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John B. King Jr.: ‘Teachers Saw Opportunity and Saved My Life’

By Kristin Bull

When he was 12 years old and had lost both parents to illness, teachers in New York City Public Schools saved John B. King Jr.’s life.

The former U.S. Secretary of Education and president and CEO of The Education Trust told his life story in a keynote address to Mackinac Policy Conference attendees to illustrate the potential for Michigan’s education system.

King remembered that as a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grader attending school in New York City, teachers made school engaging and compelling. They had him read The New York Times every day and perform in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“They made the classroom a place where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid outside of class,” King said. “They could have looked at me as an African-American and Latino and they could have given up on me. Instead, they saw opportunity and invested in me.”

It’s this opportunity and investment that are keys to putting Michigan on a trajectory to improve education across the state.

“Are we on a trajectory to go up together or a trajectory to go down together?” King asked throughout his address, which was followed by an on-stage interview with Paul W. Smith, host of WJR NewsTalk 760 AM.

Key Takeaways:

  • White students in Michigan are three times as likely as black students to be proficient in reading. King said, white students are not a reliable benchmark in any subject or any grade, since the state lags behind the nation at all levels of education.
  • Numerous states and cities have turned around their education systems under a common denominator of collaboration. Massachusetts, for instance, relied on a coalition of business and civil rights leaders to focus on accountability in funding.
  • King started a charter school, one that he said ultimately became the highest performing urban school in the state. The key to charter schools, he said, is a willingness to close those that aren’t performing.
  • King cautioned against “promise” programs that offer free community college to high school graduates. “It’s powerful to stand up and say to kids, ‘Everyone in this class will go to college and it will be paid for.’” But King warned that there needs to be attention paid to the other supports students need — i.e. counseling, additional financial aid — and with making sure promise programs are designed with attention to college completion.