AUSTIN, Texas – There was a time when Dr. Daniel King was getting more attention at the national level than the state level for his work as superintendent of PSJA ISD.

That is starting to change as his appearance at a major education summit held by the Texas Business Leadership Council at the Four Season Hotel in Austin last Tuesday showed. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Joe Straus spoke at the summit.

King was on a panel discussing accountability in Texas public schools. He said testing is important but it cannot be the only criteria used to judge a student or a school. “We must not let the tests drive who we are and what we want to be,” King said.

Far more important is “connecting every student to a successful future,” King said. He lamented the fact that the U.S. is not producing enough professionals in the STEM and health care fields. “We are importing a ton of the high-wage, high-skilled jobs and creating a perpetual underclass,” King warned. More than once, King said high schools in Texas need to be “reinvented.” He said this needs to happen “not just get a student through a test but get the student somewhere in life.”

Also on the panel were Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams and Texans for Education Reform President Florence Shapiro, a former state senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Education. The panel was moderated by John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas.

Williams had high praise for King. “Dr. King is one of the best superintendents in the state,” he said. Shapiro also had high praise. “Dr. King, I do not know that you have a bigger fan than me. I have been watching you for years and I don’t know that there is anyone in this state that has watched your record, looked at your college readiness proposals, the number of students that you get out of your district that go to college from the Valley that are not admirers of yours, I am at the top of that list. Thank you for all that you do,” said Shapiro.

King has been a public school superintendent for 14 years, first at Hidalgo ISD and since 2007 at PSJA. He was recently named 2013 Texas Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Administrators and is Texas nominee for National Superintendent of the Year (AASA). In 2006, King was named State Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards.

“Under his leadership, PSJA has made tremendous progress on some of the significant challenges that face our state and nation,” said the Texas Business Leadership Council said, in its program for the education summit.

The program noted that PSJA’s student population is 99 percent Hispanic and 90 percent economically disadvantaged. It pointed out that when King joined PSJA its dropout rate was almost double the state average. That rate has been cut 90 percent and is now approaching one-third of the state average. Under King’s leadership, the number annual high school graduates at PSJA has almost doubled and the four-year graduation rate and overall high school completion rate now surpasses the state average by a significant margin.

“PSJA has become a state and national model for dropout prevention and recovery, inspiring state legislation (SB 975) and replication of its innovative initiatives across Texas and the nation,” the program stated.

The program went on to say PSJA has undertaken “an even bolder initiative,” which is known as College 3 and has the trade mark, ‘All students, Ready Connected, Complete.’

“Initiating and scaling up a network of early college high schools, concurrent and dual enrollment, the college and career connected career pathways PSJA is determined to offer every single student the opportunity to earn at least 12 college hours by high school graduation, with many earning more – up to an Associate Degree,” the program noted.

In his remarks, King cited the emphasis the U.S. gave to its space program in the 1960s after President Kennedy had said early in the decade that the country would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. “We geared up for it. Infrastructure was put in place,” he said. He questioned why the same focus cannot be put on improving the career paths for high school students when the U.S. is importing so many professionals.

King proposed “reinventing” high schools by “merging what is going on in the early college and high school.” He said every student is different. “Let them jump off and test the water and see (what career paths they might like),” King said. “Our teachers and counselors do not even know the fields that are high-wage or high-skilled. We have set out on an overwhelming initiative, connect every student.”

King added that Texas has gone “too far the other way” in not connecting students to a future career path. “We need systems that put kids to and through. We need to be strategic,” he said.

Both King and Fitzpatrick referenced a recent study by the Houston Endowment. The study looked at 350,000 eighth graders in Texas public schools in 1998, 1999, and 2000. It fast forwarded 12 years to see how many graduated from four year, two year, and technical college institutions. Only 22 percent had any kind of college completion or technical school accreditation. Among Hispanics, it was only nine percent.

King said the emphasis at PSJA is for students to have an opportunity to go after jobs in the STEM fields and to be bi-literate. He reeled off some of the great success stories coming out of PSJA and said he is just as happy to see a former student coming top of the class at the Tulsa School of Welding as he is seeing the first student at the high school to get associate degree go on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in engineering and design from Stanford University.

King said PSJA’s early college high school is like a laboratory. Seventy percent of the graduating students there gained an associate degree, almost all of them in the STEM fields, he said, proudly.

King admitted he did not always place an emphasis on the two-year community college path. He said up until the time he took students on a visit to Texas State Technical College in 1992 his focus was always on four-year university courses. The visit to TSTC had a major impact, he said, because he learned that those taking a two-year degree in chemical technology were being snapped up by companies like Dow and DuPont. He said their starting salaries were $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000 while he was paying his chemistry teachers only $24,000. He said a PSJA student who went to the Tulsa School of Welding is now working with his father on an Alaskan pipeline and is earning far more than people with a four year degree.

However, despite these successes, King said, the opportunities for Valley students to succeed through good work in high school are still far too random. He said the big challenge is scaling up the successes PSJA has achieved with its early college work. What can help, he said, is having counselors who really understand what is happening in universities, community colleges and the private sector. “We are getting to the point where our counselors really understand everything about community college, stack-ability, leveraging credentials, reverse transfers. Our high school counselors are becoming experts,” he said.

After the panel discussion was over, King gave an exclusive interview to the Guardian. He said most people in public education have the same goal, which is student success. He said legislators and state agencies look at things from a different perspective than those “in the trenches,” such as teachers and principals. “They all have some accuracy, those different views. But I think there is a real need in this state to really come together. We tend to address these issues real quickly in the legislative session and I think there is a real need for some deep interim work with practitioners, legislators, state agency people, business and industry people, to really look at what we want and what we are doing right now to produce it,” King said.

King said Texas is doing some things in education well but other things less well. He said he agreed with his fellow panelists that the emphasis cannot be either or, college or career. “We are kind of doing either or right now. We are only doing one right now, which is the college pathway and full steam ahead on more rigorous testing,” King said.

“All of these things are important but we are paying very little attention to other things. We are importing engineers, we are importing healthcare workers. We are often importing math and science teachers. In Brownsville they are importing welders. You are telling me we cannot produce welders? We are importing all kinds of technical and skilled professionals. In San Antonio they are importing cyber security professionals by the hundreds.”

King said the emphasis needs to change. “Why can’t our educational system and why can’t our state get together and organize and plan to intentionally develop young people to do those things we need? If we don’t we are creating a perpetual underclass that is going to grow and grow and it is going to come back and bite us one of these days,” King said.