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An Exit Interview With John White, the Nation’s Longest-Serving State Schools Chief

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 22, 2020 8 min read
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John White, the superintendent of schools in Louisiana, announced earlier this month that he would step down from his position in March. White, who’s been in his position since January 2012, is the longest-serving state K-12 education chief in the country. He was appointed by the state school board and served during the tenures of Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and current Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

White, 44, a former English teacher in New Jersey, has a long and controversial record, and he’s made high-profile moves impacting the breadth of the state’s K-12 system, as well as its connections to early-childhood education and colleges and universities. The Teach For America alumnus, who ran the Louisiana Recovery School District before taking over as state chief, has touted the state’s improvement on the National Assessment of Education Progress, as well as the return of the New Orleans school district to local control and new support for students seeking financial aid for colleges and universities. Yet his critics have said he’s ignored many educators’ concerns in the name of imposing an inflexible and unforgiving agenda on schools.

We spoke with him for roughly 30 minutes about his time leading the department, which oversees 720,000 public school students. You can see his thoughts on various topics below:

On how he became a symbol of “education reform” and whether that helped or hurt him:

When we asked White about this, he immediately distanced himself from the education reform activity of the last 10 to 15 years at the national level. Instead, he said his work and his team’s work was rooted in the standards-based reform going back to the Reagan administration and the famous—or infamous, depending on one’s point of view—"A Nation at Risk” report. (Events such as the Charlottesville summit of governors in 1989 also come to mind.) That movement, he said, intentionally focused on policies concerning curriculum and teacher training and how to make sure schools could succeed in those areas at a large scale.

“I am a card-carrying member of that movement,” White said.

But he said that during the last several years, the debate over education reform has increasingly and unhelpfully focused on what he called “niche” issues, such as private school choice, the Common Core State Standards, and charter schools, that are increasingly used to define political agenda but not drive improvement in schools.

White, of course, has been a very public supporter of school choice, including vouchers and charters. He fought the Obama administration in court to maintain how Louisiana has funded vouchers, for example.It’s pretty clear where he stands on that issue in general. He’s backed the common core and aligned tests despite big political pushback (more on that in a bit). And he has an extensive record supportin charter schools to help turn around first the New Orleans and now Baton Rouge school districts. But he argued to us that he doesn’t define his tenure largely by such priorities and political tussles.

“These are very narrow slices of what should be a much larger and comprehensive and long-term orientation among policymakers. But they have become expedient terms for politicians to use to rile up their bases,” White said.

On what’s changed the most for state education chiefs during his tenure in Louisiana:

It’s hardly new that state chiefs have pursued agendas that match larger political aims in their states, White said. But what’s shifted, he said, is that there’s less of a discussion about how to drive improvement and growth in the existing system, and more of a discussion about how to divide up the existing pie and make it more equitable. That shift has some merits, he said, but it runs of the risk of ignoring how to help students in schools where they are now, and not realizing that politicians often don’t approach issues with both those concepts in mind.

He used early-childhood policies as an example. White said the nation needs better maternity and paternity policies, and a more-robust child-care system, if it wants better outcomes for young people over the long term. But focusing on those issues can and do distract leaders from what happens to students when they transition into elementary schools and begin more formalized academic instruction. That’s why his team has focused on both instruction-driven improvement in schools and an expanded early-education system.

“You don’t become a great reader just because you went to a Head Start program,” he said.

In the same vein, White said that while he appreciated more attention to the issue of segregation and racial isolation in American schools, “There are legions of kids who are going to single-race schools right now that need a better education than they’re getting.” The fact that they’re attending such schools, he said, is unlikely to change during their school careers.

“It is a different time” from when he started as Louisiana state chief, White added. “And in many ways it’s a little bit more of a cynical time. And in many ways it’s less of an idealistic time.”

On how his relationships with the Obama and Trump administratons have differed:

White was quick to say that he “always had a good relationship” with the three education secretaries he’s worked with, even though he had different criticisms of both administrations.

“The ambition of the Obama administration was welcome, even though much of their implementation could be sometimes abrupt,” White said of President Barack Obama’s K-12 team, which was led for the majority of Obama’s time in office by Arne Duncah. As for the Trump administration, he said that while he thinks Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have been helpful in some respects, he wished “that they would do more to drive the discussion towards improvement on a state-by-state, district-by-district basis.”

He did single out the Trump administration’s public stance and comments on immigration for sharp criticism. For example, he said schools in his state and others are “morally and legally obligated to serve children irrespective of their parents’ legal status.” The rhetoric and other actions around people of color not born in the U.S., he said, have been very unhelpful.

“I have serious concerns about much of the rhetoric of the administration and it’s affect on children that has nothing to do with Secretary DeVos,” White said.

On his takeaway from his very big split from former governor Bobby Jindal over the common core:

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal backed White to be the school superintendent, but the two had a big-time falling out over the common-core standards and aligned tests, which Jindal ended up opposing and White continued to support. Louisiana ended up making changes to the common core and the test that—in the view of many observers—didn’t substanatively depart from what White originally sought.

“There were just some things that were nonnegotiable,” White said, when we asked him what his main takeaway was from that experience. “We weren’t going to back off of it. ... You have to respect the fact that we never changed our position. I think that is sadly rare in the political world.”

Why did he refuse to change his stance when Jindal wanted him too? White said he was thinking of teachers.

“The last thing that teachers wanted to see happen was another change. It was important that what we said was credible to teachers. And you can’t be credible to teachers if they see you as part of this constant flip-flopping,” he said.

On driving big changes without supercharging the bureaucracy:

Speaking of teachers: One of White’s signature rhetorical strategies in public has been to criticize how education bureaucracy can put too much of a burden on educators, and ignore complex on-the-ground realities. Yet his tenure has been characterized by sweeping and systemic change—Louisiana’s goal of tying the state’s model curriculum to a pilot assessment, for example, requires a lot of input and work by the state education department.

So how does he think he’s accomplished the second objective without undermining his concern about overreach?

His response was that while other countries have managed to make it clear how different pieces of the educational system fit ogether and support teachers, that’s simply not the case in many instances here. The goal, he said, is not putting teachers in a box, but helping them understand what’s expected of them and why it all ties together. That’s related to what White points to as among his most important accomplishments in the state: the fact that aspiring teachers must now undergo a year of “residency” at a school before they become a fully fledged teacher, to better prepare them for the work.

“It’s not that any guidance from the top is inherently a bad thing. The fragmentation of the American system is a bad thing for teachers. We have been unyielding on the notion that coherence is important for teachers,” White said. “We think coherence is the foundation of empowerment. And once the state has done that, we don’t think it’s the job of the state to get in the way of what teachers want to do,” he said.”

On his next steps, and whether he’d ever want to be U.S. secretary of education:

Whitesaid he has “no plans” for his immediate future. However, he did say that he’ll continue to work on the issue of connecting high school graduates to work and careers, at a time when the connections between employers and their communities have basically “dissipated.”

He pointed to a nonprofit group he founded, Propel America, that aims to connect students to pathways with the help of employers as well as schools. White serves as the group’s board chairman, but said he wasn’t planning to move from the Louisiana education department to working at that organization.

And what if a president called him up and asked if he’d be interested in taking over the U.S. Department of Education?

“Of course I’d be honored to be asked and would discuss it” to see if it would be a good fit, White said.

Photo: Superintendent of Education John White speaks after his meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal about public school testing, in Baton Rouge, La., in 2014. White, who helped strengthen the role of charter schools, backed a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program for private schools, and oversaw major changes to the state’s school accountability efforts, is stepping down from his position in March. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)


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