The Answer Sheet: What Arne Duncan’s New Senior Adviser Did to N.Y. Schools
John King is leaving his job as commissioner of New York State schools commissioner to become a senior adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with the “roles and responsibilities of the deputy secretary,” according to the Education Department, which issued a statement giving King high praise for his work in New York. Some in New York think otherwise. Here’s a piece by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing on this blog King’s troubling record in implementing school reform program in New York. You can read some of her other word here and here and here.
By Carol Burris
“Just like 60,000 children in NY, John King has opted-out.” So tweeted Kevin Glynn, the quick witted, co-founder of Lace to the Top. Glynn, like many New York parents and teachers, was pleased by the news of Commissioner King’s resignation. Leonie Haimson, the director of Class Size Matters, referred to John King as “the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.”
One of the strongest critiques of King, however, came from the editorial board of The Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley. Their op-ed entitled, “Commissioner King’s Tone Deaf Legacy” describes the commissioner’s pattern of disregard for the opinions of those with whom he disagreed.
Others praised John King. Fans included Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Regent Bennett and representatives of so-called reform groups, such as the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). In an email to The New York Times, DFER Executive Director Joe Williams complimented King by saying that “even white suburbanites would thank him [King] someday”, thus continuing the stereotyping of Common Core critics, which began with Arne Duncan’s “white suburban mom” remark in 2013.
There have been rumors for months that King was selectively applying to positions, as well as rumors that he was being pressured by Andrew Cuomo to leave. He is, as Andy Smarick notes, one of an ever growing number of “reform” chief state officers who are exiting the stage. What matters for New York students, however, is not why John King is leaving, but rather the legacy he leaves behind.
John King was the third commissioner to work for Merryl Tisch since she became chancellor in 2009. He replaced David Steiner, who made a hasty, surprise exit after less than two years in office. Deputy Commissioner King was quickly appointed to the position without a search.
John King was optimistic that great things would happen under his watch. In an Education Next article, which gives a fairy tale account of Steiner’s tenure, King talks about what he believed would happen next:
“In the first couple of years there will be what I characterize as process wins. You’ll see an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with student achievement built in as a meaningful component.… You’ll see the rollout of a statewide data system that will give a lot more useful information to teachers and principals about student performance and a lot more useful data for policymakers.… Three and four years out you’ll see real change in the percentage of kids achieving college-ready standards. You’ll see more students enrolling in college, fewer students in remedial courses, more students staying in college all the way through to graduation.”
King’s optimism, however, proved to be unfounded. Let’s reflect on the predictions one by one.
“You’ll see an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with student achievement built in as a meaningful component.…
The teacher evaluation system quickly came under fire from an unlikely group—principals—who recognized the negative consequences for students that would result if their teachers were evaluated by test scores. Their concerns were explained in a letter, which was eventually signed by over 1/3 of all of the principals in New York State, along with thousands of parents, teachers and administrators. That action, which was characterized in The New York Times as the principals’ rebellion, began the pushback against the new evaluation system known as APPR.
It was also the first test of the new commissioner. He failed it. He did not engage with the principals, but simply dug into a defense of APPR—a defense that would continue evenwhen the flawed metrics of the system were exposed. Meanwhile, savvy superintendents who realized the flaws,created evaluation plans designed to shield teachers from inequities. Those who took the plan seriously, created disparate and embarrassing evaluation results, some of which are now being contested in court.
The disastrous rollout of the Common Core and its tests pushed the legislature to pass a moratorium on consequences for teachers resulting from the test score component of APPR—a moratorium opposed by John King. The legislature plans to reform APPR this session, although whether the system can be improved without a radical restructuring remains to be seen.
“You’ll see the rollout of a statewide data system that will give a lot more useful information to teachers and principals about student performance and a lot more useful data for policymakers.”
In the above quote, King was referring to the implementation of inBloom, funded and created by the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. Its purpose was to amass an extraordinary amount of confidential student data with the intent of sharing it with private software developers to create personalized educational products. Despite public outcry, John King continued to support inBloom until the legislature stepped in and pulled the plug during the spring of 2014. Shortly thereafter, inBloom itself shut down. Leonie Haimson led the fight against inBloom in New York State and beyond. In reflecting on John King’s stance she said:
“New York was the only state out of the nine that the Gates Foundation said were participating in the project not to pull out because of parent protests alone. It needed to pass a state law to do it. This was despite the fact that the inBloom fight started in New York, which had the best organized opposition in the country. The vast majority of New York parents, legislators of both parties, the governor, Assembly Speaker Shelley Silver, the majority of school board members and superintendents, along with the state teachers union, came out against his plans to share highly sensitive personal student data with inBloom and through inBloom with an array of for-profit vendors—but it made absolutely no difference to him. King stood fast and refused to pull out.”
This unwillingness to respond to the concerns of parents, teachers and citizens was on full display when the commissioner decided to hold forums last winter to justify his reforms to the public. At thefirst of such forums in Poughkeepsie, New York, the audience became both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak. The miffed King then cancelled upcoming scheduled forums claiming that the audience was taken over by “special interests”. Although the forums were eventually reinstated under local legislator control, the tone and substance were not much better. New Yorkers made it clear that they were disgusted with the rollout of the Common Core and the excessive testing of students. King had lost his moral authority and it would never be regained. The NYSUT union called for his resignation, individual legislators called for his resignation and all but one of the candidates for governor publically stated that they wanted him gone.
“Three and four years out you’ll see real change in the percentage of kids achieving college-ready standards. You’ll see more students enrolling in college, fewer students in remedial courses, more students staying in college all the way through to graduation.”
It has been 3 ½ years since John King made that claim and none of it has come to pass. Graduation rates in New York have increased by less than 1 percentage point, the Common Core proficiency rates are a disaster, the longitudinal measure of college readiness, which is the percentage of students earning the Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation, has remained flat. Theavailable state data on college remediation shows no improvement. Even when one combines his record with that of his predecessor Steiner, there is no discernible benefit to students from the reforms. Were King’s expectations too ambitious? Perhaps. But that does not absolve responsibility. It is the job of leaders to establish achievable goals, build capacity and support, modify when needed and then focus resources on their accomplishment. That is how real progress is achieved. Race to the Top was a shotgun approach.
Now Tisch will work with her fourth commissioner in her 5 ½-year tenure. The reform agenda will march forth, she promises, even as everything falls apart. The new commissioner will have to undo King’s unrealistic Common Core graduation cut scores for the Graduating Class of 2022 or face a graduation rate of about 30 percent. However, at the rate Ms. Tisch goes through commissioners, it is probable that 2022 will be the problem for yet another Commissioner to solve.
Despite the spin of supporters, King’s move to Washington during the final two years of a lame duck administration is hardly a promotion. Kingwill now work for Duncan as a senior advisor, even as Congress has defunded Race to the Top.
I imagine a dinner in downtown Washington with Arne Duncan, John King, Tony Bennett, Chris Cerf and Kevin Huffman. They are toasting the days when Race to the Top was just a twinkle in Arne’s eyes. Perhaps Michelle Rhee will drop by. I think Bill Gates should pick up the tab, don’t you?
 The quote by Williams was contained in the original story on the resignation of King that appeared on the The New York Times website on December 10. The quote was removed for a later version.
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