John King Urges State Chiefs to Seize Momentum if ESEA Overhaul Passes

By Daarel Burnette II — November 21, 2015 4 min read
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Charlotte, N.C.

John B. King Jr., who is set to take over next month as acting U.S. Secretary of Education, told the states’ school chiefs Saturday that a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is long overdue and that he hopes if they are given more authority, state chiefs will continue President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve the quality of the nation’s teachers, identify and work to close achievement gaps, and raise learning standards.

“This is a huge opportunity for states to think greater about how they hold schools accountable,” King said about the proposed legislation at the Council of Chief State School Officers policy forum here. “This is an opportunity for important conversations around equity. We will be a source of technical assistance and promote sharing of resources across states.”

An ESEA reauthorization compromise that passed a congressional conference panel on Thursday stands to shift a great deal of accountability, assessment, and school turnaround work from the federal government to the states.

Neither King, who is currently filling the duties of deputy secretary, nor Roberto Rodriguez, who is Obama’s deputy assistant for education, tipped their hats in their conversation with CCSSO director Chris Minnich as to what in the wide-ranging reauthorization framework the administration liked or didn’t like. But both officials reminded the chiefs of the president’s legacy on education policy, while admitting several problems remain unsolved.

“If reauthorization passes, we’re excited about the work that’s ahead,” King said. “If it doesn’t pass, we’ll continue the good work we’ve done working with the waivers [from the No Child Left Behind Act]. It’s an ambitious agenda. Everybody feels a sense of urgency.”

King pointed out that the ESEA itself was created in the midst of the civil rights movement and that the nation is now grappling again with those issues.

While states are thinking about ways to better hold their own schools accountable, it’s important that they think more creatively about how to provide equitable, adequate, and integrated school environments for all of the nation’s children, he said.

“This legislation [now before the Congress] rightly puts in the hands of states the ability to focus on equity,” he said. “What will you do with that? We need to have difficult conversations around race.”

Focus on Achievement Gaps

Saturday’s remarks by King and Rodriguez came at the tail end of the conference, where 40 of the nation’s schools chiefs discussed better ways to close achievement gaps and other issues involving equity.

Chiefs persistently rebuked critics who allege that states don’t have an incentive to focus on the nation’s neediest children.

But they said the federal government’s strong oversight in recent years made it difficult to create tailor-made strategies that they felt would be more effective.

Wisconsin schools chief Tony Evers, who was appointed the organization’s next president Saturday, said equity would be a major theme for the organization in the years ahead.

“Closing the achievement gap is this nation’s biggest challenge,” he said. “This does not have to be a doom and gloom conversation. Equity is joyful. Let’s get it done.”

Rodriguez said he hoped states continue to provide students access to pre-K and to make sure they’re ready for college and career.

“We’re pleased with the progress that’s been made,” he said about the ESEA legislation. “We continue to review the language as it becomes available. A lot of these policies around greater flexibilities and control, these are policies we tried to advance in 2012 in order to launch the ESEA [renewal] process. We thank the leadership in this room for ushering in a new blueprint for federal and state partnership.”

King said in his discussion that while it’s encouraging that the high school graduation rate has increased, it’s important that the federal and state governments work in partnership to continue to identify dropout factories and schools where large swaths of students aren’t meeting basic standards.

King also said the administration’s legacy is bringing more accountability and focus toward the nation’s teachers, but said that process has been uncomfortable. He maintained that test scores should remain part of teachers’ evaluations, but didn’t say how much. Teachers should get better training in ways to better assess their students, he said, but admitted that testing may have become too much of an emphasis in recent years.

“We have to acknowledge that over the last six years, as we have pressed to lift up the teacher profession, it’s been uncomfortable at times,” he said. “Teacher evaluation work has felt at times like it was an attack or we were focused on learning most about poorly performing teachers as opposed to supporting good teacher development.”

His support for teachers was gratifying to North Carolina chief June St. Clair Atkinson.

“I think it’s only right for him to focus on the quality of teachers,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.