Long involved in issues of race and education, David Johns ’04, ’06 TC now works in the White House, where he helps to lead the effort by President Barack Obama ’83 to narrow the achievement gap for African-American students.
“I’ve had an interest in how educational opportunities are afforded to nontraditional students, including low-income minority students,” says Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. “I’ve been grappling with these issues over the course of my lifetime.”
Since joining the White House in February 2013, Johns has crisscrossed the nation, speaking to educators and community groups about the administration’s dedication to improving equity in the U.S. education system. Its program begins with increasing access to quality pre-kindergarten and extends through K–12, where the administration wants to increase the supply of well-qualified teachers, develop more public-private partnerships and provide funding for community-based organizations that support students in their educational journey.
The administration has also pushed its accountability agenda through grants in its Race to the Top competition, which aims to hold teachers responsible, in part, for their students’ academic achievements.
In the Midwest, Johns has worked with officials and educators in Detroit and St. Louis on creating access to school-based employment development opportunities for African-American men and boys. Making that leap from school to workforce is crucial for black men, who, Johns notes, face considerable challenges in American society.
Johns talks often about a 2002 study that said there are more black men in prison than in college. As a counter, he cites the work of Howard University associate professor Ivory Toldson, who found that in 2012 there were 600,000 more black men in college than prison. Johns says it’s important to change the narrative and support educational programs for African-American men.
Education has played a big role in Johns’ rise to the White House. Raised by a single mother in the predominantly minority Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, he rode a bus 45 minutes each way to a charter school in Pacific Palisades, an upscale neighborhood on the city’s west side.
At Columbia, Johns helped found Columbia University Concerned Students of Color after a series of campus incidents — including a satirical article in a campus publication and an organization’s critique of affirmative action — sparked student debate on racial issues. It led to a week of silent protests in February 2004 by hundreds of students, who urged changes in the Core Curriculum, sensitivity training on racial issues and the creation of an office of multicultural affairs.
After graduation, Johns began teaching kindergarten at The School at Columbia University, where he was one of the few African-American teachers. A year later, he enrolled at Teachers College, where he delved into education policy.
“David is a terrific amalgam of idealism and pragmatism,” says Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at TC. “He remains idealistic about the promise of extending the American Dream to all children, regardless of the color of their skin. And his experience working on Capitol Hill has taught him how to craft policies that can garner bipartisan support.”
Johns’ studies at TC led him to Washington, D.C., where as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation he worked on the reauthorization of the Head Start program, which funds early education for the children of poor families. He landed a job as an aide to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and subsequently become a senior policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
“I came to Washington to make a more systemic impact,” says Johns. “It’s important to find ways to scale up best practices, using policy as a tool to make changes on a larger scale.”
Working on the Senate committee, Johns learned that legislation can move at a glacial pace. Talks on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — known as No Child Left Behind — began in 2007; they were not concluded by the time Johns left the committee in 2012 to work on Obama’s reelection campaign, where he was policy and research director in the swing state of Nevada. Obama won the state by six percentage points, which raised Johns’ profile in the Obama camp.
While acknowledging that No Child Left Behind was not a panacea for all that ails the U.S. education system, Johns says that the law’s requirement that student achievement data be made public — and broken down by a student’s race and socio-economic level — has brought much-needed attention to the needs of schools in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.
“The shining of a bright light on this data has resulted in a more thoughtful conversation on the underachievement of African-American students,” says Johns. “And that conversation needs to continue.”