I want to talk to you today about the importance of a genuinely well-rounded education – the kind of education that engages and intrigues kids, and allows them to discover their interests in the arts, in science, in the world languages, and so much else.
I grew up in Brooklyn and went to New York City public schools. My mom passed away when I was in the 4th grade. While living with my dad, who suffered from then undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease, things at home were often unpredictable and scary. My dad died when I was 12. After that, I moved between family members and schools.
Things could have gone in very different directions for me, but my teachers at P.S. 276 and Mark Twain Junior High School made school a place that was compelling, engaging, and safe. I was blessed to have a teacher, Mr. Osterweil, who created a space that countered the chaos in life outside of school with amazing experiences in the classroom. We read the New York Times every day. We did productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland; we went to the zoo, the Museum of Natural history and the ballet. He opened up to us a world far beyond Canarsie, Brooklyn.
But today, far too many of our students don’t have access to those life-changing experiences.
I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who believe that the elements of a great well-rounded education are being neglected because of a too tight focus on reading and math. Sometimes, that's because of constraints on resources, time, and money. Often, teachers and administrators describe how No Child Left Behind and its intense focus on English and math performance left other subjects under-attended to or even ignored.
I’ve been clear, as has the President and my predecessor, Arne Duncan, that in many places in the country, testing has become excessive, redundant, and overemphasized.
We're committed at the Department of Education to changing that reality, but we need your help. We need to work together to make well-rounded education a priority for the benefit of our students.
Done well and thoughtfully, assessments provide vital information to educators and families, but this shouldn’t come at the cost of those subjects that spark passion and inspire the joy of learning.
The good news here is that, with the passage of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act - the welcome replacement for No Child Left Behind - there is now an opportunity for states and districts to broaden the definition of an excellent education.
Music, art, world languages; physics, chemistry, and biology; social studies, civics, geography and government; physical education and health; coding and computer science – these aren’t luxuries that are just ‘nice to have’. They’re what it means to be ready for today’s world, and they must start early.
Unfortunately, far too often, it is kids from low-income families, and students of color, who don’t have these experiences - the chance to go to a museum, to travel beyond their immediate neighborhood, access to the arts, science, social studies or advanced coursework.
We’ve got to see this as an urgent social justice challenge for the country. Help me share the message far and wide: we must work together to give every child the well-rounded education they deserve.
I became a teacher and a principal because I wanted to try to do for other kids what my teachers did for me. They created experiences that were compelling and engaging, and for me, that made all the difference. They saved my life, and they are the reason I’m reaching out to you today.
That's what a well-rounded education is all about: that inextricable intersection between what our kids learn and who they become. I am who I am because a teacher and a school believed in me and believed it was worth the time and effort to widen my horizons.
That's the kind of experience every student in this country deserves. Let's make that possible.
John King, Jr.
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education