Woraphot Kingkawkantong

On Friday morning, a Connecticut high school student stood in the large banquet hall of the Omni New Haven Hotel and discussed with former Secretary of Education John King LAW ’07 how digital technology could be used most effectively in the classroom.

King was the opening keynote speaker at the 12th annual Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference, where over 450 students, policymakers, teachers and professionals in the field of education discussed and debated innovations in public education policy. This year’s conference, the theme of which was “Fostering the Ecosystem for Change,” attempted to bring together a diversity of political perspectives and stakeholders in the education ecosystem to brainstorm and explore various approaches to promoting equality, access and lasting reform in education.

“To those who say we can just Google it, we still need knowledge,” King said in his moderated opening keynote panel. “Part of education is knowledge so you can discern fact from fiction. If you’re trying to think about the Muslim ban, it’s important to understand Japanese internment. If you’re trying to understand the horror of a Jeff Sessions approach to justice, you need to know about the Reconstruction.”

King emphasized the importance of both gaining factual knowledge and learning how to apply it constructively, explaining that the two approaches to education are not mutually exclusive.

Throughout his opening session, King stressed the importance of dismantling structural implicit bias in the United States’ K-12 education system. Boosting both student and teacher diversity has a positive impact on students’ learning outcomes and worldviews, he said, adding that diversity ought to be the responsibility of everyone, not just of people of color, who often face an undue burden to be the “voice” of diversity.

King also discussed the opportunities and challenges faced by specific high school systems. In particular, he said, the message of the “No Excuses” campaign in the charter school system has become distorted over the years, placing undue pressure on students to perform rather than on educators to help students succeed. King said the campaign intended to call for teachers to expect no less from students with particular racial or economic backgrounds than from other students, which he believes is a good approach in the classroom.

King — who is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization with the mission to bridge opportunity and achievement gaps in education — maintained an optimistic outlook on the future of education.

“There’s nothing wrong in education that can’t be fixed by what’s right in education,” he said.

In an interview with the News, King offered some advice for Yalies interested in policymaking. He said it is important that those who are interested in public policy questions find ways to gain field experience to help understand how policy has an impact on everyday life. Although he acknowledged the importance of studying policy through an academic lens, he said it is easier to be thoughtful about policy after having spent time understanding the needs, concerns and challenges of those affected by it.

Jamilah Prince-Stewart ’09, who is the founding executive director of FaithActs for Education, a nonprofit that collaborates with faith leaders and their congregations to improve educational opportunities in Bridgeport, echoed King’s thoughts. She encouraged Yalies interested in social policy reform to not only think about how they can give back to the community surrounding Yale, but also to be open to what they can learn from it. During the panel, she asked King how those in the education sector should navigate Connecticut’s budget deficit.

“I loved [King’s] panel,” Prince-Stewart said. “He is very pragmatic and very real about what it’s going to take to educate all children. The thing I took away was that we’re still one of the wealthiest states, and we still wake up every day and make choices about how we’re going to spend the money that we have. He encouraged me to not let people off the hook.”

Salman Khan, a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Education who works at the Connecticut RISE Network to improve student outcomes in the state using data analytics, said he enjoyed the nuance with which King incorporated research in many of his discussions.

Khan added that he welcomed the contrast King presented to the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as he spoke about visiting different schools across the nation.

“This year’s [conference] succeeded in creating a dialogue among individuals with very different perspectives on how to tackle education reform,” said Jean Lombardi SOM ’18, who organized content for the conference. “I was inspired by Secretary John King’s call to action during his opening remarks. In discussing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, he told us to stop asking ourselves whether we would have stepped up during the civil rights movement and to take action now.”

The conversation continued throughout the day in breakout workshops and small-group roundtable discussions on a range of topics, from “safe spaces” in educational institutions to investing in education and the changing role of schools in the sphere of advocacy. Sofia Leitner-Laserna SOM ’18, who was responsible for marketing and sponsorship for the conference, said she was happy that this year’s conference expanded the diversity of voices represented, from balancing a northeastern geographic by participants that spoke from a national perspective to incorporating teacher and student voices.

The closing session of the event featured stand-up poetry performances by middle and high school student members of the Boston Pulse Poetry group.

Saumya Malhotra | saumya.malhotra@yale.edu