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Six things you should know about US education secretary John King

Former New York commissioner succeeds Arne Duncan after two months in acting role

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The Senate voted in favor of John King's appointment as education secretary yesterday, after he came in to the position in an acting capacity back in January.  

The appointment marks a meteoric rise for the educator, who is still in his early 40s. But who is Dr King, and what can the nation’s schools expect from him over the coming months?


1. He was a teacher

Having graduated from Harvard University, Dr King became a social studies teacher, before going on to receive a masters in education at Columbia University. He also holds a law degree from Yale.

2. He’s a charter school advocate

Dr King taught for three years – partly in charter schools in Boston – before being asked to help found a charter school, called Roxbury Preparatory. During his time there, he introduced controversial rules such as banning students from talking in the hallways between classes. After five years, he moved on to help set up Uncommon Schools, a New York-based charter chain, which includes Doug Lemov among its staff.

3. He has attracted controversy

Following his time at Uncommon, which now boasts 42 schools, Dr King was appointed as New York’s commissioner of education in 2011. He was the youngest appointee to ever hold the post at the age of 36. But his tenure as New York’s commissioner was a fraught one as he oversaw the state’s commitment to the Common Core State Standards and with it a new teacher and principal evaluation program. The new state-wide tests were much tougher resulting in student scores plummeting, which in turn led to a serious backlash from parents and teachers alike.

4. He is described as a “lightning rod” for criticism of the Common Core

Dr King embarked on a listening tour across the state, after the introduction of the new standards. But at a public forum near Poughkeepsie, he was drowned out by opponents in the crowd causing him to cancel the tour. Parent groups called for his resignation, as Dr King became a “lightning rod for criticism of the Common Core” as The New York Times described him. Critics said he attempted to usher in the new standards and the test-based accountability “too quickly”, leading to criticisms that the implementation of the Common Core was “mismanaged from the start”.

5. He has his opponents

Despite leaving his post as commissioner in January 2015 to join the then education secretary Arne Duncan’s team in Washington DC, Dr King still attracted criticism from opponents to his reform agenda. Most notable among them is Diane Ravich, who wrote on her blog that Dr King had treated parents with "disrespect" over his handling of the Common Core state tests. Over the weekend, the former White House education adviser called on the public to pressure their senators to vote against his appointment as the US education secretary.

6. His life story could 'make a Hollywood movie script'

He was orphaned early on his life. His mother, a Puerto Rico-born guidance counselor died when he was eight, while his father, himself a public school teacher, passed away from Alzheimer’s when he was 12. Despite such a setback, he secured a place at Harvard, one of the leading universities in the world.  It led to one member who nominated him for the New York commissioner's job to comment: “Hollywood used to make movies about people like John King.” He was appointed as acting education secretary in January this year by President Barack Obama.

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