State education commissioner exits with Common Core as his legacy, for better or for worse

Dec 22, 2014

The state is losing its education commissioner, as John King takes a job with the Obama administration. King was in charge of school policies during a tumultuous time, and he admits there are things he could have done better.

King is leaving after five and a half years to become assistant U.S. education secretary under Arne Duncan. In an interview with public radio and TV, King says he hopes his legacy in New York will be his intense focus on getting the Common Core learning standards push started in the state.

“I’m most proud of the work we’ve done to raise standards,” King said. “It’s certainly been challenging .”

His efforts were controversial, as parents, students and teachers rebelled, complaining that the volume of new tests were overwhelming and that the state education department had not done its job in helping teachers with the necessary support materials. The governor and legislature stepped in and imposed a two-year moratorium on the effects of the Common Core.

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, says King was courageous to press for higher standards and his ideas were thoughtful, but he lacked the ability to bring people along with him.

“I think that was his downfall,” Kremer said.

King says in retrospect he could have done more to get teachers, students, and their parents on board, and would have liked state funds and commitments from school districts to help parents understand how the new standards were different and how the curriculum was changing. But he says he really has the opposite concern.

"I worry not that we’re moving too quickly, but that we’re moving too slowly to get to higher standards,” King said.

King, in his final days on the job, received a letter from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the governor also released to the media. It was not the typical note thanking King for his service and wishing him luck in the new job.

Instead, the governor demanded that King offer candid thoughts on how to significantly change education policy before he leaves. Cuomo asked why recent teacher evaluations show 99 percent of teachers ranked highly, while two-thirds of third through eighth graders essentially failed the new Common Core related tests in math and English.  

“It is incredible to believe that is an accurate reflection of the state of education in New York,” Cuomo said.

King agrees that the present teacher evaluation system is not working.

“That’s a problem and it requires a change in the law,” King said. “We’re certainly supportive of the governor moving forward to change that law.”

Commissioner King, in one of his final actions, endorsed the state Board of Regents request for $2 billion in additional school aid in the 2015 budget. He says poorer schools with a more meager property tax base need more funds from the state to help their students learn and compete in the global economy.