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Exclusive Interview with Dr. John King Jr., NYS Education Commissioner

Publishers of Education Update Pola Rosen and Adam Sugerman met with and interviewed New York State Department of Education Commissioner John King at the DOE’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): There’s been an ongoing controversy in our nation between establishing charter schools and eliminating failing schools. You were a very successful leader of a charter school in Boston, and you were the recipient of a public school education as well. What do you think of that controversy, and what is your position?

Dr. John King (JK): I’m most committed to having excellent schools, whether they’re charter schools or district schools. I think the question for our state is, how do you make sure that every child has the opportunity to go to an excellent school, regardless of that child’s zip code. We need to look very closely at where the strengths of those charter schools that are excelling, and those district schools that are excelling. They have similar strengths: they have excellent teachers, an enriching curriculum that not only gives students the basic skills they need but also includes rich social studies, science, the arts, athletics and enrichment opportunities. Our struggling or high-needs students often need a longer school day or longer school year. They’re often schools where there’s great attention to student work and student performance. Teachers are always asking themselves, how do I help students get better? They’re schools that engage families and communities, supporting students’ academic and social development.

I’m much less concerned about the governance structure of the school and more concerned about whether or not the school is delivering those things for students and families.

PR: If a school is not delivering and is not performing, what do you do?

JK: Sometimes there are schools that need to close, and it’s clear that sometimes the culture of the school can become so dysfunctional that it’s almost impossible to get the school back on track. But I think oftentimes there are schools that are struggling and that, with the right support, the school can get back on track. The challenge is trying to figure out which category each school falls into.

Adam Sugerman (AS): When should you intervene if needed?

JK: It’s important to intervene before things fall off the cliff. Sometimes because of enrollment patterns, you see a school where the performance is struggling, the school gets a reputation in the community as a school that’s struggling, they’re under-enrolled so they don’t have the resources to create new programs and improve performance — you get into a downward spiral. So, as soon as the school is at risk, we have to think of the supports to help that school.

One of the weaknesses to how we’ve approached educational reform over the past decade is we’ve had a focus on high accountability, but low support. It’s an environment where people tend to cut corners and people tend to get angry and frustrated. What I’d like to see is an environment of high accountability and high support, so people know they’re accountable for their performance, but also know they’re going to get the help, support and coaching they need.

PR: Bloomberg News reported that there will be $4.4 billion flowing into New York state from several big companies, including Intel, IBM and Samsung, among others. Governor Andrew Cuomo said this will create thousands of jobs. Could you expand on what kinds of jobs we can expect?

JK: The challenge is, will we have the workforce ready for those jobs? One of the things that’s very worrisome is that when we look at the college readiness of our high school graduates, it’s not where it needs to be. We graduate about 73 percent of our students from high school, yet when we look at how many of those students are college- and career-ready, we think the number is more like 37 percent. Statewide in our two-year schools, over 40 percent of students are enrolled in remedial courses. In the city, in CUNY, 75 percent of students are in remedial courses. We have lots of students who are graduating, but they’re actually not ready to do work at the next level. Many technical jobs require some post-secondary training. We’ve got a lot of work to do to ensure that our schools are graduating students who are truly college- and career-ready.

PR: Is there a resource we can use to see what the jobs of the 21st century are?

JK: We’re building toward that. We just launched a new Web site for the department called engageny.org. We’ve got over a dozen hours of professional development video on the common core. It describes how instruction needs to change at the classroom level to help students be successful. What does math that ensures students will be ready for college and careers look like? We’re going to use our Race to the Top money to build curriculum in English language arts that provides resources at every grade level for all students for a wide range of skill levels. We’ll also build a math curriculum for the full range of students, K through 12. What we’re hoping is to have resources on our Web site that teachers can turn around and use in their classroom.

PR: Education Update visited Occupy Wall Street and we spoke to many students. Some were undergraduates, two were from community colleges, one was a graduate student. The major problem they were all having was: No. 1, we can’t pay back our student loans; No. 2, I don’t know what kind of job to get; No 3, I’ve applied for 150 jobs and nobody called me back. What are these young people supposed to do?

JK: I think unfortunately we have a mismatch between the skills that students have and the jobs that are available. It’s actually shocking: the jobs that are unfilled in technical careers just don’t have the people prepared with the right skills. One of the things we’ve got to get better at doing is ensuring that high schools are exposing students to some of the career and technical opportunities. I was at Aviation High School in Queens recently, where you’ve got an actual hangar in the school, where students are working on repairing planes. These students are very clear on what they’ll be able to do — they’re getting real skills and there’s a whole set of jobs across the country that are ready and waiting for them.

One of the things we struggle with in teaching is that so many undergraduates are enrolled in programs that will lead to childhood certification — we have too many with childhood certification and not enough jobs. What we don’t have are bilingual teachers, ESL teachers, math and science teachers at the high school level. What we need to do is to look at what the job market actually has and take those extra classes to get that bilingual or ESL certification.

AS: How would you encourage more parents to get involved in their child’s education?

JK: Part of it is making school accessible to families. We’re constantly looking for opportunities to get families engaged in the academic and social life of the school. Middle school parents often feel that now my kid is too old for me to read to them. But in middle school you can actually read with your child. You can read the New York Times together.

AS: Some families home school their kids, because they don’t feel the school is a safe environment for their children. Also bullying is a very big issue. Can you propose anything that would alleviate these problems?

JK: Sure. It’s a huge challenge. The key is that principals and teachers need to create a culture that is safe and supportive for students. One of the keys is helping them have the skills to create that kind of culture. One of the things we’re trying to change about principal and teacher preparation is to teach how to create the right kind of school culture; that should be part of how we prepare teachers and principals. As a principal you have to think about the norms that you’re going to create for how we walk in the hall, how we talk to our peers, how we solve problems. Teachers can also set that tone.

PR: If you could change one thing about your own education, what would that be?

JK: I can’t really think of something that I would change. I feel very blessed by the education that I had. In difficult periods of my personal life, school was this safe, rigorous, enriching place that was a sanctuary from some of the things that were going on outside of school. I had teachers at P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Jr. High School in Coney Island that are the reason I’m here today. It’s really the reason I’m doing this job. #



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