BROOKLYN HEIGHTS – Former Secretary of Education during the Obama administration, John B. King Jr., was the keynote speaker at the NYU Tandon STEMNOW kickoff luncheon yesterday, July 12 – one of NYC’s largest lineups of summer workshops, classes, and labs for teachers and middle/high school students in the science, technology, engineering, and math subjects.
King, who is currently president and CEO of The Education Trust, answered questions submitted by middle and high school students in a town hall format with Ben Esner, director of K-12 STEM Education at NYU Tandon. He spoke about the importance of diversity, teachers, and reducing guns. He also told a few stories and lessons from President Obama.
King grew up in Brooklyn to parents who were NYC public school teachers and attended P.S. 276 in Canarsie. When he was in the fourth grade, his mom died, so he lived with his dad who had Alzheimer’s.
“Home was this place that was scary a lot of the time,” he said. “As [my dad] got more and more sick, I had more and more responsibilities.”
“The thing that saved my life, the reason that I am sitting here today is amazing NYC public school teachers. Teachers made school a place that as safe, supportive, interesting, and engaging.”
High school was difficult. King was angry a lot; angry at his parents (his dad died when he was 12) and angry at the adults in his life. Not knowing how to deal with trauma, he ended up getting into a lot of trouble in school to the point that he was kicked out of high school.
“I would say I’m the first secretary of education to get kicked out of high school, but I hope that I won’t be the last,” he said. “Because an important part of my story is that people were willing to give me a second chance. It would’ve been easy for the adults in my life to say ‘here’s an African American Latino male student going to an NYC public school, getting into trouble. What chance does he have?'”
“I am blessed that I had family members, teachers, counselors, who even after I got in trouble and made bad decisions, saw hope and possibilities that I couldn’t see myself.”
Investing in students is important, King explained, but so is investing in schools.
“It is a problem in our country where we spend less on students that need the most. We spend less on districts that have low-income students, we spend less on districts with students of color. There are fewer resources in high-need communities and that is a problem that’s unjust and something we need to change.
“We need to make sure all schools have the resources they need. We have many schools around the country that don’t even offer chemistry, physics, algebra 2, calculus, and advanced placement classes because of the lack of resources.”
Though he didn’t specifically call out President Trump, he did say prioritizing the resources for STEM in the budget is necessary. And that if we don’t prioritize them, it means we don’t value them.
“Vice President Biden would say ‘don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget and I’ll know what your values are.'”
“I worry that politicians use a lot of rhetoric of how they care about STEM and need STEM graduates, and they are happy to go take a picture with students in a lab, but then, are they willing to vote for the resources that are necessary?” King asked.
If people want to see diverse workplaces, start with diverse schools and diverse teachers, King said, adding that diversity is equally important for those of color and those who are white. It’s important for students of color to see teachers and school leaders who can be models for them. For white students, it’s important to see people of color with leadership roles in classrooms and schools, King explained.
King recalled former President Obama, several cabinet members, and students having lunch together in the White House one day. One of the students asked the president, ‘What are the keys to success?’ According to King, Obama spoke about two things. One is hard work. With that, the president gave an example of two great basketball players, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
“He said that LeBron James is an extraordinary athlete. He has a set of natural abilities that would be very hard for us to match. Stephen Curry is kind of a regular size person, but [what] he has is an incredible shot. That is from practice, discipline, and never allowing himself to be outworked.'”
The second key to success? Reading. According to King, Obama told the young student that reading was what helped him see the world from different perspectives. Because when “you read, you get to inhabit the worldview of the characters in that text,” King said.
King also spoke about the importance of gun control to make schools safer, advocating for raising the age to buy guns and making it difficult to buy assault weapons.
“I think President Obama would say one of the biggest disappointments of his time as president was that after Sandy Hook, where we had babies, first graders killed, that that was not enough to move the country and Congress to change our laws on guns.”