Dr. John King, president and CEO of The Education Trust, served as the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education, under President Obama. Here's why he says education saved his life -- and why addressing "unfinished learning" is at the heard to the education, opportunity, and equity gaps.

John King: How to Tackle ‘Unfinished Learning’

(This conversation is part of The 180, the Turnaround for Children podcast that explores how to transform 21st Century education – how to turn it around – using 21st Century science.)

Education is among the highest stated priorities right out of the gate for the new administration. Besides the obvious–getting students and teachers back to school safely and quickly–major challenges remain around what some call “unfinished learning” and others call “learning loss.” These challenges have been revealed and exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as enduring and systemic questions of how to address gaps in equity, race, funding, and opportunity, and the best ways to integrate lessons from the science of learning and development in reimagining education in America.

With each issue so urgent and so connected, how should the Department of Education prioritize them? Further, what exactly can a federal Department of Education do?

To find out, I spoke with John B. King, Jr., our nation’s 10th Secretary of Education, who served under President Obama. King has dedicated his career to education. His parents were New York City public school teachers. He taught high school social studies and served as a middle school principal. Today, King is president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps, from preschool through college.


Chris Riback: John, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

John King: Looking forward to the conversation.

Chris Riback: As we’re having this conversation, Miguel Cardona is still in the confirmation process as education secretary. Of course, that’s a role that you know well. At the highest level, are you thinking, “Wow. He’s a lucky fellow,” and this job is so much easier today than when you had it or is it just the opposite, better him than you dealing with it now?

John King: Well, that job is a privilege for anyone to hold. It’s an important public trust. The Education Department is really a civil rights agency with a huge responsibility to advance equity, and so I have tremendous respect for the challenges that Miguel confronts.

There’s no question that COVID has had extraordinary negative impact on kids, families, schools, higher ed institutions, and he’s going to have to navigate all of that, and that is the most challenging context perhaps for anyone entering into that role since the department was created. We’ve got kids who haven’t been in classrooms since last March. We’ve got huge equity implications, kids who haven’t been able to access the internet because of inequities in bandwidth. And so, they’ve been without learning. They’ve been without all those important relationships with peers and teachers. You have school districts and higher ed institutions that are facing real dire financial threats given the impact of COVID on the economy. So, he’s got a lot to sort through when he walks through the door.

Chris Riback: What priorities will and, in your estimation, should the administration come out of the gate with? And how do you prioritize when everything, it seems, is so urgent?

John King: Yes. That is a huge dilemma. I’d say, look, there are three things that I’d put at the top of the list. One is we have got to get safely back to school. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure we prioritize teachers for the vaccine, that we get in place a comprehensive system of testing and contact tracing, that we address any of the ventilation issues that school buildings have, that we put in place the right class size so folks can socially distance, that we have masks.

We know what needs to be done. We need the resources from Congress to do it, and then we will need the leadership from the department to help our 13,000-plus school districts get in place the measures necessary to safely reopen. That’s going to be at the top of the list. We know we’re losing ground academically. We know kids are suffering through the socio-emotional isolation. So, we have got to do that. That’s number one.

Two, as you say, COVID has exacerbated, and for some revealed, dire equity gaps that existed before COVID. We need a robust response to that. President Biden talked about during the campaign about tripling Title I funding. That’s the main federal funding source that goes to schools serving kids in poverty. That’d be a good start. But, we need a comprehensive strategy to improve opportunities for our most vulnerable young people.

And then third, for our long-term economic competitiveness, kids need more than just a high school diploma. Doesn’t mean everyone needs a four-year degree, but they need either a four-year degree, or a two-year degree, or a meaningful career credential. And we have not as a country made the necessary investments to make that accessible to all of our young people. So, that’s got to be a top priority, making sure that we make post-secondary education affordable, accessible, and that we support students once they get there so that they don’t just start but actually finish those post-secondary credentials and degrees.

Chris Riback: In listening to you, I’m wondering if there’s not a theme that underlies all of them. You’re talking about safely getting kids and teachers back to school. You’re talking about improving the opportunities within the schools, and then this access to post-secondary opportunity as well. I hear you thinking and talking perhaps about equity in education. So first of all, am I hearing you right, underlying these ideas, is there a sense that equity in education needs to be enhanced? And two, how would you define equity in education? How would you want and how do you want Americans to think about equity in a robust way?

John King: I think we ought to think about education as a fundamental civil right, a fundamental human right, and we should want for every child what we would want for our own, for them to have an education that will allow them to be successful in college, in careers, as citizens, and to be happy, well-adjusted adults. If we think about that as our mission, then we have to do that for not just our affluent students, not just our white students, we have to ensure that those opportunities are available for low-income students, in our cities and high-needs rural communities, for kids who are growing up on Native American reservations, for kids who are English learners.

My view has always been if we ensure that the most vulnerable kids are getting a high-quality education, the educational needs of the most affluent students will be just fine. They’ll be addressed just fine. Unfortunately, as a country, our history is not great on this. We have a long history of denying educational opportunity to folks of color, to immigrant students, to students with disabilities. So, our track record is not great, but we need to do a lot better if we want to be true to our values around equality and democracy.

Chris Riback: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times, the connection between education and civil rights, education and human rights. How do you think as well about the connection between learning that goes on within a school and what happens in a community? And what role can, should the Department of Education play in connecting schools and communities and the ways in which children learn across that spectrum?

John King: This is one of those issues in education where we get into these false debates where people say, “Well, the only thing that matters is the stuff that happens outside of school and whether or not kids are in poverty and what their families are struggling with. And schools can’t do very much.” Then, you have on the other side of this debate people saying, “Schools are the only thing that matters, and we should ignore the stuff outside of school.” And of course the reality is kids and families are in both places, and we have to address needs in both places.

A few immediate things: we know that we have many children in this country who are food insecure or going hungry. So, we ought to make sure that all families have access to reliable food. We know that there are kids who are struggling with learning because they aren’t getting access to quality vision care. So of course if you don’t have the appropriate glasses, if you can’t see the board or read the book, of course you’re going to struggle in school.

Now, there’s an effort around community schools where you might partner schools, particularly in high-needs communities, with health care providers, with mental health service providers, with other community-based organizations to address some of these outside-of-school challenges. That I think is very promising. At the same time, of course, you have to make sure school is good. Kids need to be engaged in class. They need to be reading, and writing, and doing math problems, solving, doing science experiments, and learning about history. So, we shouldn’t have to choose. We should make the academics rich and engaging, and we should make sure that families have access to robust services.

Chris Riback: Let’s talk a little bit about the realities around that. This might provide a chance to segue to the Education Trust. Your mission is to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps. How would you describe the opportunity, the achievement gaps because so many different people can look at that and define it on their own terms?

John King: Sure.

Chris Riback: What are your terms?

John King: Sure. And look, we worry a lot that … If you look at the data for higher education, Black and Latino students are underrepresented amongst college students. They are underrepresented amongst college graduates. If you look at high school graduation, Black and Latino students, English learners, students with disabilities, significantly less likely to graduate than their white, more affluent peers in the general education programs.

What you see is those attainment gaps. You also see gaps in academics, whether you look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or state tests, or advanced placement courses, students of color aren’t getting those same opportunities that their white peers are getting. Low-income students aren’t getting the same opportunities as their affluent peers. What we try to argue is these gaps in attainment and achievement are tied to what resources were available in the first place. Were students getting access to well-prepared, diverse educators? Were students getting access to high-quality, evidence-based curricula? Were students getting access to advanced coursework opportunities? Were students getting access even to school counselors?

You know one shocking statistic, 1.7 million kids go to a school where there’s a sworn law enforcement officer but no school counselor. How do we do that? How is it that we as a society have made that choice? So when you deny students opportunity, of course you get these achievement and attainment gaps.

Chris Riback: What’s so interesting about that as well is you know the argument for the armed officer. We got to keep the students safe. It’s about safety. But, couldn’t the same argument be made about a school counselor? I mean, what is safety? What does it mean to keep a child safe?

John King: That’s exactly right. Right. Where is the attention to emotional safety, to emotional well-being? And the reality is we make these choices differently when it’s other people’s children. There’s no affluent community where they would say, “No, no. We don’t need a school counselor. Just give us a school resource officer.” Just wouldn’t happen. But, that judgment is made for somebody else’s kid.

Chris Riback: Who’s making those choices? And what would you advocate to parents so that there aren’t false choices that are being set up for them?

John King: Well, when you think about school funding, only about 10% comes from the federal level. Most school funding comes from state and local government. And depending on the states, roughly, let’s say, 50% of the funding from the local level based on local property taxes, 40% from the state and then that 10% federal. So, what decisions are made by your local school board and your state legislature matter a lot for what happens in schools.

I think for the citizen, the question is, are you looking at the … Are you scrutinizing those decisions and are you looking at the data to figure out are those decisions being made in an equitable way? Are you asking, “What is the ratio of students to counselors? What is the level of access to advanced placement courses broken out by race and income? What is the high school graduation rate in each of our high schools? And what are we doing to make sure that all kids get that high school diploma? What are the racial and socioeconomic demographics of our higher education system? Are all kids getting access to those opportunities?”

You can as a citizen, I think, press your school board, your state legislator on these equity concerns. Whatever answer they give you, ask them then, “What’s your target for making it better? By when and how can I hold you accountable? Next time I see you, I’m going to ask you again. Are we making progress on these issues?”

Chris Riback: What role does race play when we say we know what’s good for other kids as opposed to our own kids?

John King: Look, we live in a society in which racial bias, unconscious bias is around us and it is something we have to work to overcome. I think it is very clear that in an affluent community, if there were water fountains that were covered over because of lead in the water and kids could never get water at school, that’d be unacceptable and action would immediately be taken to address that. But if it’s other people’s children, we allow that to continue.

It’s quite clear that in an affluent community if you said, “Well, we just don’t have advanced math and science classes here. Just not available in this high school,” that wouldn’t be allowed to stand. Affluent families would demand, they would say, “No. I want my kid to be able to become a doctor. I want my kid to be able to become an engineer. We need those classes here.” But when it’s other people’s children, we’re willing to allow that.

So to me, part of what we have to do is in a sense create on the one hand a sense of empathy that allows us to think about kids who are different from our own, racially different, linguistically different with real care and concern. But even if we can’t get to empathy, we should at least get to enlightened self-interest which is if we don’t make sure all kids have those opportunities, we can’t build walls high enough to separate our kids’ fate from theirs. We will only do as well as a country as our ability to ensure a quality education for low-income students and students of color.

Chris Riback: So the opportunity gap, the achievement gap, and now on top of it COVID. You likely saw there was a McKinsey report back in December: “COVID-19 and Learning Loss: disparities grow, and students need help.” The cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind compared with four to eight months for white students.”

Nearly every one of the data points delivers worse news in terms of opportunity gaps, the devices, the Wi-Fi, the access to live teachers. You mentioned earlier food insecurity, housing insecurity. How do all of these gaps get addressed, especially when it seems so many of them are connected?

John King: Well, look, in the wealthiest country that has ever existed on the face of the earth, these are solvable problems. What we should’ve done back in March of 2020 is committed to a robust national effort to make sure every kid had a device and every kid had internet access. And that’s achievable. We could have mobilized the way we ultimately, although too slowly, but eventually mobilized around ventilators. We could have mobilized around device and internet access. We didn’t. We chose other priorities.

So the question now for congress is, how will they invest to make sure we close this digital divide? Both to address the consequences of COVID but also to address the homework gap that existed before COVID-19 where just low-income kids had a harder time getting their work done for school because they didn’t have access to the technology.

Similarly, where we have this learning loss, or as we at Trust like to say unfinished learning, because in many cases the kids didn’t have the opportunity, we could address that. We could mobilize a national effort around a tutoring corps, for example. We have decades of evidence that high-dosage tutoring can help students make up academic ground that they’ve missed. So, let’s do that. Let’s mobilize an army of tutors around the country, have them work intensively with students, and address that six to 12 months that McKinsey described. We could. We could afford to. It’s a question of do we have the will.

Chris Riback: What is high-dosage tutoring?

John King: Ideally, what you want is for kids to get substantial, intensive time, one on one or in small groups with a tutor to address their academic needs. But, I want to be clear. It’s not just about the academics. It’s also about the relationship. One of the things we know from the science of learning is how important relationships are in building students’ resilience, particularly students who’ve been exposed to trauma or to adverse childhood experiences. We know relationships are also key to sort of unlocking kids’ enthusiasm and energy for learning.

There’s a famous saying in schools. “I won’t care what you know until I know that you care.” Relationships are critical. To me, a tutoring program well executed is a tutoring and mentoring program that builds those powerful relationships. But what we know from the evidence is that when we do create that, we can help kids make up academic ground much more quickly.

I’d also love to see us invest in summer learning opportunities. And again, what we know from the evidence is that summer learning opportunities can be quite variable in their quality. So we have to commit that they’re going to be high quality, and that doesn’t mean just academics. That means enrichment and relationship building. I want the kid who’s super excited about their theater summer program. And, oh, yes, they’re also writing about the theater that they’re doing and they’re reading texts that are connected to the play that they’re doing, and that’s going to build their academic skills. And oh yes, and they have this powerful relationship with the theater teacher that gets them excited about learning, and believing in themselves, and building a sense of community with their peers. All of that is possible in high-quality, well-executed summer learning experiences.

Chris Riback: When you’re thinking about all the things that you just described that schools need, teachers need, kids need, how do you think about the balance between the local control and a Department of Education federal level leadership?

John King: Well, I think we need the federal resources, for sure, because the federal government can borrow. State and local government can’t. So, we need the federal dollars in a time of crisis to make these things possible. Then, the department, I think, has two real roles: one is guardrails around those dollars. We ought to make sure that if there are dollars for tutoring that the tutoring is based on evidence of the kinds of models of tutoring that work. We ought to make sure that districts direct the resources to the most vulnerable students. And those kinds of guardrails can be set up by the department. Then, the department can hold up best practices and say, “Here’s the evidence around what’s working. Here are people who have come up with smart, creative solutions to a problem.”

My view is there’s actually no problem that isn’t being solved somewhere. Every issue we have, somebody in the country has figured out a great solution. We just aren’t very good at scaling. But, the department could play a role as a sort of clearing house of best practices.

Chris Riback: I’d like to ask you about race and trust as well. The Education Trust mission is also driven by helping close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families. How does that start? Where can you make impact? And did last summer’s events and the conversations on systemic race issues beyond just criminal justice make your mission more challenging or do you see more opportunities?

John King: Well, I think the national reckoning, long overdue national reckoning with issues of racial justice, has elevated the conversation about these inequities. So maybe it’s, I hope, created a window to tackle them more seriously than we have in the past as a country. The reality is we give the least to the kids who need the most. Students of color, low-income students get less access to quality early childhood education, less access to the strongest teachers, less access to resources in their schools. We did a study at Ed Trust that showed on average we’re spending $1,800 less per students on the students in school districts that have large numbers of students of color compared to school districts that have very few students of color.

Those are systemic problems. They’re an extension of institutional racism, of the ways in which a racial wealth gap translates into a property tax revenue gap, which translates into a resource equity gap for school districts. So for us, the case we’re making is it is in the interest of the country to close those opportunity gaps for students of color who now make up the majority of kids in our public schools. The reality is if we don’t do a good job educating students of color, we have no future as a country. So, it’s a matter of national interest, of national security, of national economic interest to ensure greater equity.

Chris Riback: Where do you see us in terms of that conversation, us as a country? We try to talk about race in a number of different ways. Criminal justice obviously comes up and drove so much of what started last summer. But, the conversations are, for many folks, not always fulfilling. Where are we, in your estimation, in terms of the conversation between race and education?

John King: We have a long way to go, partly because we’re reluctant to grapple with the roots of these issues. Where I’m sitting in Silver Spring, Maryland, my great grandfather was enslaved about 25 miles from here in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Slavery as an institution, our history of anti-blackness have defined so much about the evolution of education in this country.

Think about even something like Brown versus Board of Education 1954. Everybody learns in their textbook, oh, Brown was decided, and that was the end of school segregation. No. In fact, it wasn’t. We still have segregated schools today. The Century Foundation did a report not long ago showing two schools in Washington, D.C. They’re a mile part. One served 99% low-income students, and the other served less than 10% low-income students. Racial and socioeconomic segregation are very much with us.

The question is, are we prepared to grapple with how we got here? And we’re not yet. There was a lot of good rhetoric last spring. A lot of statements of solidarity. A lot of promises that Black lives matter. But, we haven’t necessarily seen that translate into the actions that are necessary.

Chris Riback: From perhaps the other perspective, there also has been not an insignificant amount of reporting recently that a key factor preventing some families from sending kids back to school has been a lack of trust. The challenges for black families to trust that schools are safe and have their children’s best interest at heart.

John King: I think it’s incumbent on us as advocates and folks involved in policy to try to address that lack of trust. But, look, communities of color have been hit disproportionately by COVID. Black and Latino folks are some three times as likely to die from COVID as white folks. Rates of hospitalization are significantly higher. Black and Latino families have seen firsthand the loss of loved ones due to COVID.

So when you say, “Well, we can keep the cases low,” people are scared. They’re scared of what that could mean for their families. They also know that institutions have not delivered. This is the same institution that maybe has the law enforcement and not a school counselor now saying, “Don’t worry. We’re going to take care of you.”

Or I think about Baltimore City here in Maryland. Every winter, there’s stories of teachers and kids in their winter coats in the classroom, and then the schools having … many of the school buildings having to close in the spring when it gets too hot because there’s not good heating and air conditioning in schools. So when the school says, “Don’t worry. We’ve got ventilation solved,” of course people are nervous, and they’re fearful, and they’re skeptical. I think school districts have to present a compelling case that they really have addressed all of these safety concerns to try to build families’ confidence.

Chris Riback: How do you go about building families’ confidence? It’s so interesting you just said that because I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking about all the things that you’ve done in your career, the teaching, the leading, the Department of Education, the advocacy. And I’m thinking, “Man, how does this guy stay optimistic with the challenges?” I’m assuming that it’s got to be about helping empower those families.

John King: Well, I stay optimistic because I’m very clear that schools can save lives. School saved my life. Both my parents were public school educators, but they both passed away when I was a kid, my mom when I was eight, my dad when I was 12. The thing that saved me was school, the structure, and consistency, and engagement, and amazing teachers. Phenomenal New York City public school teachers who made school this place where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid at home.

Even with all the challenges, what I see is the opportunity for transformation, what schools can potentially be in the lives of kids and families. Then, I think the task for educators is to communicate genuine love, and caring, and a willingness to listen. Folks have to feel heard about their concerns and not dismissed. When a family says, “We’re worried about COVID. We’re worried about the ventilation,” you can’t just brush that off and say, “Well, we’ve got that handled.” You’ve actually got to explain, “Here are the steps we’ve taken,” and build trust.

Some school districts are phasing in with smaller numbers of students first, or maybe the students who are most academically vulnerable, or with students with disabilities, or students who are English learners. Phasing it to show people, yes, we can do this. We can do this safely. We can follow all the appropriate social distancing procedures.

Trust has to be built. It takes time to build trust. You could very rapidly destroy trust in an instance, but you have to build trust over time. And I think it’s possible, but you have to have a leadership that sees families and communities as genuine partners and stakeholders.

Chris Riback: As I was thinking about your personal story in preparing for the conversation, I did find myself wondering, would you be able to look a young Black student boy, young Black girl student in the eye right now and say to them, “Education saved my life, and it can save yours, too”?

John King: Yes. Yes. And you know I do. When I spend time in schools with kids, I partly share my stories that they can see that it can be better, that even in these moments that are so hard … I mean, when it’s just my dad and me, my dad had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s, so home was scary, an unstable place. There were moments where my father stopped getting food and I was just hungry in our house and had to figure out how to get food. There were moments where he was yelling and abusive, and I didn’t know why. That was home day after day. But the thing that kept me going was teachers and the relationship with teachers.

What I try to say to young people is there may be things in your life that are hard now, but it can get better. It can be different. And I feel blessed every day by this life that I have that teachers made possible for me, for the family that I have, by the professional opportunities I’ve had. I think we have to help young people see that there is a path to a better future for them through schools.

Chris Riback: What can the rest of us do on that front? You have a great perch. You get active in the schools, so you talk with these students. But, what would you say to others? What can they do?

John King: Well, three things. One is on a personal level, like help. Figure out what in your world can you possibly impact. Can you be a tutor? Can you be a big brother, big sister? Can you volunteer, whether it’s volunteering at a food bank to help families get access to food or volunteering at the school? How can you help in your immediate sphere of influence?

Two, how can you engage at your school district and state level to make sure we make different policy decisions? How can you get active? Do you know who your school board candidates are? Are you voting in the school board election? Are you paying attention to the data on which schools are getting more resources in your community and which aren’t? Are you following your state level policy makers and whether they are going to put real resources towards addressing the unfinished learning, the learning loss that we were talking about earlier? So that kind of political engagement.

And then third, and maybe this is the hardest, is how do you live out as a citizen. The message that John Lewis had for us: to not be complicit in the systemic inequities that we have, to, as John Lewis would say, “to make good trouble”, to take on the systems that deny people opportunity. That is more than just putting a sign on your lawn. That is more than tweeting a hashtag. That is taking meaningful action, whether it’s through protest, or through advocacy, or through running for office, but what are you doing to dismantle systems of oppression.

Chris Riback: I’d be remiss to be having a conversation with a former cabinet member and not take the opportunity to ask about tax policy. There is a $1.9 trillion bill on the table right now. That’s the number as we are speaking right now, $1.9 trillion. We’ll see where it goes. There also is discussion of a $3,000 child credit. What’s your point of view? How should we be thinking about tax policy in terms of education and in terms of families?

John King: Well, look, we have a huge opportunity with the child tax credit proposals to literally cut in half child poverty. Now, again, we make this false division often in public policy between education and child and family well-being. Those aren’t two separate issues. They’re deeply interconnected issues. If we provide this child tax credit, we reduce child poverty. Kids have the food they need, the housing they need, access to health care. Kids will do better academically, and our society will do better in the long term.

I mean, to me, the core logic of this is by making this investment in children and families, we actually build our long-term prosperity. We will more than make up the lost revenue from this tax credit when we see less reliance on social services, more not only academic success but career success for young people. Reducing child poverty in this way will make possible that next generation of inventors, and engineers, and vaccine developers. It will make possible a brighter economic future for the country. This to me it’s smart tax policy, but it’s also smart policy for the long-term health and well-being of our democracy.

Chris Riback: To close the conversation, and I think you’ll agree that this is a fair way to close this, is I just want to confirm that you yourself are not crazy. I ask this, because I saw in your Twitter feed the photo at the end of January of you and your daughter doing a polar bear plunge and going into the Atlantic Ocean. Now, if you were diving into the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter, sir, with your daughter, how do we know that you’re not crazy and that you’re smart enough to comment on the state of U.S. education?

John King: Well, it was at Chesapeake. We know of them because we wanted to call attention to the problem of climate change. It was part of a fundraiser for an effort by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network to keep winter cold. It was very cold, very, very cold.

Chris Riback: You looked cold. I’m not going to lie. You looked cold. Your daughter looked cold.

John King: We were freezing. But, it’s such an urgent issue. It’s also a racial justice issue as well. When you think about the consequences of climate change and who’s bearing the lion share of that burden, of the disruptions that climate change is causing, it’s deeply interconnected with issues of environmental justice and racial equity. So for us, we wanted to make the sacrifice of getting very, very cold in order to try to help the cause of working to combat climate change.

Chris Riback: Well, you’re asking a lot. I’m going to try to trust you on everything else that you’ve discussed, despite an obvious lack of judgment. I mean, the evidence is there, so you can’t really blame me for questioning your judgment.

John King: Well now, the polar plunge runs through Saturday, so there’s still time for you if you’d like to participate, you’d love to join our team.

Chris Riback: That is so kind of you. Let me check my … I’ll be right back to you. I’ll get right back to you. John, thank you. Thank you so much for your time. And thank you obviously what you do and have done in your whole life, throughout your life for children and for students. Thank you.

John King: Thanks for the conversation.