John King on the Way to DC: A Time to Reconsider and Rethink the Path to More Effective Teaching and Learning

Commissioner John King will be leaving his position and moving to a top level position at the US Department of Education in Washington DC.

The NY Daily News quotes both Chancellor Tisch, in her praise of the Commissioner,

“John King has been a remarkable leader in a time of true reform,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “He spent every moment working to open the doors of opportunity for all our students – regardless of their race, or zip code, or their immigration status.

“John has transformed teaching and learning, raising the bar for students and helping them clear that bar. In classrooms all across the state, teachers and students are rising to the challenge of higher standards. The positive impact of John King’s work in New York will be felt for generations. We’ll miss his wisdom, his calm leadership and his remarkable courage. But New York’s loss is the country’s gain. He’ll be a powerful force for educational opportunity in Washington.”

As well as the state teacher union, who was sharply at odds with the Commissioner on a wide range of issues.

“The disconnect between the commissioner’s vision and what parents, educators and students want for their public education system became so great, NYSUT voted ‘no confidence’ in Commissioner King last spring and called for his resignation,” the union said in a statement. “We hope he has learned from his stormy tenure in New York state and look forward to working collaboratively and productively with the Regents to improve public education going forward.”

If you are reader of these pages you know that I have been a frequent critic of the commissioner, not his goals, I have been critical of the path, and the lack of dialogue and transparency.

Unfortunately on too many occasions the opposition to the Commissioner has become ugly. The behavior at some of the open parent meetings last fall was disgraceful. I wonder if the Commissioner was “older and whiter” the reaction would have been the same?

My wife, an Afro-American woman from a single parent household won the Westchester Vassar Club scholarship; at her public high school she took four years of Latin and was considering a career in classical music; when she tried to sign up for a German class at Vassar she was told Afro-Americans were genetically incapable of learning German,

A generation later at an elite Northeastern college my son was told he only got into college because he was an athlete, after all a black male couldn’t get into otherwise (PS: Division 3 schools don’t offer athletic scholarships).

I’ve seen brilliant women treated in a demeaning manner by older men.

In spite decades of progress, race, gender and class are the subtext of every conversation, and the lack of civility, especially on the Internet is disturbing.

One of the most complex and difficult tasks is personal and organizational change – a basic change principle is that people view change as punishment. The Commissioner plunged headlong into a sea change: the Common Core Standards, the Common Core tests, teacher evaluation, the new college pre-service exams (edTPA) all require enormous changes, and, without adequate preparation.

Reformers, like the Commissioner, are aficionados of disruptive change theory, the theory espoused by Clayton Christensen

… disruptive innovation circumvents the political battles that have historically been at the center stage of education reform. Existing policies tend to favor the incumbent system, and hence changing those policies requires battling with those incumbents in the political arena. In contrast, disruptive innovations take root in areas outside the domain of the incumbents. Instead of challenging the status quo head-on, disruptive innovations take root and grow outside the purview of the incumbent system. They then improve independently over time until they begin to organically draw people away from the status quo. At that point, policies shift naturally to accommodate the highly-sought-after disruptive technology.

Charter schools are at the core of disruptive education theory, as well as moving ahead as quickly as possible before the “incumbents” can organize and fight the innovations.

In my view the Commissioner chose the wrong path, search and destroy is not the path that I believe leads to better outcomes for children. It ignores a reality, disruptive policies evoke resistance, at some point the change agent, the disrupter is sacrificed.

Phasing in the Common Core over a number of years, holding principals and teachers “save harmless,” until they feel comfortable with the new processes; the difficult work of working with parents, teachers and principals, working to achieve buy in brings change that is embraced by stakeholders. Transparency in the policy-building phase, a wide variety of contradictory voices is healthy noise; building a core of believers embeds change.

I don’t know whether the earlier grades of the Common Core is “developmentally inappropriate,” I’m not a math expert; however, bringing younger and older math experts into a room and facilitating a discussion leads to outcomes that are widely accepted in classrooms. Sitting around a teacher’s room and bitching and complaining are corrosive, and that is exactly what the current policies have achieved.

The disrupters created a movement, not a movement to facilitate change, a movement to defend the objects of the changes; for many it was a movement to defend the status quo, whether the status quo was a positive or a negative.

Teachers working collaboratively in a facilitated setting promotes new ideas, new protocols, and excites teachers. I watched English teachers in a school meet together once a week, they debated, discussed, they created a “drop box” with lesson plans and rubrics and, as English teachers love to do, worked together to decide on the readings. They had absolutely no problem was the Common core because they owned their practice.

I wish the commissioner well in his new endeavors and suggest, now that he’s in Washington, breakfast with Randi Weingarten once a week.


3 responses to “John King on the Way to DC: A Time to Reconsider and Rethink the Path to More Effective Teaching and Learning

  1. Better late then never!


  2. “He spent every moment working to open the doors of opportunity for all our students – regardless of their race, or zip code, or their immigration status.”

    Does John King (in addition to Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, The Waltons, etc) actually think that closing down transparent, democratically run public schools that—by law—CAN NOT turn any student away, and replacing those schools with opaque, profit motivated corporate Charters that are free to turn any student away—-mostly the students King claims that he worked so hard to open doors of opportunity for—-is going to achieve what he claimed?

    My old friend that I’ve known for about sixty years says that this change will be good for the country in time but we will have to suffer until the trickle down effect works and offers opportunists for children who live in poverty and are minorities. He says the best way to do that is shrink government, get rid of public pensions, turn over public jobs to the private sector ….

    And when I challenge him to prove to me that this has happened in other countries and worked, he never responds because there is no evidence that it has ever worked anywhere.

    This “disruptive innovation” is based on theories that have never been tested and proven to work. If they fail, as I think they will, an era of suffering by the many will be ushered in that will be difficult to reverse, becasue there will be no reason for the few to go along and they will hold the power supported by the police and military to force the many to comply because in time, they will keep promising, the property (that never arrives) will appear for everyone. All we have to do—-they will claim—-is give the 1% enough time to hold 99.99999% of the wealth for the promise to appear for everyone else.


  3. I believe King is a small stone in the defensive wall policymakers are erecting to defend the real status quo. Schools have not failed us, our “leaders” have.


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