No justice without equity, says John B. King, CEO of The Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education

In his speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Wednesday, former U.S. dismantling racism in schools is more urgent than ever.

    He not only diagnosed what he considers to be the greatest challenges facing equity in today’s schools, but also offered some prescriptions, including diversifying the teaching force and organizing structures around the students with the highest needs —  although he warned against silver bullets.

And despite his concern for the state of racial equity in schools and larger society today, he also offered a message of hope about the role schools can play in the movement for justice.

The speech was the keynote of the Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools national conference, “Moving Beyond Desegregation: Beyond Desegregation: Promising Practices for Creating Diverse and Equitable Schools.” Following the speech, King was on a panel with three of the inaugural cohort of RIDES Leadership Fellows: Angela Callado Kiley, Stefan Lallinger, and Mariel Novas.

“I really do believe that the work that you all are engaged essential to the health and well-being of our democracy, and that the values around which we are all gathered this morning are under assault, and we have to reckon with that,” King said, referring to the current presidential administration, which has distanced itself from work on racial equity in schools.

King was the Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, succeeding Arne Duncan. Now, he is the CEO of The Education Trust.

King noted that the Trump administration is considering rescinding guidance released under President Barack Obama regarding the racial discipline gap, among other actions that have ramped up challenges to educational equity.

“It was this school year that the President of the United States could not bring himself to make clear that the KKK and Nazis were on the wrong side on [the University of Virginia] campus,” he said.

King said that he was the first Secretary of Education to be kicked out of high school. Both of his parents died by the time he was 12, and their absence shaped his teenage years.

“Kids live whole lives, not just school lives, and we have to be about trying to change outcomes in their whole lives,” he said.

“I was blessed that educators chose to see I was worth a second chance. For many of those kids, they don’t get that second chance...and the reality in our society is that that is quite true for our African-American students, our Latino students.”

He said despite persistent disparities in the way students of color are disciplined, taught and treated in schools, he was made hopeful by the energy at the conference. He called for interrogation not only of achievement gaps between schools and school districts, but within schools, noting that disaggregating data can often show students being underserved in schools that, on the whole, look alright.

“I’m inspired by the commitment...not only to diversity, but to the idea that diversity must lead to justice, and justice must mean to equity; that diversity, equity and justice work are the same work, but they require change.

    Change, King said, will not come through one-off implicit bias workshops, or just by addressing that racism shapes our schools, though that’s a start.

“It’s not enough — it is not enough — just to name the problem,” he said.

    King said that change will come with concerted efforts to empathize with students.

“But that takes work, that takes commitment, that takes acknowledgement of the challenges we have in creating belonging, and intentionality about changing them.

And, he said, it might require us to change the way we think about and structure our schools.

“What if we started with kids who face the greatest challenges, and figured out to make school work for them?” he asked.