John B. King Jr. Delivers the 49th Annual Herbert H. Lehman Lecture at Lehman College
Good evening everyone. Thank you so much President Cruz for that introduction. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you, and it’s a pleasure to come back to the Lehman College community once again to join you all. It’s a pleasure to celebrate the important anniversary of Lehman College and its dedication nearly 50 years ago. And it’s an important moment to celebrate the role that Lehman plays in American society. Indeed, Lehman College is a leading national engine of social mobility. One of those colleges that creates for students not only the opportunity to get an education that will equip them for a career success, but the opportunity to reach their dreams—to exceed even their wildest expectations or their family’s wildest expectations—by equipping students with the skills they need for success in the economy and as citizens.
And this is particularly important at this moment as we deal with the reality in our country that too often, the promise of the American Dream is less accessible than ought to be to too many of our fellow citizens. I think about the research of Raj Chetty, who has shown through his Equality
Opportunity project that in many ways it is easier to realize the American Dream in Canada than it is in the United States today because we aren’t doing a good enough job ensuring that education is the engine of social mobility. But CUNY in general, and Lehman in particular, are showing that you can break cycles of poverty that you can create for students a pathway to a different life than they may have experienced as young people.
I know the value that CUNY can play in a family’s life because of my own family’s journey. My mother was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She came here as a young child with her mother, my grandmother, who was a garment factory worker here in the Bronx. They came to the Bronx and it was New York City Public Schools that gave my mother the opportunity to learn English, to
learn academic skills, to go on to Hunter College to become a teacher and a school counselor. For her, CUNY was an engine of mobility, and for our family, CUNY was an engine of mobility. And that remains true today.
Indeed, we know that more than 40 percent of CUNY students are from households earning less than $20,000. Think about that — the critical role that CUNY plays as a vehicle to expand opportunity. Here at Lehman, the vast majority of students are recipients of Pell grants. And yet we know, from decades of evidence, that students, despite the economic challenges they and their families may face, through their Lehman education are getting an opportunity for a different future. Part of that is grounded in Lehman’s commitment to help students find the supports they need to thrive. And those aren’t just academic. We have to acknowledge that in this moment of great economic inequality, often for students some of the greatest challenges on college campuses are economic. They come down to things like access to food and housing and transportation and childcare.
But Lehman is a place that is committed to helping students with the supports that are necessary. I think about the food pantry that I heard about from students and faculty today — what a critical role that plays. Recently, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab did a study that showed, amongst the surveyed students, more than a third were food insecure. And roughly a third were also housing insecure. So, things like the Lehman food pantry play a critical role in creating opportunity for students. Similarly, we know that for many students a challenge of the transition to college is whether or not they’re getting the academic support, the tutoring, the guidance that they need to succeed while in college.
And we know that’s happening at Lehman. I was talking with students earlier today. They described Lehman as having a culture of care. Students talked about their experience with support services, with peer mentors. They talked about their experience with faculty diversity —interacting with faculty members who grew up in similar circumstances to them. The power of seeing in faculty members their own aspirations. One of the students powerfully said, “When I look at faculty members who are Dominican like me, I think to myself, ‘Wow, you did it, I could do it.’” That’s powerful. That’s what the Lehman community is about.
Lehman is also about rethinking academic programs in ways that will help to support students. I heard from students and faculty members today about the work to rethink math course sequences to help ensure that college algebra does not become a permanent barrier to student success. Giving students the opportunity to pursue statistics education as a way to complete their math requirements in ways that make more practical sense for their intended degree.
I heard today about the work that’s being done to support faculty members and thinking about how to leverage technology as a tool for learning. How to design strong blended learning or online course programs. I heard today about the critical role of childcare for students. The fact that on this campus there is a $6 million dollar state-of-the-art childcare center that makes it possible for moms, some of them single moms, some of them working single moms, to take advantage of that childcare center. Undoubtedly, dads as well, who are only able to pursue their studies because of the presence of that support. As the nation looks for examples of what colleges could and should be doing to help first-generation students, low-income students, students of color succeed, there is much to learn here at Lehman.
But I also know that President Cruz and his team have tremendous urgency about continuing to refine systems. They are always asking about what are other colleges and universities doing around the country that is pushing the envelope. I know they’re paying close attention to places like Georgia State, that are using advising systems, and data systems, and creative ways to make sure that students are guided on the right path. I often think about Georgia State, they call what
they do at Georgia State intrusive advising. Where an advisor will check in with a student if they register for a course that won’t lead them to graduation. Or an adviser will check in with a student who gets a bad grade on a midterm. But I feel like intrusive advising is perhaps a little too complicated a term. In my family, we just call it nagging, right? But nagging is crucially important for student success and the reality is that for first-generation students, for working adults who are trying to balance work and family responsibilities, having someone who’s paying attention and helping to support you can be the difference between staying and finishing or dropping out with debt and no degree.
So, there’s much that Lehman is doing and will continue to do in fulfilling President Cruz’s vision of doubling the number of high-quality degrees and credentials here at Lehman. The plan that students talked about as 90×30. I liked that because I knew that that’s what he
called it, but there’s something powerful when you hear that from the students. One of the students said, “This is a campus with a clear vision. Whenever I see 90×30, I think about that clear vision.” That’s powerful from students. That’s a commitment that this community has made to keep doing better, to keep doing more for the Bronx and for New York City. In order to succeed in that ambitious 90×30 goal, it’s critically important that everyone on the campus, everyone in the community, understand the moral and educational imperative to ensure that the doors of higher education are open to all, but also that the students who walk through those doors get all of the supports that they need in order to not just enroll in college but ultimately graduate from college.
To succeed in the goal, the 90×30 goal, the university will have to continue to work to strengthen all of the supports that we’ve talked about. But I’m going to use most of our time today to talk about the way in which succeeding and reaching that goal will also require thoughtful partnership with P-12 education. That higher education cannot alone achieve
our greatest aspirations without thinking carefully about partnership with P-12. And I want to suggest several key ways, and I want to challenge you to add some new ambitious goals to the 90×30 goal.
One thing we know is that we face significant achievement gaps in this city and President Cruz talked about the NAEP results today that once again confirmed, for the nation and for the state, the distance we have to travel in fulfilling the promise of equal educational opportunity. We know, for example, that here, just 21 percent of African-American students and 25 percent
of Latino students are proficient in math, compared to 59 percent of White students here in New York City. Think about what that means. That the proficiency rate for White students is more than double that for African-American and Latino students in math.
The numbers are similar in English Language Arts, about 30 percent proficient for Black and Latino students, about 60 percent proficient for White students on some New York State assessments. We also know that we see these significant gaps in graduation rates. The national graduation rate is about 84 percent, the highest it’s ever been. New York City has made tremendous progress over the last two decades. In New York City, the graduation rate is about 70-71 percent.
But we see that the graduation rate for African-American students and Latino students is significantly lower than that for White students. Think about what it means to enter the 21st century economy without even a high school diploma. So we know that there are challenges in our P-12 education system. We are not yet delivering the quality opportunities all students need and there is a role I want to suggest today for Lehman to play in that.
One critical role is to help students make the transition from high school to college. And I heard about this talking today with college students here on campus, as well as the Frederick Douglass students who are here with us. It’s powerfully important for high school students to have experiences on college campuses and that is something that Lehman is delivering through the Bronx Institute and the summer enrichment programs. Something that Lehman is delivering through the dual enrollment programs at the High School of American Studies.
But I want to suggest there is an even more ambitious set of policies to think about for the borough of the Bronx. When we look across the country and you’re asked what are the programs that are helping students effectively navigate the transition from high school to college, I think about programs like Bottom Line or One Goal—programs that work to not only help high school students plan out their postsecondary future but provide intensive support as they navigate the application process, the FAFSA process, the process to secure student financial aid. They also provide ongoing support of bridge programs into college and support through the early years of college.
What if Lehman and other higher ed partners in the Bronx were to take on an ambitious agenda to say that every student in the borough of the Bronx who graduates from high school, every senior will complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That every high school principal will be asking of every senior, this is what I do when I visited high schools, have you filled out the FAFSA yet? Because we know every year American students leave on the table billions of dollars in financial aid because they didn’t complete the FAFSA. What if there was a community-wide commitment to make sure that every student would do that?
What if there was a community-wide commitment to make sure that every student in the Bronx signed up for First Lady Mrs. Obama’s Reach Higher initiative? One of the things I worked on with the former First Lady, Mrs. Obama, this Reach Higher initiative provides text reminders to students throughout the process of applying to college and enrolling in college and getting started in college. And the evidence from research is that those text reminders can make a meaningful difference in whether or not students complete steps of a college application and financial aid application process. What if we made sure every student participated?
What if for the borough of the Bronx we tried to replicate what Chicago is trying to do? The city of Chicago has committed, first major district to do this, has committed that every student will graduate with a postsecondary plan — every student. As a requirement in every high school, the high schools must work with students to define what is their postsecondary plan, whether that’s college or career training or the military. What if Lehman was a part of a partnership to make sure that every student in the Bronx were to graduate with that postsecondary plan? What if
Lehman was to participate, as the City Colleges of Chicago are, in the development of postsecondary navigators who work directly with students who are at risk of not completing that
postsecondary plan to get their plan right, to think through what the best option is for them.
Last year, President Cruz calculated that if all Bronx residents who are 25 and older with at least a high school diploma earned a bachelor’s degree, they would earn an additional $6 billion dollars in annual income and generate an additional $2.8 billion dollars in annual tax revenue. That’s what’s on the other side of ensuring that all students can successfully make those postsecondary transitions. He also pointed out that if that were to happen, more than 57,000 people would be lifted out of poverty. An additional 43,000 would receive employer-provided health insurance. Tens of thousands of residents would no longer need Medicaid, supplemental nutrition, or housing assistance. That’s what’s possible on the other side, but it can’t
just be about the higher ed experience, it has to be about the transition from high school to college. So, that’s one important way that Lehman can contribute to transformation in P-12.
A second is around teachers. And we had a lot of conversation today about teacher preparation here at Lehman. What we know is that the most important in-school factor in student outcomes is the quality of their teachers and secondarily their school leaders. And we know that good teachers want to be at schools with strong school leaders. Those two things work together. This institution has the opportunity to contribute to ensuring that we have an even stronger educator
workforce. Part of doing that is ensuring that educators are prepared to meet not only student’s academic needs, but there socioemotional needs.
And again, I know this matters not just because of the policy question, but because of personal experience. I was sharing with students earlier today, the only reason I’m standing here today, the only reason I’m alive today, is because of New York City Public School teachers. I grew up in Brooklyn. Both my parents were career New York City Public School educators. Both of them started their careers as teachers. Spent their entire careers working for New York City Public Schools. My mom passed away when I was in fourth grade, I was eight. I live with my dad for the next four years, he passed away when I was twelve. My dad had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. So, home was this place that was scary and inconsistent and unstable. I can recall one night when my father woke me up two in the morning said it’s time to go to school. And I remember being on that staircase in our house holding onto the banister on the staircase as my father pulled me down the stairs saying it’s time to go to school. And I remember saying, “Dad, you know it’s not time to go to school, it’s the middle of the night, it’s not time to go to school.” And I didn’t know what was wrong but that’s what home was like. I didn’t know one night to the next how he was going to be, what our interaction was going to be. As he got sicker and sicker, I took on figuring out how to pay the bills in the house, trying to keep the household going, do the laundry, making meals. I couldn’t be a kid outside of school.
But I was blessed to have New York City public school teachers who made school a place that was safe and supportive and engaging and interesting and compelling. They saved my life, those teachers. I had a teacher in fourth, fifth, sixth grade, Mr. Osterweil. He was an amazing teacher who took on a role really like a surrogate father for me. But he showed me this whole world of possibility beyond Canarsie, Brooklyn. In our little classroom at P.S. 276, he showed me this whole world of possibility. We did productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alice in Wonderland, fourth, fifth, sixth grade. I was the rose in Alice in Wonderland. Imagine me with big felt red petals sticking out of my head. He had us learn the capital and leader of every country in the world. He took us to the museums, and the ballet, and the botanical gardens. He just showed us all these possibilities and he gave me a sense of hope, when I didn’t have a sense of hope myself.
He also was academically demanding. We had this project in our class, we would read The New York Times every day, fourth, fifth, sixth grade—I still read The New York Times every day. We had this project where you had to study a country. And it was during the Cold War and I was assigned the Soviet Union, which meant that I had to summarize all the articles about the Soviet Union. But it was as the Cold War, so there were mercifully few articles. Then, the leader of the Soviet Union died. And I remember the day I came into the class, there was a little table right by the door where The New York Times were stacked up, remember picking up The New York Times
and seeing that the banner headline was about the death of leader in Soviet Union, and every article on the front page was about the death of leader. So, I remember I knew I had to summarize every one of those articles. But you know how in the New York Times, at the bottom of the article, it says turn to page, you know, A-7, and I remember turning to page A-7 and every article across both sides was about the death of leader of the Soviet Union and I summarized every one of those articles. But I will say my experience in school, my academic success that I’ve had in life, I can attribute in no small part to summarizing those articles in Mr. Osterweil’s class.
His classroom was a place of social emotional development and academic development. That’s what we should aspire to in the development of teachers. We also need to aspire to the development of a diverse educator workforce. We know that a majority of the kids in our nation’s public schools are kids of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color, only 2
percent of our teachers are African-American men. It’s a problem for kids of color because we know that kids of color benefit from seeing role models in the classroom. We know, for example,
from a study done recently at Johns Hopkins. A very large data set in North Carolina that showed that African-American students who had at least one African-American teacher in elementary school were more likely to graduate from high school. It matters. It matters whether or not students can see themselves in their teachers, just as it matters here on campus. But it also matters for White students to see teachers and leaders of color in their schools and classrooms. I have a colleague who says it’s a little bit harder to be racist if you learn calculus from an African-American teacher. A little bit harder, not impossible, but a little bit harder. There’s something very powerful about seeing people of color in those leadership roles in classrooms, in
And we know, including from work that Ed Trust New York has done, that for too many students they don’t see that. For 10 percent of our African-American and Latino students in the state, they’re in schools and districts where they will never see a teacher or principal of color. More than a third of our White students are in schools where they will never have a teacher or principal of color. That’s a missed opportunity and Lehman can be the difference in that. Lehman already is producing a very large pipeline of teachers of color and bilingual teachers. That’s powerfully important. We know, for example, that when students are assigned to teachers of color, they are less likely to be subject to exclusionary discipline and more likely to be referred for gifted programs. It’s powerful to build that pipeline of teachers. And where I want to challenge you is to say, how do we build that pipeline even more so into our high schools? Is there an opportunity to think about Grow Your Own programs across the borough that would get high school students involved in meaningful opportunities to volunteer with, and mentor younger students so that they can see themselves as future teachers.
Illinois has a new Grow Your Own program in Chicago that includes not only partnership between teacher preparation programs and school districts, but also community based organizations. Students in that grow your own program are getting support. Wraparound support
including mentoring, coaching, even subsidies for transportation and childcare. There’s a new program in Washington state focused on preparing bilingual educators. They’re working with
high school students to recruit them to become bilingual teachers in high needs areas like STEM and early childhood education, as well as bilingual education. Boston has a new high school to teacher program, which identifies high achieving high school students, largely of color, 87 percent of the participants are African-American or Latino, and provide them with mentors, opportunities to take college-prep courses, financial incentives, and a path into teaching. It’s the kind of work that New York City Men Teach is doing in partnership with Lehman among other campuses. But we need to do more of it faster, because think about that disconnect 18 percent of the teachers are teachers of color, majority of kids in our nation’s public schools are kids of color. We’ve got to close that gap, and the way that we’ll do it is by growing up some of these
people sitting right here right to become our future teachers. No pressure, no pressure.
So, the work on the transition between high school and college, the work on a teacher pipeline of well-prepared, diverse teachers. Third, there’s a critically important role that Lehman
can play with teachers and principals. Helping them reject a false mythology that has emerged in how we talk about education in the United States. And the mythology goes like this: There’s a set of people who say, “You know, if kids are poor, if kids are from neighborhoods that are struggling, there’s nothing school can do.” Imagine if Mr. Osterweil had said of me, “Here’s an
African-American, Latino male student, family in crisis, going to a New York City public school what chance does he have?” And turned his back on me? It can’t possibly be right. But also can’t possibly be right that school is all that matters because we know kids they live at school. Kids live in communities and families. And so what happens outside of school certainly matters. So we have to reject that we have to choose between those two. We have to say no we’ve got to do both, and. We’ve got to provide kids with the support they need inside of school to succeed academically and socially emotionally and we’ve got to provide the right out of school supports. And Lehman can instill that value and vision in teachers and principals.
I think about the work done recently at Johns Hopkins. They did this groundbreaking
radical study about vision care. I’m going to tell you about, you’re going to be shocked. When you have students who can’t see the board or can’t read the book, they do worse. I know it’s a shocking finding. And they found that if you help students get glasses and appropriate vision care, wait for it, and they can see the board or read the book they do better. Acknowledging that kids have untreated vision problems, that those need to be treated in order for them to be successful isn’t giving in, it isn’t making excuses, it isn’t blaming. It’s acknowledging the reality that kids need those supports. If kids are hungry, if kids are homeless, if kids are in a home where there’s untreated substance abuse, that’s going to impact kids performance in school. But
we can’t then walk away and say, well therefore there’s nothing to be done. No, what we’ve got to say is how do we organize schools and communities to address those needs and support the students.
At the same time, we can’t allow anyone to say, well I’m going to do less for kids in class
because there’s nothing to be done here. No, it’s quite the opposite. We have to do more for kids in class. We have to make school even more compelling, even more engaging, even more interesting, even richer. We’ve got to make sure that every student has a relationship with an adult in school who can support them.
I think about a program in Minnesota that was started by a school counselor called, Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR). A school counselor noticed that in her high school, low-income students and students of color were less likely to graduate. So, she asked her superintendent: what I’d like to do is have teachers and counselors meet about the kids who are most at risk on a weekly basis. I’d like to organize our schedule, so that we can meet. We’re going to identify someone to mentor each kid and we’re going to focus on what supports they need, what’s going on with them. We’re going to help them get to graduation. The superintendent allowed the school counselor to do this. She did this in her school in Minnesota, the results improved. Her tagline for the program is: same teachers, same students, different results.
How we organize the adults in school and how adults in school use their time with kids matters. She grew this program into a few schools, applied for an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the federal government, from the Obama administration. She got that Investing in Innovation grant. She grew this program to multiple high schools in multiple states. Randomized control trial, randomly assigning students to this intervention or not, she showed that this intervention was improving academic outcomes and graduation rates. So, she then came back and got another grant at an even higher level to scale this program nationwide. It’s now operating in
So, we have to reject the false choice. We’ve got to do both inside of school supports and
outside of school supports. We’ve got to make sure that all kids have access to a well-rounded education. Again, this is another place where Lehman, particularly in the training of principals, can be a powerful voice. In too many places, people have responded to our concern about gaps
in English and math performance by doing less science, less social studies, less art, less music. It’s exactly backwards. Students do better in reading and math when they have access to science, social studies, and the arts. We have to build schools that provide a well-rounded education for all kids, not just rich kids, but all kids. And part of that well-rounded education is also access to AP classes, and International Baccalaureate classes, and dual enrollment opportunities. That’s the vision that we have to instill in future teachers and principals.
We also must ensure, this is the final point on the on the P-12 work that I think is so urgent that we must do, we also have to tackle issues of implicit bias. We have to prepare teachers to work in diverse settings. And part of what that means is we have to take on the problem of exclusionary discipline in our schools. The reality that in our Civil Rights Data Collection survey at the education department, we showed 18 percent of the students in pre-K in the nation are African-American, 48 percent of the students who are suspended from pre-K, four-year-olds, are African-American. African American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended from school, and in many communities that number is much higher—four, five, six times. And it’s not just about young men of color, it also affects young women of color. There’s a fantastic book by Monique Morris called Push Out, about the degree to which young women of color are disproportionately subject to exclusionary discipline. On the order of five times, six times, seven times, eight times, as frequently as White female students in districts. We know that part of this is driven by implicit bias. That’s a real thing. It’s a real thing in the policing context. It’s a real thing in the school context. It was a study done at Yale where pre-K teachers observed video of pre-K classrooms. Same behavior from all of the students, but teachers disproportionately identified the African-American male students as needing intervention for the very same behavior that when from a White female student they didn’t think required intervention. Bias is a real thing we’ve got to tackle.
We’ve got to prepare teachers who are able to understand the experience of trauma that many of our kids have had. That understands strategies for culturally responsive instruction, for using restorative justice in the classroom, for finding other ways to respond to students socioemotional struggles. Sometimes the way I talk about it with folks is, you know, if a kid failed a math quiz, you would never say to the kid: “Oh, you failed that math quiz, no more math for you.” But we do that around discipline. We say, you’re struggling with the social environment, no more social environment for you.
No, what we should be doing is figuring out how do we support this young person in navigating
the social environment. How do we give them the tools and supports they need for success. So, there’s much that Lehman can do to advance the 90×30 goal here on campus—continuing to build and evolve the supports for students. But there’s also much that Lehman can do in partnership with the p-12 community.
So, I want to end on this note, and then we’ll have more of a discussion. Last week was the time as a country where we marked 50 years since the assassination of Dr. King. I was in Memphis last week at the National Civil Rights Museum, which is in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. And was a part of a series of events that the National Civil Rights Museum did to mark that 50th anniversary. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. King’s legacy. Dr. King
committed his life and ultimately gave his life to take on the scourges of racism, and poverty, and war. He was assassinated in Memphis, where he was there working with sanitation workers
organizing against poverty to take on the forces of economic inequality.
And the sad truth is that in Memphis, as in many places across the country, many of the same problems Dr. King talked about then are still true today. We still see suffocating poverty. We still see glaring economic inequality. We still see segregation of housing and schools. And so, last week the country remembered. The country remembered Dr. King, reflected on Dr. King’s legacy. But I want to suggest and I want us to sit with this thought tonight that reflecting and remembering is not enough. That is not sufficient to honor Dr. King’s legacy. Necessary, but not sufficient. Honoring Dr. King’s legacy means action. It means that we have to each ask ourselves, what are we going to do about the inequality we see? What are we going to do to be a voice against racism, and poverty, and war? What action will we take?
It means that when we look out at a landscape in which we see a federal government retreating from its historic responsibility to protect civil rights, when we see an administration that is taking away the ability of DACA students to pursue their education, when we see an administration that is trying to return us to the policies of mass incarceration, maybe the 1990s, sometimes when you watch our current Attorney General, it feels more like the 1890s. These are policies that are about systems of inequality. And that’s not a partisan point. If you’d asked me two years ago what I thought was one of the bills that had the most likelihood of being passed in a bipartisan way, I would have said criminal justice reform, because there’s a recognition that mass incarceration doesn’t work. Denying people access to education while incarcerated doesn’t work. Collateral consequences that make it impossible for returning citizens to get a job or to get housing, those policies don’t work. And yet we see folks trying to bring those policies back. We see, in communities across the country, not only do we see the same segregation, in some places, that we saw in 1954, we see communities that are sliding backwards where the schools are getting more segregated. And this isn’t just a problem over there, somewhere else, this is a problem right here.
Right here in New York City, we know that there are communities where the schools are significantly more segregated than the housing. We know that there are schools with admissions policies that are more designed to preserve stratification and inequality than to advance opportunity. Here, in this city, in this progressive city. There is work that we have to do. If we’re going to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we’ve got to take on all of those challenges. Sometimes for those of us who are too young to have been a part of the civil rights movement, we may have sat and wondered what would we have done then. Would we have been on the Freedom Rides? Would we have marched across Edmund Pettus Bridge, despite the risk to our safety? Would we have sat at the lunch counter even knowing that we’d be arrested? I want to submit that this is a moment where we don’t have to ask what we would have done then, we need to ask ourselves, what will we do tomorrow. What action will each of us take to try to take on the inequality that we see—the poverty, the racism, the war? What will we do to make it better? What action will each of us take? So, it’s a privilege to be with a community of people who are committed to education equity and understand that the role of the university is not just an academic mission, it is a social mission, it is a civic mission, it is about building stronger communities.
Thanks so much.