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Former U.S. Education Secretary Advocates Equity in Schools
Photo by Mike Morgan
John B. King Jr.’s life could have taken a very different turn, sending him toward prison, or worse. Despite childhood tragedy and expulsion from high school, he graduated from a string of Ivy League universities, became a widely admired educator and in 2016, was appointed U.S. secretary of education by President Barack Obama. He now leads the Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, and taught a Fall 2017 class at the University of Maryland on education reform. He spoke to Terp about educators who kept him from falling through the cracks, and how to extend that help to others.
How did family influence your career choices?
I grew up in Brooklyn as the son of two New York City public school educators. My mother unexpectedly passed when I was 8. My father struggled with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, so home became a scary and unpredictable place. He passed when I was 12. But school was a safe, nurturing place that was also compelling and engaging. My NYC public school teachers saved my life. They didn’t look at me and say, “Here is an African-American, Latino male with a family in crisis; what chance does he have?” Instead, they chose to invest in me.
How did that shape you as a leader?
Like many young people who experience trauma early in life, I rebelled against authority in high school and eventually got kicked out. But I was blessed that family members and educators saw me as more than the mistakes I had made. Today there are many young people struggling with little or no support. As educators, we must ensure that all students—regardless of race, ZIP code, income, immigration status or language they speak at home—have access to a rich, well-rounded education.
As an administrator, what have you retained from your teaching days?
I loved teaching high school social studies. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to help students understand the relationships between history, geography, political science, sociology and economics. As a principal, as a leader of a network of schools, as state commissioner and as secretary of education, I have always been committed to a well-rounded education for students that includes not just English, language arts and math, but social studies, science, access to the arts and other languages.
What was your biggest challenge as U.S. secretary of education?
President Obama made education equity a priority, and I was proud to help lead that work. Too often, students of color, low-income students and English learners have fewer opportunities to learn than their white and wealthier peers. Despite the progress we have made, it is still generally true that those who need the most get the least: less access to high-quality preschool and effective teachers; less access to rigorous coursework and school counselors; and largely because of our nation’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education, coupled with racial and economic segregation, less access to essential funding.
What’s your top priority as head of the Education Trust?
At this moment in our nation’s history—where there are strong forces trying to undermine progress at nearly every turn—we are significantly ratcheting up our advocacy efforts. My most immediate goal for Ed Trust is to build strong and diverse coalitions of people who believe in education equity while increasing the political and public will to act to close opportunity gaps and foster excellence in education, from preschool through college. To do so, we are galvanizing a movement among educators, parents, civil rights leaders, the business community, faith-based organizations and community-based organizations at the state level to boldly push for equity.
What lured you to teach at UMD?
I loved being back in the classroom. The students’ energy, enthusiasm and curiosity were profoundly inspiring. Some of our richest class discussions were about issues of racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools and the degree to which the United States continues to fall short of the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. I hope that they will go on to work on these issues and challenge the status quo to make a positive difference in their communities and contribute to the future success of our nation.
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