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Find out what the U.S. education secretary thinks about ed tech, testing and digital citizenship

By Julie Randles
March 29, 2016
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Time is fleeting. Life is short.

And neither of those clichés matters one jot to U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

True, he has less than a year of guaranteed tenure in the position. The calendar alone is a recipe to get caught between the education world and political agendas, with no space to mediate the two.

But never, ever make the mistake of labeling King a lame duck.

An orphan by age 12, he followed in the footsteps of his father, John B. King Sr., who was Brooklyn's first black principal and New York City's executive deputy superintendent of schools, making him the highest-ranking African-American educator in the country at one point.

It's clear King has the credentials to head this federal department. He earned four Ivy League degrees, founded a school and led a state department of education before age 41.

Secretary King began his career in a classroom teaching high school social studies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Boston. He jumped at a chance to co-found and co-direct curriculum and instruction at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston. Under his leadership, Roxbury Prep became one of the highest performing urban middle schools in the state, closed the racial achievement gap and outperformed not only the Boston district schools but also schools in the city’s affluent suburbs.

By 2011, he was appointed the first African-American commissioner of education for the state of New York and president of the University of the State of New York, which meant overseeing that state’s elementary and secondary schools (3.1 million students); public, independent and proprietary colleges and universities; libraries; museums and numerous other educational institutions. It’s no wonder he landed a role as the second in command at the Department of Education in 2015, where he oversaw all preschool-12th grade education policies, programs and strategic initiatives, as well as the department's operations.

Needless to say, large organizations and big ideas don’t faze King.

But it’s King’s ability to forge independent conclusions that will make the difference for U.S. school districts in 2016. He can take the political heat – after all, parents shouted him off the stage at a PTA meeting three years ago when he was the New York education commissioner for adopting the Common Core State Standards. Instead of eliminating the town halls with parents, he overhauled the format and continued holding public meetings with communities across the state.

King has pushed for equity for all students throughout his career, and he has said that is among his top priorities for his time as secretary, particularly as states work to create new accountability systems to track achievement gaps under the newly adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA):  

“As we support states in implementing this new law, we will work to create guardrails to enforce its critical civil rights protections for all students in K-12," and  "We will continue to uphold our civil rights laws across the board, to protect the students who have too often gotten the least."

In an interview in the April issue of entrsekt, King lays out his vision for U.S. school districts:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? From whom?

I have been fortunate to have a number of great mentors over the years who have given me advice on my educational journey, my career and my personal life. The best advice I have ever received came not through words, but through example.

As a kid, my mother worked as a school counselor in the elementary school I attended in Brooklyn and at the junior high school across the street. I watched the relationships she built with students, their families and her colleagues. I was very young, but I could see the warmth, the love and the deep commitment that characterized those interactions. My mother believed in the incredible potential of every child – no matter their circumstances and no matter the mistakes they made – and the importance of communicating that faith to young people so that they might draw hope and inspiration from it. As an educator and as a parent, I think every day about the example she set.
You’ve publicly shared a compelling story about your youth and how your experiences led to your involvement in education. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background and what drove you to try to make a difference for kids? 

My parents were both New York City public school educators, and their faith in education is one of many things that inspire me every day. Unfortunately, while their influence is deep, it can’t be measured in length of years. My mother passed away from a heart attack when I was 8. I then lived alone with my father, who suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, until his death when I was 12.

Because no one knew he was sick, my home life was unpredictable and often scary. School became my refuge, and my teacher in fourth through sixth grade at P.S. 276, Alan Osterweil, was like a surrogate father to me. He was an amazing teacher, challenging us to read the New York Times every day. In his classroom, I felt engaged, challenged, safe and nurtured. Mr. Osterweil and my other NYC public school teachers saved my life. They are the reason I became a teacher and a principal. If not for them, I certainly would not be where I am today. Their work inspires me to do more, do better, and do right by our nation’s students.

My childhood experiences are part of the reason I’m so excited to continue working hard to support the work our nation’s educators are doing each day to close achievement gaps between low-income students of color and their more affluent peers. It’s why I’m excited to continue working on behalf of our nation’s teachers, so that a diverse cohort of new teachers are well prepared for today’s diverse classrooms and so that all teachers have the support they need to prepare all students for success in college, careers and life. It’s why I’m working toward college access and completion for all of our nation’s aspiring graduates.

My childhood showed me how fundamentally important education can be — it showed me that education can truly change lives. There is tremendous urgency to our work, and I approach my job every day with the resolve passed down to me from my parents, my teachers and my family.

You became the education secretary with less than a year to go in the Obama administration, and you’re following Education Secretary Arne Duncan who was very high profile. In your wildest dreams, what do you hope to accomplish in the coming months? 

We’ve made great progress as a nation: Our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, dropout rates are at historic lows, and college enrollment for black and Hispanic students is up by more than a million since 2008. Thanks to the hard work of principals, teachers, students and families across the country, we’re well on our way to providing a world class education for more of our students. But we still need to go further. That’s why, in the next year, I’ll focus on three main areas: equity and excellence; lifting up the teaching profession; and access, affordability and completion in higher education.

In the first area – increasing equity and excellence, from preschool through college – we have a tremendous opportunity as we support states and districts in implementing ESSA, our nation’s new education law. ESSA provides new tools that have the potential to expand opportunity and improve education for all of our nation’s young people, including an important national commitment to expanding access to high-quality early learning. It maintains the civil rights legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act – signed in 1965 – while including new flexibilities for states and districts that expand equity and excellence.

And, as every student and parent knows, opportunity would not be possible without the tireless work of our teachers and school leaders. That’s why, this year, I want to elevate the teaching profession and ensure our educators have the preparation and support they need for the realities of today’s classrooms. I am also deeply committed to the department’s work to invest in teacher leadership and to mobilize the insights and creativity of our teacher leaders to strengthen educational outcomes.

Finally, I want to focus on access, affordability and completion in higher education this year. We’ve made so much progress over this administration — reforming our student loan system to improve college affordability, increasing Pell funding for students with the greatest need, simplifying the process of applying for financial aid, and increasing transparency around higher education costs and outcomes to better inform students’ decisions.

We need to build on that momentum by helping even more traditionally under-represented students access and afford college in the next year; but beyond that, I want to help more students – from all walks of life – complete college and graduate with a meaningful degree.  

One of Duncan's legacies is the revival of a federal role in educational technology, including the modernization of E-Rate and the new ed tech provisions in Title IV of ESSA. Do you anticipate ed tech will play a significant role in your tenure and, if so, where in the ed tech field do you hope to leave your mark? 
I was very pleased that our recently issued National Education Technology Plan focuses on advancing educational equity through technology. One of the most important aspects of technology in education is its ability to level the field of opportunity for students. With connectivity, access and accessibility, students across the country who have traditionally not had access to the larger world – from rural Appalachia to American Indian reservations to the most impoverished neighborhoods in every city – can connect with experts, experiences and programs that would otherwise be entirely out of reach.

It can make a huge difference in what they are able to accomplish at their schools and what possibilities students are able to envision for themselves. And with that connectivity, we also need to make sure our teachers have everything they need to know to ask students to build, create and solve using new tools. 
Protecting student data privacy is an issue of global concern. Several U.S. states have passed or are considering legislation, and numerous federal legislative initiatives are underway. ISTE continues to spotlight the need for educators to learn about the various privacy laws and regulations and best practices to ensure that they don't inadvertently divulge student data. Can you tell us about your own experiences in New York with student data privacy and any plans you have for the department to address privacy issues in the U.S.?

New learning technologies are quickly being embraced by teachers across the country. Many of these technologies use data to make instruction more personalized for students and help teachers and students use their time more efficiently. There are major benefits here, especially for teachers, who can use this data to be alerted to students who are struggling before they fall significantly behind. We no longer need to wait until the end of the unit or the end of the semester to see if students are on track.

Whenever student data is involved, there are important privacy and security issues to be addressed — and we will continue to put out guidance to help states and districts navigate those issues. It’s not an either or. We have to do both. We have to use data effectively and we have to protect student privacy. 

We also have a Privacy Technical Assistance Center where schools or parents can go to address questions or concerns they may have about how to protect privacy while using student data to help students succeed.  

President Obama has weighed in on student assessment, saying no more than 3 percent of school time should be spent on testing. In some ways, this is a radical shift in the federal stance on standardized testing. What do you think the proper balance is and how do you think states should approach reducing the time spent on standardized testing?

In my experience as both a classroom teacher and as a principal, it’s about balance. You need good information about your students’ progress — so that you can tailor instruction to their needs, understand which lessons are most effective, and support teacher and student growth. At the same time, you want as much instructional time with your kids as you can get. Good assessments can actually be a positive part of the learning experience, but simplistic or poorly constructed ones just subtract from learning time. Too often, I hear from educators that assessments are long on quantity and short on usefulness, and that’s just frustrating for them.

That’s why the president’s Testing Action Plan is so important, and why we’ve taken new and meaningful steps to help schools deal with excessive and unnecessary tests. We recently issued guidance to states and districts on how they can use federal funds to support efforts both to eliminate unnecessary tests and to improve the quality of their assessments, particularly by making them more performance-based and emphasizing writing, problem-solving and critical thinking. We want to help spread the examples of states that are leading in this area — states like North Carolina, New Mexico, Delaware, and elsewhere — and to provide all the tools, resources and help that we can.

Helping states and districts find a better balance on assessment is absolutely a priority in the year ahead. I look forward to working with our partners across the country to get this right. 
Under your leadership in New York, the Department of Education developed the EngageNY curriculum that has been used for free by schools and teachers across the country based on Creative Commons Licensing. How will you encourage the use of open education resources and shared resource development in your new role? 

I’m very proud of the work that New York teachers and other educators from around the country did to develop the high quality resources on EngageNY. Those materials have been downloaded tens of millions of times by educators across the nation, and it’s exciting to see the enthusiasm for using these materials to help all students meet college- and career-ready standards. 

Openly licensed educational resources have enormous potential to increase access to high quality education opportunities for all students, no matter their zip code. Because they can be modified without violating copyright laws, openly licensed educational resources support teachers as creative professionals by giving them the ability to adapt and customize learning materials to meet the needs of their students. 

With the launch of our #GoOpen campaign, we hope that school districts and states can connect, collaborate and share high quality instructional materials across district and state lines. With the support of new technologies, robust infrastructure and professional development, school districts can begin to transition from static, traditional textbooks to openly licensed educational materials and can repurpose funding for other pressing needs, such as investing in the transition to digital learning and professional development for teachers. 

President Obama's ConnectED initiative seeks to make better use of existing federal funds to get internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers trained on its advantages. At ISTE, we often say ed tech can do two things: change learning and teaching and make it more equitably available to learners. What is your philosophy on digital equity and what are the two or three changes or policy decisions you think are needed?

All students deserve equal access to a public education that prepares them to be thoughtful, engaged citizens. Equitable access to technological resources is a key component of that citizenship, as we’ve seen across the world. We need to make sure students have access to the tools whether they are in school or at home. We need district leaders to set an expectation of equitable access to technology and connectivity and to think in innovative ways about how to leverage funds to help all students connect outside of schools. 

But access alone, while essential, is not enough. For these tools to transform learning, we need all educators to have the knowledge, skills and support to take full advantage of technology-rich learning environments. This means redesigning teacher preparation programs and personalizing professional development to empower teachers to design learning experiences that ask students to use technology to solve problems, create new tools and produce artifacts of their learning.

It’s also important to put the best information in students’ and families’ hands through the expansion of tools like our College Scorecard and streamlining of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process so that they can make the most informed decisions possible about their future when it comes to choosing a college that matches their dreams and their budget.

ISTE values digital citizenship skills and includes a digital citizenship indicator in all five sets of the ISTE Standards. In today’s digital world, it’s critical that all students gain the digital literacy skills they need to be productive, ethical and responsible digital citizens. How can educators work with students to be good digital citizens and what role can federal, state and local authorities play to ensure appropriate use of today's technology at school and at home?

The first thing we can do is lead by example. More than 2,000 Future Ready districts are taking leadership on this issue, and ISTE has been a fantastic Future Ready coalition partner in helping leaders transform digital learning in their districts. For educators, it starts with teacher preparation programs. We need to make sure that ed tech isn’t just a one-time class. Leading and teaching with technology should be infused throughout teacher prep programs so it is second nature to a new educator to use technology wisely and effectively at school. 

It’s also key to work with families. As schools across the country are asking students to take digital devices home with them, conversations around responsible use are even more important and should include schools, students and families. It’s why I’m excited by our Future Ready work that helps schools and districts connect with partner organizations like ISTE and Common Sense Education that have free resources to help with this and to benefit from experts who have been doing this work for a long time.

ISTE members can read insights from other ed tech thought leaders in the April issue of entrsekt. Not a member? Join today.