John B. King Jr. assumed the position of U.S. secretary of education in the Obama administration on March 14. Before becoming Education secretary, King served the department as a principal senior adviser and deputy secretary, which involved overseeing all preschool through 12th-

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

grade education policies, programs and strategic initiatives.

Prior to his arrival at the Education Department, King served as the commissioner of education for the state of New York. He brings to his role extensive experience leading urban public schools that are closing the achievement gap and preparing students to enter, succeed in and graduate from college. King began his career in education teaching high school social studies in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Boston.

King recently responded to several questions presented to him by Frank Burtnett, editor of ACAeNews for School Counselors.




Over the course of the Obama administration, the White House and the Department of Education have made career and college readiness an important part of the nation’s education agenda. How would you assess the progress that has been made with this important objective?

First and foremost, the progress we’ve made as a nation would not be possible without the hard work of our school counselors. Counselors fill so many roles — among them, preparing students for the realities of life beyond high school.

And the good news is that our dropout rates are at all-time lows, and our high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. States, districts and teachers have made significant strides to raise standards — so that more of our students leave high school truly prepared for college, careers and life. A million more black and Hispanic students have enrolled in college since 2008. Those numbers mean brighter futures for real students — and all of us should be proud.

But our nation still has further to go to ensure that a quality education can expand opportunity for all students. We know that nearly half of the students who begin at a four-year college don’t finish within six years. Factors like race and family income still too often predict how a student will fare in college and whether they’ll be able to pay for it. In fact, while half of Americans from high-income families hold a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families attain that level of education.

Education must remain a tool for equity, and we need counselors’ help. In part, this is about the financial side of higher education. Counselors do this important work, every day, helping students navigate the often tricky financial aid and scholarship process.

It’s also about the academic side of education — making sure our students are prepared for the rigors of college, through access to strong learning opportunities from preschool through high school. And, in part, this is about the social and emotional side of education — making sure our students are prepared for the challenges and joys that come with learning and navigating life outside of school, from the earliest years through college.


School counselors share your concerns about the achievement and accessibility gaps that remain in American education. What role do you see for counselors and counseling in closing these gaps?

Education is the door to opportunity. So many times, as it was for me, that door is propped open by a caring adult — often, that person is a school counselor. By challenging all students to fulfill more of their potential, learn more and achieve more, you’re building confidence and showing our kids that, with hard work and determination, they can be anything they choose to be.

In the year to come, we have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate progress for our students with the passage of the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The new law helps us reclaim the goal of a well-rounded education for all students, giving counselors the opportunity to not just ask students where their passions lie, but to point them in the direction of classes that can spark a love of learning. It gives schools the opportunity to build on research and evidence about the importance of socioemotional learning and skills, like perseverance, resilience and the ability to collaborate effectively with peers. Counselors have long understood the value of these skills, cultivating them in school- and classroom-wide workshops and classes, as well as in one-to-one meetings with students.

And, to close achievement and accessibility gaps, ESSA includes new indicators of school success, paired with bold, meaningful interventions based on evidence that works. For counselors, this might mean more targeted supports for our English learners, chronically absent students or students who are struggling with trauma — to ensure they are provided with the care and tools to thrive.


School counselors often have a responsibility for a student population that exceeds the American Counseling Association-endorsed student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. What would you say to schools and school districts that need to provide additional counselors and more support for their critical services and activities?

School counselors work tirelessly each day on behalf of their students, and that job can be challenging with even more students to serve. The good news is that the Every Student Succeeds Act includes support under Title IV for counselors. Among other purposes, Title IV provides funds to improve school conditions for student learning, which include providing mentoring and counseling to all students. The new Title IV program merges a number of existing grant programs. The president has proposed nearly doubling Title IV program funding (from $278 million to $500 million).

Also, any schools receiving Title I must complete a state plan — and that plan may include comprehensive counseling services, professional development for school counselors and career counseling services. Schools that produce a School-Wide Program Plan — which will replace School Improvement Plans — can solicit input from school counselors and other support staff, giving these key personnel a voice when it comes to workload and student needs.

While these provisions bring us closer to giving counselors the support they need and deserve, we’re not there yet. Where student-to-counselor ratios are too high, school leaders, counselors and administrators should work together to acknowledge the important, personalized job that school counselors do and advocate for manageable caseloads, whenever possible. That’s why states must ensure more equitable funding for school districts — particularly those that serve large populations of students in poverty — to ensure students can get the extra support they need to be successful.


ACA has learned that both of your parents were career public school educators in the New York City schools and that your mother actually served as a professional school counselor. How has your mother’s experience influenced your thinking about the importance of school counseling?

I’m the son of two lifelong educators: my father, John King Sr., was one of the African American principals in New York City. My mother, Adalinda — who arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico as a child — was a school counselor.

My life has been shaped by their influence — but, unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to spend as much time with them as I would have liked. My mother — who was my world — passed when I was 8, my father when I was 12.

My mother spent her career in New York City Public Schools — spending some time as a counselor in my elementary school, where her co-workers kept a close eye on me. When she passed, my father didn’t want me to go to her funeral. He thought I was too young. But my older brother, who did attend, came back with stories of her students — particularly her junior high school students. These young people talked about the difference that my mother had made in their lives. She’d built strong relationships with them; she’d given them hope when they were struggling; she’d helped them navigate difficulties at home and at school. I’ve always been inspired by my mother’s example. It’s given me a deep commitment to the role of school counselors in schools.

Thanks to my mother, I know — firsthand — that school counselors are truly heroes. That personal lesson has been amplified throughout my professional experience, in the many dedicated and passionate counselors it’s been my privilege to work with. Their influence is wide, and it is deep. As we forge ahead in 2016, I thank counselors for all their hard work — it means more to your students than you may realize. I also encourage them to keep going in the year to come, even when times get tough. With your support, there’s no limit to what our students can accomplish.




This interview originally appeared in the April issue of ACAeNews for School Counselors, one of four special focus e-newsletters that are disseminated as a free benefit of ACA membership. To opt in to receive any of the e-newsletters (also including ACAeNews for Counselor Educators; ACAeNews for Mental Health, Private Practice and Community Agency Counselors; and ACAeNews for Counseling Students and New Professionals), go to


Contact Frank Burtnett, Special Focus ACAeNews editor, at