Leading the Way

Archived Information

Leading the Way

John King Remarks at National Public Charter Schools Conference
June 28, 2016


Thank you, Senator Landrieu, for that warm introduction. It's a great honor to be with you as we celebrate all that's been accomplished in the quarter century since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota.

Thank you to Nina Rees for your many contributions to this movement and as an advocate for quality education for all children.

And thank you to all of you—the teachers, principals, founders and funders here have helped make charter schools a permanent and important feature of public education in America. You know these numbers, but it bears repeating that there are now nearly 7,000 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, serving almost 3 million students.

Innovation Needed

Charter schools sprung from the ideal that if educators were freed from bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all rules, they would experiment with new ideas in service of better, more well-rounded academic and life outcomes for students. They would create more opportunities for teachers to lead, find new ways to prepare students for success in STEM and the arts, develop innovative and effective curricula, and on and on.

Twenty five years later, the need for innovation to help the nation's public schools—district and charter alike—solve big challenges has not faded.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the successes along the way, and I'm also going to challenge us all to lead the way on school discipline—a topic where, candidly, we haven't always lived up to our collective ideals.

We can point to many places where innovation at high-quality charter schools has produced demonstrable success in closing achievement gaps; creating academically successful, racially and socioeconomically diverse school communities; and developing diverse pipelines of teachers and school leaders.

At YES Prep Public Schools' 15 campuses across Houston, for example, most of the students come from low-income families, and the schools report that, not only do their graduates finish high school, nearly three quarters have earned or are working toward college degrees. As a nation, we need more schools—charter and district—that are closing achievement gaps and equipping students, regardless of their race or zip code, with the academic and socioemotional skills they will need to not just get to college, but through college.

High Tech High schools in California are showing us what it takes to not only recruit a true mix of racial and economic backgrounds, but to also have students of different backgrounds work side-by-side on projects in their classrooms. Their student body is 63 percent students of color and 42 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. They also are sending 96 percent of their graduates on to college. We need more schools—charter and district—that are serving diverse populations well.

One of my favorite programs to work on at Uncommon Schools was their summer teaching fellowship with diverse college juniors, many of whom were Uncommon alumni. In a context where a majority of our nation's students are students of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color, more of these kinds of intentional efforts to create a real pipeline of diverse educators are desperately needed.

I could fill the rest of this speech with examples of charter schools—including individual operators—that are showcasing innovative solutions to critical challenges.

But, we also have to acknowledge that a significant number of charter schools are not fulfilling their central mission: preparing students for success in college, careers, and life. Those schools hurt the reputations of all charter schools and undermine the foundational charter school covenant of greater freedom in exchange for greater accountability. So it's in all of our interest—and the national interest—for authorizers and the sector to demand excellence and to act forcefully when schools are failing their students.

And, while there are great successes to be proud of, today I want to ask you to take on a challenge that desperately needs leadership and innovation—rethinking discipline.

Innovation on Discipline

The Department of Education recently released data from our Civil Rights Data Collection survey showing that nearly 3 million students were suspended during the 2013-2014 school year. Not surprisingly, the problem is worse for students of color—especially black students. In fact, the suspension rate for African-American students in pre-K is more than three times that of white students; and, in K-12, nearly four times the rate for white students.

We know that students who are suspended are more likely to be retained in grade or to drop out, and we know exclusionary discipline feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. That is why this Administration—including through the President's My Brother's Keeper initiative—has made rethinking school discipline practices one of our top K-12 priorities.

As you know, this is an area where some charter schools have received a lot of negative attention. Not all of the criticism has been fair or accurate. But, as a whole, it is true that charter schools suspend a higher percentage of their students than do district schools. And students of color are more likely to be suspended in charter schools than in district schools.

It's not all bad news: The overall suspension rate in charter schools as well as district schools has fallen since the 2011-2012 school year.

Still, as a nation, we need to do better. And—despite some shining examples that I'll talk about in a minute—it certainly cannot yet be said that the charter sector is leading the way.

So my challenge to you is this: don't get caught up in battles about whether charters are a little better or a little worse than average on discipline. Instead, focus on innovating to lead the way for the sake of our students. We know that, in every school, no matter how successful, there is more we can do to reach the students who are not yet succeeding and more we can do to equip students with not just the fundamental academic skills, but the socioemotional skills needed for success in life. That is the spirit with which we must approach the work of rethinking discipline.

We need safe and positive school environments, but as we consider struggling students we must ask ourselves critical questions: Could socioemotional supports like counseling or mentoring relationships make a difference? Could instruction be strengthened to achieve better engagement or more appropriate differentiation? Could training on issues of implicit bias or culturally relevant pedagogy change the outcome of a particular interaction? Could parents or family members be engaged more effectively as partners? Could more learning time yield a better outcome than exclusion from the learning environment?

In rethinking discipline, charters also have the opportunity to lead the way on equity. The students who are most likely to be suspended and expelled are students who we already fail too often.

As we reflect on the kids who we are most worried about, we have to return to the original meaning of "no excuses." It was never about "no excuses" for the kids. It was always about "no excuses" for ourselves as educators—no blaming parents, no blaming neighborhoods—and asking ourselves, "What could we, the adults in school, do differently to change outcomes?"

Let me be clear, the end goal isn't just to reduce suspensions or expulsions. It is to help our students learn how to succeed in whatever setting they find themselves, in school and beyond.

In rethinking discipline, charters have the opportunity to lead the way on professional reflection and growth. I'll start by admitting that I had an internal debate about whether to even raise this issue today—whether I could capture its complexity. As you know, I was a co-founder of Roxbury Prep—a charter school in Boston—where we had high expectations for students' behavior as well as for their academic pursuits. And as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, we sought to scale the success of Roxbury Prep and other early high-performing, urban charters.

What I know from those experiences, and what I've learned since, is that discipline is a nuanced and complicated issue. Yet the public discussion of these issues is often binary—pitting one extreme against another. It's "zero tolerance" or chaos. Authoritarian control or no discipline at all. So, I'll say up front: I am not here to offer any hard-and-fast rules or directives. But, I believe the goal for all schools should be to create a school culture that motivates students to want to do their best, to support their classmates and to give back to their community, and to communicate in ways big and small to our students and educators that their potential is unlimited.

That was our starting point at Roxbury Prep and I'm proud of the many successes we had. Proud that we became one of the highest-performing middle schools in Massachusetts. Proud that our students went on to graduate college at five times the rate of other demographically similar students. Proud that we created a positive, healthy school climate in many ways. And especially proud when I think of my Roxbury Prep students who went on to become teachers at Roxbury Prep themselves.

But today, with the benefit of all we have learned over the last nearly 20 years, the leaders of Uncommon are rightly rethinking discipline. Early on, we had begun to integrate school counseling, mentoring, and support groups, but we did not do it fast enough.

We all must commit to accelerate exactly this kind of work.

In rethinking discipline, charters have the opportunity to lead the way by ensuring that high expectations for behavior are about love and growth.

Of course, we need structures, systems, and routines that support learning environments that are efficient, safe, and engaging. We have a LOT of work to do with our students; and, of course, we need to communicate that urgency. But, this does not change the fact that norms around behavior must be grounded in equipping them with tools for success.

When we asked our students to sit up straight, to make eye contact, or to listen respectfully to classmates' ideas, it wasn't about rules for rules' sake. Instead, we tried to explain to students that we were practicing life skills necessary for success. I know today that I am grateful that the adults in my life taught me how to model professional behavior and I want nothing less for my students—or my daughters.

We aspire to have our students be the next generation of leaders, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. To get there, we need school climates in which the behavioral norms foster the safe, academically engaging environment needed for rich intellectual exploration and debate, and students understand the "why" behind those behavioral norms.

In rethinking discipline, charters have the opportunity to lead the way by modeling problem solving for our students. The Camino Nuevo Charter Academies in Los Angeles have student success teams that meet every week to discuss how to help struggling students. Together, students, families, teachers, and counselors work through problems. They aim to understand, not just to punish. When a fourth grader named Diego was acting out, the success team learned his father had died the year before and Diego was craving male attention. They got Diego into counseling and rewarded his better choices with lunchtime reading sessions with a favorite male assistant principal.

Their approach is that it's less about just enforcing the rules, and more about really getting to know the kids and finding ways to give them what they need to thrive.

In rethinking discipline, charters have the opportunity to lead the way on professional development. Our educators need to understand the implicit biases each of us brings to our work, despite our good intentions, and be able to handle challenging student behaviors in effective, culturally responsive ways.

We are seeing in districts and charters across the country that new policies on discipline only succeed when coupled with strong implementation strategies and training for teachers and administrators.

At Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia and Camden, all new teachers participate in a summer onboarding program and ongoing professional learning communities that help them understand restorative practices, how to respond to their students' traumas, and what it means to teach in culturally responsive ways.

Restorative justice is a particularly powerful approach because it helps students understand the impact of their actions and words on others—a skill that will help them succeed in personal and professional relationships throughout their lives.

Working in this way helped one of the Mastery schools find out why an eighth grader lashed out at a teacher. School leaders learned that, when he was 10, the student had been placed in foster care after he had repeatedly been left alone to care for his younger sister. His mother had suffered from mental health issues. She was physically and emotionally abusive, and the student was experiencing PTSD. Educators arranged for him to meet regularly with the school's fulltime social worker. The student now knows his teachers are not going to give up on him and he is on track to graduate.

In rethinking discipline, charters have the opportunity to lead the way by shattering misconceptions. We know that a welcoming environment and world-class academics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, research suggests that positive school climates are a major contributing factor to student achievement.

Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans has cut its suspension rate in half while the percentage of its students who are proficient has increased from 47 percent to 70 percent. Four years ago, the school received an F rating; this year it received a B. Clearly, rethinking its approach to discipline has not hurt it academically.

There is nothing magic about what this and other schools are doing to reduce suspensions and create positive learning environments. We believe in the vast potential of our children. We know what it takes to unleash it. We do it every day, in our classrooms.

When a student fails a math assessment, we don't suspend him. We work with him, one-on-one, sometimes for hours and hours after school. We don't give up. We show him we believe in him and nourish his belief in himself.

So why take a different approach to our discipline work? We must be careful to communicate—as we would with our own children—that while we may be disappointed in a particular behavior, we have faith in the student and we will support his or her growth.

Before I close, let me share a very personal perspective on this issue. The students who are frustrating us most, are often the ones who need the most from us. I know from my own life, that when I wasn't handling rules and structures well, it was because of the chaos of my life—and what I needed was compassion, attention, and engaging learning.

I lost both of my parents when I was a kid—my mom when I was eight and my dad when I was twelve. Before he died, my father was quite sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer's and home during those four years with just the two of us in the house was often scary and unpredictable. After that I moved around between family members and schools. Amazing teachers in New York City public schools literally saved my life—they created an environment that was safe, stable, engaging, and nurturing. If not for them, I wouldn't be standing here. But, as a teenager, I was angry about my experiences, and rebelled against authority. I made lots of mistakes. I actually did get kicked out of high school.

But teachers at the next high school I went to did not give up on me. They could have looked at me and said, "Here is an African-American, Latino male student from Brooklyn with a family in crisis who got kicked out of school, what chance does he have?" But, instead, they gave me a second chance and—together with some extended family members—helped me find my way.

Now it's our turn to lead the way.

Thank you.