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John King: ESSA Has Risks, Opportunities for Poor and Minority Students



The new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and districts that want to push towards equity more flexibility to realize their vision—but there are also potential soft spots that could stall efforts to close the achievement gap if communities aren't careful, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King told a roomful of mayors.

ESSA, King said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Wednesday, "provides schools with new tools, but it also presents risks."

On the "tools" side of the ledger, King touted two programs in the law that are aimed at ensuring students are ready to learn: Preschool Development Grants (which help states expand early-childhood programs) and a program similar to Promise Neighborhoods (an Obama administration program that helps schools pair academics with wraparound services, such as health).

Getting further into the policy weeds, King said he's heartened that ESSA, the latest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires states to look beyond test scores and incorporate other measures of student achievement. That means states can consider access to advanced coursework for low-income students, access to arts and music education, and chronic absenteeism when rating their schools. 

But the law also allows states to come up with their own set of indicators—opening the door, some civil rights advocates fear, to metrics that could make nearly every school look good, or obscure gaps between low-income and minority students and their more-advantaged peers. 

"There's an opportunity for states to adopt accountability systems that are equity-advancing," King  said. "But there's also risk those new indicators will be used to distract from core [questions] of whether or not schools are delivering on their responsibility to educate students." 

And the new law gives states and districts the leeway to develop their own interventions for schools that are in the bottom 5 percent of performers, those where more than one third of students don't graduate, and schools where historically overlooked groups of students are struggling.

King urged the mayors to make sure these interventions are "meaningful."

"We need to make sure that states are aggressive and leaning forward in trying to support the schools that are struggling the most," he said. "We can't allow the intervention requirements to become just a bureaucratic compliance strategy."

He gave examples of remedies that he thinks could really make a difference, including the early-education and wraparound-service programs, or an intervention with research to back it up that's aimed at a particular group of students, such as English-language learners.  

King did not explicitly suggest any of the strategies that characterized the Obama administration's early approach to turnaround, like closing a school, turning it into a charter, or making sweeping staff cuts. Those ideas were highly controversial and had a mixed record of success.

Integration and Resources

And King hit on an issue that many wished his predecessor, Arne Duncan, had touched on more often: the need to better integrate schools.

"I think this question of socioeconomic integration is bound up with the question of resources in schools, " King said. Integration, he said, can help ensure that all students have access to the same kinds of programs and resources.

"When you go many places in this country, it's hard to find an affluent suburban school that isn't offering art and music and technology," he said. "But then two miles away, sometimes two blocks away ... you have a school that doesn't have any of that. We need to see that as a community we all have a stake in every child."

King also told mayors to pay attention to another factor that can exacerbate resource inequities—state and local school finance systems that don't adequately serve the neediest schools.

And, in response to a question from the audience, King said career and technical education can help re-engage students who have dropped out of school, since they'll see an immediate connection between their coursework and potential employment.

Striking a more personal note, King, who is half Puerto Rican and half African-American, kicked off his speech with a nod to his own struggles as a recently orphaned teenager. And, as he has in other settings and interviews, he credited his teachers with "saving my life.

He said he's the first education secretary to have been expelled from school. "But I believe in second chances," he said. "So I may not be the last." 

Education Secretary John King Jr. listens as President Barack Obama answers questions from members of the media at the White House in October.
--Andrew Harnik/AP-File

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