Tuesday, October 13, 2015

John King's Problem

The Washington Post put Lindsey Layton and Emma Brown together to create a profile of John King, former NY Ed Chieftain and future US Ed Department Temporary Faux Secretary. It's worth reading as a compendium of what many sources have already said about King.

There is apparently some sort of federal regulation saying that if one writes about King, one must treat his personal story as The Central Thing To Know about John King, and Brown, Layton, and the headine writer have observed that law assiduously. They also repeat some of the success claims for King's Uncommon School charters uncritically, but the profile is worth reading. I just want to focus on two quotes from it because they capture perfectly what I find so weirdly disconnected about King.

First, King's oft-mentioned reference to teachers saving his life as a boy:

One of them was Alan Osterweil at P.S. 276 in Brooklyn, who encouraged King to read the New York Times and Shakespeare in elementary school. “He was sort of a crazy guy — an ex-hippie who wore two-inch platform shoes,” King wrote in the Huffington Post in 2009. “But he was an amazing teacher.”

King was in Mr. Osterweil’s fourth-grade class when his mother, a Puerto Rico native and public school teacher, died of a heart attack. “The next morning, the only thing I insisted I wanted to do was go to school, your classroom,” King told Osterweil in an interview for the oral history project StoryCorps. “It felt like the most comfortable place to be.”

And now, looking at his implementation of standards and tests in New York:

Teachers said they didn’t have the training or materials to teach what children needed to know. They also felt pressure to raise scores to protect their jobs, and parents said that their children were bearing the brunt of that pressure as schools devoted more time and resources to test prep...

He also refused to slow down, saying that the pace of change was warranted given the numbers of children who were graduating without the skills they needed, or were not graduating at all.

This is what I find incomprehensible about King-- how he completely fails to make a connection between a formative experience that shaped him, and the experiences that he is shaping for students today. How could Mr. Osterweil's classroom possibly have survived Adult John King's reforms? I have no doubt that New York is still filled with teachers who would accommodate, welcome, and care for a small child whose mother had died just last night-- but for them it would have to be an act of rebellion to say, "Screw the pacing guide and the standards requirement and the canned test prep. Let's just make sure this classroom is a safe, welcoming, and supportive place."

I imagine Young John King arriving at the classroom where Adult John King stands behind Mr. Osterweil saying, "You can't slow down. You must maintain pace."

I just don't get it. And I don't get how John King doesn't get it, either.


  1. Our former state superintendent, who was all about the stringent 3rd grade reading tests ("Between 3rd and 4th grade, students stop learning to read and start reading to learn" was the mantra) and holding kids back until they'd mastered the dictates of the state, gave an interview in which she told the story of one of her sons who struggled in school. He was a slow reader, but not held back, and thanks to the patience of his teachers and a commitment to keep him engaged and encouraged, eventually things started to click and by High School he was reading on grade level, then above, and now he's a nuclear physicist or some such thing.

    THEREFORE, she explained, we must be dogmatic and inflexible about 3rd grade reading tests.

    I could never get over the complete disconnect between the obvious point of her very personal story and what she thought it proved.

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