have enrolled more low-income students, and they’re providing the supports necessary to ensure that those students graduate.

    And so I think there’s a bully pulpit role for the administration to play. But we have also got to make sure the resources are there. And that’s why the Pell Grant program is so important. It’s why the president has added $1,000 to the average Pell Grant since the administration began.

    It’s why we think it’s important to let students access Pell Grants in the summer, because that will help low-income students stay on track to graduation. So, there’s both a — there’s both a moral responsibility that higher ed institutions have, and a responsibility that government has to provide the resources to support all of our citizens in making it through higher education.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally, unlike a lot of education secretaries or Cabinet members, you have got a kind of a personal connection to education. You lost your parents when you were a very young age, and you have said before that it’s really teachers that saved your life.

    Explain that.

  • JOHN KING:

    School really did save my life. My mom passed away when I was 8 in October of my fourth-grade year. I lived with my dad, who was suffering with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease.

    And so home was this very scary and unpredictable place. My dad passed away when I was 12. And during that period, my life could have gone in a lot of directions. You know, teachers could have looked at me and said, here’s an African-American Latino male student, family in crisis, going to a New York City public school in Brooklyn. What chance does he have?

    But they didn’t. They chose to invest in me and made school this place that was engaging and compelling and interesting, where we read The New York Times every day, we did productions of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Alice in Wonderland.” We went to the ballet and the museum.

    School was engaging and a place where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid outside of school.

  • So, I’m very clear:

    I’m alive today, doing this work today, became a teacher and a principal because the teachers I had saved my life. And, you know, I bring to work every day the goal of trying to do for other kids what my teachers did for me.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Secretary King, thanks for joining us.

  • JOHN KING:

    Thanks so much.

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