John King’s Common Core Education: What Getting Schooled in NY Will Mean for His Tenure as Ed Sec

John King, who will officially take over as the U.S. Education Secretary on December 1st, rarely engages in political discussions. His background is in education, and that is what he primarily focuses on.

During a 2014 interview with WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer, King passionately defended the Common Core. He highlighted the need to improve classroom instruction and emphasized that aligning classrooms with the right standards can lead to better outcomes for students in college and their careers.

Rather than making political arguments, King advocates for education.

In this aspect, King resembles his predecessor, Arne Duncan, who was also known for avoiding politics. However, the problem lies in the fact that political appointees can choose to ignore politics, but politics are unlikely to ignore them, as King experienced in New York.

Backlash against tougher tests

In 2013, New York was one of the first states to administer standardized tests aligned with the more challenging Common Core standards. Before the results were released, then-state Commissioner John King and other officials predicted a significant drop in the number of students rated as proficient on the exams. They believed that the new scores would provide a more realistic assessment of students’ performance.

The intention might have been to wake parents up to the state of their schools and the level of preparedness of their children, in the hope that they would push for educational reform in their communities.

As anticipated, the proficiency rates did decrease considerably. Surprisingly, rather than rallying support for reform from "white suburban moms," the opposite occurred. Many parents expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the standards and the tests.

The teacher unions at state and city levels also raised concerns about a lack of training for teaching in the new standards. Additionally, New York state began using scores from the new Common Core-aligned assessments to evaluate teachers. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that this connection with testing would undermine the standards, pointing to New York as an example of what should not be done.

Despite the criticism, the State Education Department showed no intention of backing down. Meryl Tisch, a staunch supporter of King and chair of the State Board of Regents, wrote that it was not the time to slow down on the implementation of the Common Core. She argued that students were already being held accountable for the standards when entering college or the workforce, and often ended up taking student loans for remedial education.

Contentious town hall meetings

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, King and the state Education Department announced a series of town hall meetings across the state to address the growing backlash against the Common Core. However, instead of calming the situation, the forums became dominated by frustrated parents expressing their concerns about the Common Core, testing, and data privacy.

One particularly heated forum in Poughkeepsie saw King being heckled and shouted at, with parents claiming they were not given enough time to express their grievances. Initially, King canceled the events, attributing it to special interests taking over. However, due to intense backlash, he quickly reinstated the meetings.

King continued to face intense criticism. During a town hall on Long Island, the president of a local teachers union boldly asserted that children were being abused in the state of New York due to the Common Core. The audience responded with applause, although no psychiatric manual recognized this alleged "Common Core syndrome."

Frustration persisted among teachers, despite national unions being among the major supporters of the Common Core. In January 2014, the state teachers union board of directors withdrew its support for the Common Core standards "as implemented" and called for King’s resignation.

According to union president Richard Ianuzzi, King ignored the opinions and expertise of parents and teachers, offering only empty words and superficial changes. However, even with the withdrawal of union support, Ianuzzi was unable to retain his leadership position. Karen Magee defeated him in the re-election in April, promising to more vigorously oppose recent reforms in the state. In response, a state Education Department spokesman dismissed the election result as typical union politics, stating that Commissioner King remained committed to improving schools and ensuring that every student possesses the necessary skills and knowledge for success in college and their careers.

Surge in Opt-Out Movement

In response to the ongoing criticism, King enlisted the support of Arne Duncan, his future boss, to defend the Common Core and King himself against what Duncan referred to as "the drama and noise."

In May, on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, King linked the Common Core to the civil rights movement, suggesting that those who oppose high standards for all students are essentially accepting that some kids are destined to fail.

Around the same time, the opt-out movement began to gain momentum. A principal from Brooklyn wrote an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that the state tests were inadequate, and the article was titled "A Problem with the Common Core." Although the number of students opting out was still small, there was a significant increase compared to the previous year.

On a positive note, it seemed that a compromise with the unions was within reach. In June, NYSUT (the New York State United Teachers) negotiated with Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a safety net that would prevent any teacher from receiving a low evaluation rating due to the Common Core-aligned tests. King, a strong advocate of using test scores to evaluate teachers, appeared to tentatively support this idea, and the provision was passed by the legislature.

However, Cuomo did not sign the bill right away. Then, in December, after winning re-election without support from NYSUT or the city teachers union, Cuomo vetoed the same safety-net bill that he had helped negotiate, causing outrage among the unions.

It was also in December that King announced his resignation to join the U.S. Department of Education, stating that he was proud of the accomplishments they had achieved for New York’s students.

Since then, opposition to the Common Core and testing has continued to grow.

Cuomo, who successfully pushed for increased emphasis on testing in teacher evaluation, had robocalls made by NYSUT President Magee urging parents to opt out of the state exams. The official numbers released in August confirmed a large number of opt-outs: 200,000 students, or about 20 percent of eligible test takers, chose not to take the Common Core-aligned state tests, a four-fold increase from the previous year.

More recently, Cuomo has distanced himself from the Common Core, forming a panel that he promised would "overhaul" the standards.

Cuomo stated, "The implementation of the Common Core just did not work."

Playing Politics to Succeed

It is uncertain how King’s challenging experiences advocating for standards in New York will affect his new role in the federal Department of Education, especially considering the department’s uncertain position according to most accounts.

Conservatives hope to reduce the federal government’s oversight of schools, and teachers unions want to scale back test-based accountability. The Common Core has become a favorite target of most Republican presidential candidates, and opt-out numbers are increasing nationwide. The administration has also faced criticism for its higher education policies.

What is certain is that reformers like King and Duncan must recognize that playing smart politics is crucial for sustaining their policy agenda. In other words, the politics of education should not be disregarded, but rather seen as an integral part of King’s new job.

Disclosure: In my previous role at Educators for Excellence-New York, I collaborated with New York teachers who supported the Common Core in advocating for improved implementation of the standards in New York.

Photo by Getty Images


1. Many media outlets inaccurately reported that test scores had "fallen." This is not accurate. Since the tests were different, it is not appropriate to compare the scores. What we can say is that the new tests identified fewer students as proficient. (Return to story)


  • arthurmacdonald

    Arthur Macdonald is a 39-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. He has been a teaching assistant for 10 years, and has taught middle and high school students in the Atlanta area for the past 5 years.