When current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he would step down at the end of this calendar year, President Obama immediately stated that current deputy secretary and former Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Dr. John B. King, Jr. would replace him in January. Supporters of the Secretary designee took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing, touting his personal biography and what they called his lifelong experience in education. It is undeniable that Dr. King has an immensely impressive, even inspirational, biography. Orphaned at a young age, the future Secretary of Education credits New York City school teachers with “saving” him, and he has built upon his obviously prodigious academic talents to earn degree credentials second to none. After a short stint teaching, he co-founded the Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to lead the Uncommon Schools network of no-excuses charter schools. He was tapped in 2009 to become the assistant commissioner of education at NYSED, and in 2011, he was elevated to the Commissioner’s office at the age of 36. It is without question, that he is a man of enormous drive and intelligence, and, as his supporters say, he has extensive experience in the field of education.
But what if it is totally the wrong experience?
This is not an idle question because while public education advocates often note how frequently major proponents of reform have no practical experience in education before being elevated to positions of influence and authority, all experience is not equivalent, and there is plenty of evidence that Dr. King’s experience in education leaves him ill prepared for the political exigencies of educational leadership outside of the no-excuses charter sector. In fact, the first time in his long career in education that Dr. King was truly answerable to political and parental constituencies was when he was elevated to lead the NYSED, and it was a disaster. While informed and dogged in pursuit of the policies which landed him his office, he demonstrated no legitimate understanding that he was leader of a system of education that depended upon support from lawmakers, parents, and the body politic in general. Policies on the Common Core State Standards and associated testing were both disruptive and demanding with little effort to help teachers and families adjust, and promises to listen to what educators were saying about policies went unfulfilled. Public meetings where parents voiced their opinions on new state policies did not go well, forcing him to cancel scheduled meetings and change the format to decrease his contact with constituents. Lawmakers similarly found Dr. King unresponsive to their concerns, leading to a rare display of bipartisan sentiment in Albany as legislators called for his removal.
While I know many critics of education reform in general and of John King in particular who have a wide range of opinions on why his tenure at NYSED was as stormy as his public affect was passive, the simplest explanation that I can see is that there is nothing in Dr. King’s experience that remotely prepared him for the responsiveness needed in our fully public school system. When he took the Commissioner’s office at NYSED, that was the first time in his entire career in various sectors of education where he was accountable to the political constituencies that have voice in public education policy and practice. Consider his role as a charter school leader. While the charter school sector is publicly funded, it is not remotely fully publicly accountable. Some charter operators are exceptionally aggressive in defending themselves from public oversight, but all of them are deliberately separated from the democratic processes that oversee the funding and operation of our fully public schools. A school principal is a an educational leader and a political figure with constituencies among elected officials, taxpayers, parents of children in the school, the children themselves, and teachers. Public school superintendents are similarly situated although at a higher level than school principals. Charter school operators excuse themselves from much of that, periodically subjecting themselves to review by their authorizing bodies, but otherwise functioning not only outside of local, elected accountability systems, but often excusing themselves from following education law – and gaining support from the courts to do so.
Even in responsiveness to parents, charters are not particularly obligated to be especially deferential. The “no excuses” sector of charter schools in particular tends to place heavy demands upon parents and vigorously enforces narrow behavioral norms on children as young as five years old. Since charter schools are schools of choice, the response to any parent concerned over disciplinary or academic practices can be limited to “maybe this isn’t the school for you” or other means to counsel out families. The Uncommon School Network that Dr. King led before joining NYSED is an exemplar in this respect with Roxbury Prep inflicting a 40% out of school suspension rate upon its students in 2013-2014 (which, sadly, is an improvement on a the previous school year’s 60% out of school suspension rate). This pattern is typical among the entire Uncommon Schools network which have much higher suspension rates than their neighboring schools in the three state where they operate. And since there is no political authority to which charter schools need to answer and since parents who dislike these policies do not have to be considered, it is hardly surprising that many such school demonstrate stunning cohort attrition rates, such as North Star Academy, an Uncommon affiliate in Newark, New Jersey, where only 25% of African American boys who enroll in 5th grade are likely to make it to 12th.
This level of inflicted control without giving voice to any constituency was and apparently still is unproblematic to Dr. King who points to the measured outcomes for the students who manage to adapt to and remain within the system. Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, speaking at the Courageous Schools Conference in 2011, recalled a visit to Roxbury Prep where he asked Dr. King a pointed question about the type of messages his students were receiving:
I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”
So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.
It is unlikely that there is a competent principal or superintendent of schools in the country who would be surprised to face questions about methods and policies, but Dr. Noguera’s recounting demonstrates the extreme limitations of John King’s experiences. His extreme focus and concentration upon executing an agreed upon set of priorities are traits that serve executives well in the business world (although even there an ability to pause, evaluate, and change direction are necessary), but in our fully public schools that focus has to be tempered by full awareness of and a degree of deference to the overlapping and sometimes in conflict constituencies that oversee, fund, and participate in our schools.
This is trickier than most expect. A typical school district looks like a highly integrated, top down system of management that is mostly analogous to a corporate structure. You have an elected school board (corporate board elected by shareholders) that hires a superintendent of schools (CEO) who is then responsible for hiring various central office administrators (corporate vice presidents and other chief officers) and school administrators (upper and management) who in turn hire and manage classroom teachers (customer contact personnel). From the outside it looks very neat and corporate with an easy flow of directives from the top of the organization all the way down to the classroom, but the reality is far more complicated than that and of necessity. When Karl Weick analyzed the concept of “loosely coupled systems” he used educational organizations as a clear exemplar precisely because tight top down control is not truly compatible with how schools and school systems work, which actually lends a number of clear advantages to the system. Within the loosely coupled system, different elements of the organization are connected to each other, but each retains significant individual identity and may only influence the behavior of the others indirectly.
A result of this is how different relationships and associations that exist outside of the formal organizational chart of the school system can exert a great deal of influence upon how the school system responds to needs both inside the school and within the community. Phil Cusick explains how this operates in his 1993 work, The School System: Its Nature and Logic:
Of the different types of associations in the system, the primary is the designation of the formal organization’s participants according to role and status…..
A second type of association in the personal but purposeful relations among those with formal designation and within the formal system….Each chapter in this book reveals participants deciding how they will behave and seeking out colleagues inside the organization with whom to act out their decisions. The formal organization is filled with these personal and purposeful associations, too numerous to be formally recognized, which operate inside and drive the organization.
The third type of association consists of those that join people inside with people outside the schools. The system is replete with freestanding, single purpose associations that include parents, students, policymakers, critics, change agents, teachers, and administrators, combining their efforts to achieve some end. These are the most interesting, because they reveal the breadth of the system and thereby justify the assertion that the system extends far beyond the schools….
…Not only do those outside seek to influence those inside. Those inside and those outside are part of the same system. They adhere to the same principles of free conscience and free association, and they join efforts and act out their visions of education in the same arena. This constant shifting into multiple and overlapping groups and groups into coalitions is what makes school board politics, as described by Cuban (1975), so entertaining. It is also why school administrators tend to be cautious and to regard their communities warily. Their authority is always open to challenge by one or another group: either one of the system’s recognized groups or a group organized for the purpose of opposing an administrative action. (pp. 219-221)
To be certain, such associations have not always protected students’ interests, especially students in the Jim Crow era where local “interests” maintained White Supremacism, but powerful associations of advocates for children of color, for students with disabilities, for gender equality, and for LGBT students have used these same mechanisms to influence change at every level of the system. The weakness of Dr. King and of many of today’s reform advocates in understanding and navigating these systems should be apparent, and their general surprise at the backlashes they have faced further indicates their lack of understanding of the how the system operates. Bill Gates himself openly admitted “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has the responsibility for the school system.” That may have been expedient in pushing his favored reforms from the top into schools, but it has pretty well failed to win over lawmakers, teachers, and parent constituencies who still operate within a system that provides them with the means to influence the direction of policy and have a say in outcomes.
Gates is occasionally able to admit that he was mistaken in an area he intended to reform, but he seems oddly incapable of grappling with why those efforts founder. It seems evident that he has spent precious little time trying to actually understand how public education functions at either the organization or system level. Similarly, reform advocates who get Gates support, such as John King, often have extremely limited experience with the majority of the education system and seem absolutely flustered when it does not respond like the tightly controlled systems they prefer.
This does not mean, of course, that people with extensive experience in the education system will reject the reforms embraced by Gates and his beneficiaries. Dr. King’s successor in New York State is Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and she has precisely the kind of biography that would teach one how to operate a statewide school system – and she is as dedicated to common standards and mass standardized testing as anyone in the country. That’s a talent set that seems in short supply on the reform side of the debate, and until they stop acting as if public input is something that can be bullied out of the way or papered over with slick ad and social media campaigns, they will continue to lurch about our schools, running into growing opposition to their priorities.