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Q&A With Education Secretary John B. King Jr.: ESSA and More ESSA

By Alyson Klein — June 06, 2016 10 min read
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Washington, D.C.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. sat down with Politics K-12’s Alyson Klein in his office late Friday afternoon to talk about the many twists and turns in implementation of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as a few broader issues. King’s reputation as a policy nerd is earned. He dives pretty deep into the weeds here. Some broader questions come toward the end of the interview—we’ve marked the turning point if you want to skim.

Here’s an abridged transcript of our chat. For clarity’s sake, we’ve paraphrased the discussion that followed some questions; in those cases we’ve set off portions of King’s responses in direct quotes.

You’ve made it clear since Day One that equity is going to be your number one priority as secretary. Can you talk to me a little bit about how the Every Student Succeeds Act and its regulations further that goal?

The Every Student Succeeds Act is reauthorization of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and has to be viewed in the context of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That civil rights legacy was very important to the president an important part of why the president felt it was a good law. One, by committing states to high standards for all students to make sure that all students graduate ready for college and careers, and two, ensuring strong state systems of accountability with meaningful flexibility, but clear civil rights guardrails. Three, maintaining the commitment that Title I resources [for disadvantaged students] will go to the highest-needs students and help the highest-needs students to be successful. And four, the commitment to preschool and the commitment to innovation, which have both been priorities for the administration from the start.


You are calling for states to come up with one summative rating for their schools. But some states like California and Kentucky are already considering crafting systems that look at a broader range of indicators. Some are concerned that the one summative rating is too limiting. Why did you require it, and is there any flexibility there?

There is flexibility for how states implement that summative rating, and so states could use the A through F approach that some states have used. States could use categories of schools similar to the approach that is in place today in many states. So there’s room for states to take different approaches to get to that summative rating. ... But we think there’s real value in parents, educators, policymakers having a clear sense of which schools are struggling and need the most support and which schools are excelling, and there’s evidence from many areas around the country that that clarity is helpful for directing resources and ensuring improvement in schools that need help.

So you think having just a few ratings for each school, say one on growth, one on proficiency, one on another indicator, wouldn’t provide the kind of clarity that a single summative score would provide?

It’s more a summative rating that identifies those schools that most need help and those schools that are excelling. The benefit of a summative rating is clarity, which those schools are [underperforming] so that you can provide the supports that are needed. [A senior department aide chimed in here to note that any other indicators or data that states use in developing a school’s rating also must be made public, so parents and communities will get both the overall score and what went into it. King also added here that the summative rating can be a category, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a number or a letter.]

Why three categories on each of the indicators?

The goal is really differentiation, that’s what the law requires, that you differentiate performance between schools. We want to understand, again, which schools are struggling and which are excelling so we can direct resources and support to those that are struggling and also learn from those schools that excelling. But states have flexibility; as long as they meet that minimum threshold, they could have many more levels if they so choose.

There’s been some questions about some of the restrictions that you’ve put on the indicators of school quality or students’ opportunity to learn. The indicator that states pick has to be somehow linked to student achievement. I’ve heard you talk recently about access to arts education and citizenship education. Do you think there’s a clear link between those efforts and improving student achievement?

In a word, yes, King does: “I think the goal really of this requirement is that states are thoughtful as they engage with their stakeholders about how the indicators will help students be successful in the long run.”

For example, he said, research shows that looking at chronic absenteeism is likely to help pinpoint schools that are struggling in a way that looking at average daily attendance—which isn’t as differentiated—would not.

As for arts and citizenship education, “We know students who have a strong foundation in social studies and science do better as readers,” he added pointing specifically to Dan Willingham’s research at the University of Virginia. Access to the arts, he added, can also help students’ academic progress. He pointed to “Turnaround Arts” schools.

There’s been some early criticism of your requirements around consistently underperforming subgroups of students—some, including the Education Trust, worry that the requirements you put around this aren’t strong enough and could allow states to set the bar too low. What’s your response to that early criticism?

King noted that we are still in the public comment phase of the regulatory process—he encouraged feedback on this issue. And he added, “The law importantly says you have to focus on the performance of every subgroup. The regulations importantly propose flexibility for every state in setting goals and interim targets. We set a limit on the time period that can be used for defining consistently underperforming [subgroups] which we think will help to ensure that states and districts act meaningfully when they have subgroups that are underperforming.”

What was your take on the Congressional Research Service report that found no statutory basis for the administration’s interpretation of the supplement-not-supplant (SNS) provisions in the law? What your next steps on SNS?

King noted that this issue was discussed at length when a committee of educators and advocates tried to negotiate rules for ESSA, and that some adjustments were made during that process. King said the department is taking in all that feedback as it hashes out its next proposal on the rule.

But it doesn’t sound like that next proposal is likely to go in an entirely new direction from the department’s controversial draft regulations, which Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an author of ESSA, and others see as serious overreach.

“We remain committed to the principle that the dollars have to be supplemental and that the inequities that we see between schools within districts are inconsistent, not only with the words ‘supplement-not-supplant,’ but the history of that provision ... We still see today places where districts are spending 25 percent, 30 percent more on the education of affluent students than low-income students. You can’t reconcile that with the words supplement-not-supplant.”

King also noted that Democratic senators including Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and others have backed the department up on its approach.

Are you concerned, though, that when you leave office that states will challenge your regulations in court? Does that worry you, keep you up at night?

What keeps me up at night is the inequity between schools. What keeps me up at night is that you can go ten blocks [within a district] and see many more resources in a school that serves affluent kids then a school that serves low-income kids. ... We know what those resource inequities translate into for students. They translate into some students having access to college counselors, other students not, some students having access to Advanced Placement, other students not, some students having access to effective teachers ... other students not. It’s the resource inequities that worry me.

But are you worried that if you push too far on regulations, your work will be undone by lawsuits?

I’m confident that the regulation that we ultimately put forward will be consistent with the law.

Out of the Weeds For a Bit

ESSA puts some restrictions on the education secretary. What do you see as the most important lever you have remaining? Regulations? Civil rights enforcement? The bully pulpit?

“I think it’s a combination of all of those,” King told Politics K-12. “Implementation of ESSA has the potential to be a tremendous lever ... to get there we will need strong regulations. We will need to provide technical assistance and guidance for states” particularly on meeting the needs of student subgroups that are underattended to, “such as students in foster care, homeless students, students in special education.”

On the bully pulpit, he noted that there’s a national conversation going on about diversity in schools. He mentioned that the administration has proposed a $120 million program to promote integration, Stronger Together. (King didn’t say this, but Congress is really unlikely to kick in any funding for that initiative this year.)

King added, “it’s important that we are calling attention to the benefits of diversity in schools and looking at how we support states and districts in voluntary efforts to improve socioeconomic integration in schools through the equity assistance centers, through the i3 program ... I think the role of the department is to advance equity and excellence. “

We are starting to hear about a teacher shortage. Does that worry you, and what will you do about it?

King said the reasons behind a potential teacher shortage varies. Some states just aren’t paying teachers very competitively and will need to raise salaries if they want to attract educators. And there are specific subject-area shortages, including for educators who can work with English-language learners, or in STEM subjects.

King touted the president’s “Best Job in the World” initiative to improve the teaching profession and help recruit and retain educators in high-needs schools. (Again, King didn’t say this, but it’s really unlikely the proposal will be funded this year.)

He also noted that the department is beginning to do work on teacher diversity. And he stressed retention. “There are decisions school districts can make around the supports that they put in place that can make a real difference,” in that area, he said.

What’s on the runway for you, beyond ESSA? Anything you haven’t talked about publicly?

Apparently King wasn’t in the mood to make news. He did reiterate that the department is working on guidance on foster youth and homeless children. (Both groups are likely to get more attention thanks to new reporting requirements in ESSA.)

Would King be willing to stay on at the helm of the Education Department, if a Democratic president asked him to?

It’s not on his radar, he said. “I’m very focused on what we need to do between now and January of 2017, and that’s my only focus,” King told me.

Even More on ESSA

Anything else readers should know that I didn’t ask you? Anything you want to get out there?

I hope that states are attentive to the requirements in the regulations around ... the importance of engaging diverse stakeholders, including parents and educators, but also civil rights organizations, which aren’t always engaged early in state level policy discussions, Native American tribes often aren’t engaged early. I hope states will make an effort to engage with advocates for the homeless community, for foster youth, for English-language learners. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here, and what I’m encouraged by is we do see many states that are doing statewide conversations trying to get diverse input and that’s something we prioritized in the regulations.

How well do you think states are doing so far on outreach on their ESSA plans?

I think there’s a range. ... The things that I’ve heard that worry me are places where educators are struggling to get permission from their district to have time to participate in these state-level conversations. That’s important, we have to make it possible for teachers and principals to be actively engaged in these conversations. The other thing that worries me is some of the places where it’s not clear that the civil rights community is being engaged at the outset. And that’s important. (Yes, I pressed King for specifics on which states he’s most concerned about and, no, he wouldn’t name names.)

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education John King chatted with Education Week about implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act in his office Friday. --Swikar Patel/Education Week.

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