The absence of a consistent federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a severe setback to the education of Black and Brown students in school districts around the country.
The charge isn’t new, but the person making it brings a particularly informed perspective to the topic.
“There is no other way to say it – this has been devastating for children of color,” said John B. King, Jr. (Ed.D. ’08, M.A.’97,), who served as U.S. Secretary of Education during the final year of the Obama administration and is now President and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families.
The Study of Inequality: Dr. John B. King, Jr., with Provost and Dean Stephanie J. Rowley
The views expressed in this video are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.
King, who also served as New York State Education Commissioner from 2011-14, shared his thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with TC Provost and Dean Stephanie Rowley that headlined “The Study of Inequality,” a special interdisciplinary program anchoring TC’s 2020 virtual New Student Orientation.
There is no other way to say it – this has been devastating for children of color.
Responding to a series of questions from Rowley, King commented on issues ranging from slavery and a justification for national reparations to educational inequity and the pandemic-induced transition to distance learning that, he contended, ignored the nation’s most disadvantaged students.
“We literally had the schoolhouse door barred for kids because they didn’t have internet access,” said King, who cited data showing that just 66 percent of Black students and barely half of LatinX students reside in homes served by the internet, while 79 percent of White students have home internet access.
The technology gap is just one adverse educational impact of economic disparities that has been magnified during the pandemic, King said. For example, with just one in five Black and one in six Latino wage earners able to work from home, most parents of color have been unable to provide direct, daily support to their school-aged children.
Then, too, King said, children of color have also been disproportionately affected by COVID’s social-emotional toll, which includes higher death rates in their communities, increased food insecurity and, concurrently with the pandemic, the police shootings of unarmed Black Americans. He also argued that any assessment of how minority students performed during the final months of the 2019-20 school year should recognize the largely inferior quality of education that many were receiving prior to the onset of the pandemic.
We literally had the schoolhouse door barred for kids because they didn’t have internet access.
In sum, “we have to do more to look at systems at a moment of reckoning on issues of social justice,” King said. He expressed hope that reforms generated by the broader racial awakening spurred by police violence against people of color will include a focus on education — and, in particular, on incorporating minority faces and voices.
For example, research shows that being taught by a Black elementary teacher significantly increases the odds that a Black child will graduate high school and pursue a college degree, King said — but the U.S. teaching workforce remains overwhelmingly White, and only two percent of all teachers are Black males. And that same dynamic extends to what’s being taught.
“Kids need to see mirrors of themselves in the narratives, authors and texts that they read,” said King, who is of African American and Puerto Rican descent. “If they are not, then we are not addressing their social-emotional well-being.
Kids need to see mirrors of themselves in the narratives, authors and texts that they read. If they are not, then we are not addressing their social-emotional well-being.
“A school that is not doing these things but spending a half hour every day on mindfulness is not making a real commitment to the social development of kids,” he added. “To do so effectively demands a focus on racial equity and may require leadership to examine things like implicit bias. It’s difficult, but we have to do that work.”
King’s perspective on social and emotional issues reflects his own experiences growing up. The son of a New York City school public school administrator and a school guidance counselor, he lost his both his parents by the time he was 12, and survived a turbulent adolescence during which he was expelled from the prestigious Phillips Andover school. He later earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard, his law degree from Yale and, from Teachers College, his doctorate in Inquiry in Educational/Administration Practice within the Department of Organization & Leadership and his master’s degree in the Teaching of Social Studies within the Department of Arts & Humanities.
As an adult educator and parent, King also has sought to model the kind of engagement with the nation’s racial history that he wants schools to pursue. Last year, in a visit chronicled by The Washington Post, King, his wife and their teenaged children visited the 190-acre Maryland farm still owned by the descendants of Thomas Griffith, who enslaved King’s ancestors.
“It was quite a powerful experience to stand in a cabin with my daughter, the same place where my great-great grandfather and his family were enslaved,” King told Rowley.
[Read The Washington Post’s account of King’s visit.]
For King, the pilgrimage yielded an equally visceral takeaway about the roots of current economic and educational imbalance — disparities so stark that a 2017 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that Black Boston residents have a median wealth of $8 compared to a median wealth of $240,000 among white Boston residents.
“I know,” King said of that statistic. “I had to look at it twice.”
The racial wealth gap, he told Rowley, serves as a vivid reminder that the “American story is a legacy of slavery and, for me, reparations are about taking active steps to dismantle systemic racism.”
Rowley also probed King's past support for charter schools and standardized testing, stances that drew fire from many supporters of public education.
“Charters create an option within the public-school sector, particularly for parents of young children of color who may not have another choice,” said King, who, early in his career, co-founded and served as Managing Director of Uncommon Schools, one of the nation’s most successful charter school management organizations.
Still, he noted that “charters mean different things in different states” and acknowledged that the credibility of charters in the eyes of the public and lawmakers suffers from a lack of uniformity in policy, governance, structure and pedagogical models.
We’ve been going in the wrong direction. And looking at standards alone cannot address the changes we need.
King said of standardized testing that "an honest assessment of where students stand is important" but allowed that test scores often fail to account for federal, state and local investment in building capacity, developing high-quality curriculum, faculty diversification and professional development.
Furthermore, he said, reliance upon the standardized test scores of children of color ignores the fact that “as a country we still have not grappled with the fundamental questions of Brown v. Board of Education,” the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that struck down legalized school desegregation. “In fact, many schools around the country are more segregated by race and class than they were years ago.”
To address some of these issues, The Education Trust, together with the National Women’s Law Center, recently released a guide that urges school, district, and state leaders to reimagine school safety in ways that dismantle exclusionary discipline policies and practices that create hostile learning environments and derail learning for countless Black, Latina, and Native students around the country. The guide, “…And They Cared”: How to Create Better, Safer Learning Environments for Girls of Color, provides actionable guidance, grounded in student voices and informed by real-world examples. It also couples research findings with in-depth looks at notable progress two districts (Chicago and Oakland) and one state (Massachusetts) are making in addressing racial and gender disparities in student discipline, resulting in better schools for all students.
“We’ve been going in the wrong direction,” King told Rowley. “And looking at standards alone cannot address the changes we need.”