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APPAM In Conversation with Obama Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

February 21, 2019 10:45 PM
John B. King, Jr. presenting his keynote address at #2018APPAM


One of the highlights of APPAM’s 40th Annual Fall Research Conference was the keynote address by John B. King, Jr. at The Equity & Inclusion Luncheon on Friday, November 9, 2018.  Through his work as Secretary of Education, King was a seminal figure in President Barack Obama’s administration: In addition to the distinction of being the first African-American and Puerto Rican to serve as a U.S. Secretary of Education, he became one of the nation’s staunchest advocates for providing college education to prison inmates, and for using Title II funds to aid in the development and preparation of teachers.  Now, as President and CEO of The Education Trust, he continues to exert a strong, positive influence over young professionals and students of public policy, in particular.  In the weeks following his keynote address, King graciously participated in an interview with APPAM, in which he discusses his recommendations for the Trump administration, ideas for making college more accessible to underserved students, partnerships between educators and policymakers against recent waves of hate, the advancement of evidence-based policy research, and his own idols.  The interview follows in its entirety. 
APPAM is republishing this article in honor of the multifaceted diversity theme of our upcoming Fall Research Conference.

If you could make three recommendations to the federal government for improving outcomes in higher education through diversity policies, what would they be and why? 
With the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the federal government is well positioned to play an important role in helping historically underserved students—particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds—to prepare for, enroll in, and graduate from college. It’s promising that there are proposals around establishing an accountability system at the federal level that would provide incentives to institutions of higher education that successfully enroll and graduate the most underserved students and protect students and taxpayers from predatory, bad-actor institutions. In addition to creating such an accountability system, Congress should make a meaningful investment in the Pell Grant, which is currently at its lowest purchasing power ever, covering less than 30 percent of the average cost of attendance at a public, four-year university. Lastly, policymakers can support innovative, evidence-based approaches to increasing college completion, particularly for historically underserved students, while prioritizing student supports that improve campus climate, increase academic success, and provide the wraparound supports—in addition to academic services—that students need to be successful.
Do you feel that it’s the responsibility of education policymakers to curb waves of hate, and if so, what are some less-talked-about avenues for them to do this beyond traditional diversity programs?
Each one of us has a role to play in dismantling hatred and bias in all its forms. Policymakers can make the choice to promote policies that have equity as a central focus, ensuring that each student receives the resources and services he or she needs to thrive. Policymakers can choose to see the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, for what it truly is: a civil rights law. And they can choose to implement ESSA in a way that advances the right of all children—including and especially those who are underserved—to a quality education that opens doors to opportunity. Policymakers can choose to be champions of policies and programs that lift up the importance of diversity in our schools and our communities and that help to ensure welcoming and safe school climates that affirm all of our students’ intersectional identities.
Indeed, there are important steps that both policymakers and educators can and should take to reduce bias in both the classroom and in our society. A recent report from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. includes helpful information for educators on understanding how implicit bias permeates many classrooms and impacts children, particularly children of color. The authors provide tools that educators can utilize in the classroom to prevent bias from entering their work, as well as the feedback they give to students. The organization, Teaching Tolerance, also offers resources to educators, administrators, counselors, and the general public in responding to hate and bias, assessing school culture, and identifying “teachable moments”—even those that might be difficult. Ultimately, I believe that if we work to eliminate bias from our schools and classrooms and our communities—and if we work to ensure children attend schools where they can learn with diverse peers and from diverse educators—students will enter the world more appreciative of our nation’s rich diversity and see diversity as a strength.
What roles do you feel that APPAM and other nonprofits should play in advancing evidence-based education research?  
Sometimes we—as education leaders, policymakers, and advocates—act as if we know a lot less than we really do about what it takes to improve education. Across the country, we need to take advantage of all that we have discovered. We also need to use that knowledge to drive continuous learning, and then improve upon and scale practices and programs that work. Data and evidence of success can be powerful tools for engaging stakeholders and generating buy-in for policies and programs. But that can only happen if the people who need to use the data can understand the findings.
One organization doing promising work to help policymakers leverage evidence and data in their decision-making is Results for America. The core belief at Results for America is that investing in evidence-based practices is the “new normal;” and I believe this is a tenet that should guide more people engaged in policy work.
There are also numerous research-practice partnerships that have developed across the country. Notably, a partnership between the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research and the Chicago Public Schools resulted in the development of an indicator called “Freshman on Track.” The creation of this indicator was made possible through the University of Chicago’s research on ninth graders’ persistence through high school graduation. Researchers discovered that the single most important predictor of high school success was course completion and achievement in ninth grade. This indicator was even more predictive of students’ later success than those students’ test scores, race, gender, or the income of their families. Freshman on Track is now used across the country to help keep students on the path to high school graduation.
The federal government must be a leader in incentivizing these kinds of approaches. During the Obama administration, the Education Department made investing in evidence-based programs a priority. We made research and evaluation a cornerstone of the application process, for example, for our Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which was aimed at improving literacy, instruction in subjects like science, rural education, and more for over 2 million students. The i3 program helped to support and scale promising initiatives like Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR), which is helping to make significant improvements in student achievement in states across the country. Leveraging data and evidence also guided the administration’s First in the World program, which focused on boosting postsecondary access, affordability, and completion through approaches supported by research.
Organizations such as APPAM and other nonprofits can help spread the word about promising programs, act as conveners for important conversations about what’s working in education, conduct original research, engage in partnerships, and help direct the research field to areas where we need further study.
How do you see the challenges you faced as Secretary of Education as similar to and different from those that Betsy DeVos faces?
I am thankful that during my time in the Obama administration, both the agenda of the White House and the priorities of the Department were oriented around expanding educational equity and advancing the civil rights of all students regardless of their race, gender, religion, LGBTQ status, zip code, immigration status, language spoken at home, or family income. Consistent with the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2015, I believe that the U.S. Department of Education is a civil rights agency. Unfortunately, this belief contrasts with recent actions that the Department has taken under the Trump administration to roll back civil rights protections for students and make it more difficult for historically underserved students to receive an equitable, excellent education.  
As a kid whose life was saved by New York City public school teachers; a former public school teacher and principal; and a Montgomery County, Maryland public school parent, I believe public education is vital to the health of our economy and our democracy. I worry that budget cuts and voucher schemes proposed by the current administration are designed to undermine public education.
You’ve talked about the importance of influencers in your life and the lives of other difference makers.  Is there someone you admire who you’ve never met, but would love to meet?  If so, we’d love to hear who and why.
I’m very fortunate to often find myself working alongside the people I consider influencers to advance issues of equity and justice, and I am most encouraged when leaders use their platforms to change the opportunities available to young people. With the November midterm elections just a few weeks ago, I’m reflecting on the success of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who—despite losing seventeen classmates, educators, and school staff in an act of senseless gun violence—used the March for our Lives movement to register young people to vote. Their efforts proved successful as we saw young voter participation increase dramatically from the 2014 midterm election, especially on college campuses.
I think of Jahana Hayes who, just a few years ago, was on stage with President Obama and me receiving the 2016 Teacher of the Year award. Today, Jahana is the first Black woman ever elected to Congress from Connecticut. I’m moved by athletes like Lebron James, whose IPROMISE School in Akron, Ohio provides wraparound supports to students and families in the community, and activists like Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson in the movement to stop police violence that people of color experience all too often in communities across the country. These folks are fearless in their pursuit of doing what is best by America’s children and all of America’s people; it’s an honor to witness their work every day.
One person I have not met, but would love to meet is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Laureate and justice activist. I would like to thank her for her courageous, tenacious, and inspiring advocacy for education for girls and women across the world. 

You can learn more about the work of John B. King, Jr. and others at The Education Trust here. 



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