change at the top

Meet the former N.Y. education chief who will take over for Arne Duncan as education secretary

President Obama announced Friday that former New York State Education Commissioner John King would replace Arne Duncan as U.S. education secretary. ( Photo by WhiteHouse.gov )

Former New York State Education Commissioner John King will take over the federal education department in President Barack Obama’s final year in office, the president announced Friday.

King’s appointment signals potentially deepening attention to education equity issues for the Obama administration.

Arne Duncan, who has been education secretary since Obama first came into office in 2008, will step down at the end of 2015. He is set to move back to Chicago, where he was schools chief before joining the Obama administration and where his wife and children recently moved from Washington, D.C.

King joined the department as a senior advisor to Duncan in December, shortly after resigning from New York’s education department amid controversy over new learning standards and teacher evaluations. He had been commissioner for three and a half years.

[Here’s our timeline of King’s turbulent tenure.]

Duncan brought the nation’s education system “sometimes kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” Obama said during a Friday afternoon press conference. “We are making progress and we’re not going to stop in these last 15 months,” he added.

Duncan oversaw the creation of the Race to the Top program, which allowed states to apply for $4.35 billion in federal funding in exchange for changing their teacher evaluation laws, overhauling teacher preparation programs, promoting charter schools, and committing to shared learning standards. New York was one of 16 states to win a slice of the funding, and King was most responsible for crafting the application.

On Friday, King praised the administration’s policies around early-childhood education, tougher learning standards, and college access.

“It’s an incredible agenda and I’m proud to be able to carry it forward,” King said at the White House press briefing.

He becomes acting education secretary at a time when the federal education department’s role is in flux. Obama will not seek his official nomination in the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Republicans who have grown increasingly critical of the federal government’s role in education policy.

That means King’s ability to push major policy changes may be limited. But he is likely to have wide latitude to advocate for an agenda that he deems important.

That agenda is likely to focus on equity issues. In a speech at the National Coalition on School Diversity conference in Washington, D.C. last week, King emphasized that racially and socioeconomically integrated schools benefit students academically and personally and promote the American ideal of equal opportunity.

King also suggested that the department might promote integration as one way to narrow achievement gaps and revamp low-performing schools — an approach that advocates faulted Duncan for doing little to advance.

In an interview with Chalkbeat after the speech, King said that integration is a school turnaround strategy that “has a long history and substantial evidence” of effectiveness, adding that the department is seeking to highlight examples of districts that have successfully pursued integration. One of his last actions as New York’s education chief was to launch a pilot program that used federal school-improvement money to fund socioeconomic integration measures at high-poverty schools.

“Schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country,” King said in his speech, adding that the country has “much, much more to do” to ensure that all students receive strong educations regardless of their background.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written extensively about socioeconomic school integration, said King had already taken a “strikingly different” approach from Duncan by suggesting that integration could be a tool for school turnaround. He said King could sway districts to take steps on integration even with relatively minor incentive programs, adding that the Obama administration has been willing to roll out significant new initiatives in other policy areas despite its lame-duck status.

He also said the climate is ripe for equity-focused education efforts following the recent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., which have sparked national conversations about racial and economic inequality.

“The moment is right,” he said. “I’ve been writing about school segregation for a couple of decades, and I’ve never seen as much interest in it as in recent months.”

King’s attention to diversity issues is longstanding. As New York’s education chief, he clashed with New York City administrators over the importance of not concentrating high-needs students at low-performing schools. More recently, Kathryn McDermott, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that after she wrote a research paper criticizing the Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans, a little-known diversity initiative funded by the Obama administration, King responded personally.

Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said Duncan had already begun to shed his “mixed record” on school equity with a move this week to tackle the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Saying that he would instead like to see a “prison-to-school pipeline,” Duncan announced an initiative to keep students out of the criminal justice system and redirecting spending from prisons to teachers. Schools refer 250,000 students — mostly boys of color or students with disabilities — to the police each year.

“That might ultimately be one of the most important things that he’s done,” Parker said.

King, who was New York’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, oversaw the state’s education department during a period of sweeping policy changes. After winning $700 million in federal Race to the Top grants, King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch moved quickly to change how teachers are evaluated and adopt the tougher Common Core learning standards.

The Common Core rollout triggered a backlash from parents and educators who said the changes came too quickly, leaving little time for teachers to be retrained or classroom materials to be updated. King pushed to introduce new tests aligned to the higher standards in the same year that those tests factored into a teacher’s evaluation for the first time. His reluctance to slow down those changes caused years of turbulence and divisiveness that have continued well beyond his tenure.

Duncan was a frequent visitor to Colorado, in particular Denver Public Schools, where he forged a strong relationship with Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former DPS spokesman Michael Vaughn, who worked for Duncan in Chicago Public Schools, said Friday that Duncan will be remembered for “fighting really hard for kids and fighting the political pressure that comes with things like holding accountable schools that have not been serving kids well — and getting really good teachers, especially in high-poverty communities. He was super-tenacious and courageous about taking on those really hard fights.”

Colorado State Board of Education chairman Steve Durham, a Republican, was unsurprisingly not as positive in his assessment: “The federal government’s one-size-fits all approach perhaps already has but certainly will prove to be not positive for education results. The use of federal funds to force conformity and limit experimentation and innovation in education is not something we should proud of.”

Chalkbeat Colorado bureau chief Eric Gorski contributed information to this report.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.