September 16, 2016
As a former high school social studies teacher and middle school principal, I know that the start of school always brings a mix of jitters and excitement. So much potential — and so much responsibility — lie in our hands as educators. I hope your summer left you renewed and revitalized for your incredibly important work with students. This year, there is so much at stake. The progress we have made together could either set the foundation for greater gains or be hastily undone if we take our eye off the ball.
Over the past eight years, teachers and principals have worked hard to implement more rigorous, college- and career-ready standards for all students. We’ve set a new record for high school graduation and enabled a million more African American and Hispanic students to make it to college. And thanks to your vocal feedback, the White House and the Department have called on states and districts to eliminate unnecessary and low-quality tests.
We gain new momentum from our nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and begins to go into effect this year. It stays true to the civil rights legacy of the ESEA signed by President Johnson in 1965, extending the promise of an excellent, well-rounded education to every student, regardless of race, family income, home language, immigration status, disability, or any other circumstance. But a lot rides on its implementation. ESSA provides the opportunity for educators to have new flexibility to allow for innovation and to accommodate local needs, but we must ensure that, whatever we do, we’re addressing the needs of all students. Earlier this summer, I reminded state and local leaders of their obligation to gather broad input — including from educators — in the design of their ESSA plans as well as their implementation. I now encourage you to find ways to get involved and provide input to ensure that your state’s plan reflects your expertise from the classroom and school levels.
When I came into this office in January, I knew my time was short, but the opportunity to make a difference was great. So, I am focusing my attention on three issues that are critically important, and also where I think we can still make progress: equity and excellence for every student; lifting up the teaching profession; and ensuring that all students not only make it to college, but complete college. I lost both parents by the time I turned 12, but my teachers in New York City’s public schools never gave up on me. Instead, they held me to high expectations and made me believe that I could accomplish anything. Every young person deserves teachers who will do the same for them, and we must ensure that our schools are safe, welcoming, and inclusive places for every student, regardless of whatever challenges they may be facing.
The Department has worked to provide state educational agencies with more and better information to support students, but I want to share these resources directly with you as well. This summer, we released guidance on how ESSA protects students in foster care or those experiencing homelessness. Separately, we reminded states and districts of their obligation to protect students from discrimination on the basis of their religion. We also clarified their obligation to provide appropriate behavioral interventions and supports to students with disabilities where necessary to receive free appropriate public education and placement in the least restrictive environment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Part of providing a supportive environment is giving students the tools and space to have honest conversations — which is especially needed following the string of violent events across the nation this summer. How can our schools build trust and understanding and create communities where every child can thrive? I remain hopeful that Congress will continue building momentum toward the President’s Stronger Together budget proposal to advance school diversity. In the meantime, I hope your district will explore ways to increase diversity in schools, cultivate a diverse educator workforce, and take advantage of our resources for engaging families and communities.
While we still have a long way to go as a nation in confronting deep-seated issues around race and bias, I was inspired anew at a Teach to Lead summit in Minneapolis, where I saw educators deeply committed to equity and energized to develop and put into practice their own solutions to the myriad issues that affect student success.I can’t help but think that more of this spirit of leadership and collaboration is needed across America. As educators, we can turn fragile moments for our nation into moments of opportunity. Thank you for your commitment to America’s students, and best of luck this school year.
|John B. King, Jr.|