John White, the high-profile superintendent of Louisiana schools who led the system for eight years and made his mark in areas such as school improvement, the Common Core State Standards, school choice, and curriculum, announced Wednesday that he would step down from his position in March.
In a letter to the state board of education, White said the work he and others have engaged in since January 2012 focused on things that were essential “not just to the future of schooling but also to the future well-being of our state and nation.” White, who was one of the longest-tenured state education chiefs in the nation, said his last day will be March 11.
“Louisiana is a better educated state today than any point in its history,” White wrote to the board. In keeping with his approach that often focused on assessment results and progress, he highlighted the best-in-the-nation improvement on 2019 scores for 8th graders in math on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state could report several pieces of good news on the NAEP over the last 10 years, although its average scores on several NAEP exams remained below the national average throughout his tenure.
He also highlighted the state’s work to improve teacher education through classroom work and mentor educators, making information about financial aid more accessible to students looking to go to college, and a new focus on career and technical education, among other achievements.
White was a relatively polarizing state chief over his eight years, and his tenure led to notable changes across a broad swath of the educational system.
He revamped the state accountability system to create new “bedrock” expectations for schools, teachers, and students; backed vouchers, charters, and a statewide “Course Choice” initiative; and in general called for dramatic changes to the K-12 system. (He fought a legal battle with the Obama administration in defense of funding for vouchers, for example.) These and other decisions won him fans among school choice supporters, as well as those who believed that public schools and their teachers should be held to new, higher standards in the name of improving conditions for disadvantaged students. Conservatives also liked his skepticism of aggressive federal intervention and oversight of education policy and schools.
However, his approach also attracted critics. His opponents said the state botched the rollout of the common core. Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor who backed his initial appointment, eventually soured on the common core and fought very publicly with White about the fate of the standards and aligned tests. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers scorned him for what it deemed was his anti-labor approach. His appproach to handling student data also damaged his reputation for some. And he became an avatar for critics’ concerns about the “education reform” movement over the last decade.
Recently on White’s watch, Louisiana became one of just a handful of states to take part in a federal pilot program allowing states to develop and test new assessments at the district level. Louisiana sees this pilot as a way to showcase a new curriculum that it says will help make schools more equitable and create a more “literate citizenry.” And under its Every Student Succeeds Act plan, in keeping with White’s aggressive approach to accountability metrics, the state announced late last year that nearly half of its public schools—44 percent—have been identified as needing improvement.
‘Getting Out of the Way’
Before becoming Louisiana’s chief, White had moved to the state in 2011 to take over its Recovery School District. He had previously worked for Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education Joel Klein and as a top official for Teach For America. That background alone drew scrutiny and either praise or condemnation as political fights in education intensified.
White was a vocal and staunch advocate for state flexibility in policymaking matters. In 2015, for example, a few months before ESSA became the law of the land, he pushed for greater state power over decisions like academic progress for students with disabilities, stating: “You’re not going to get innovation on these things unless you allow states to be laboratories of policy change.”
In a 2013 speech, he said that inequity in schools amounted to a “sickness” and that many of his ideological allies were mischaracterized as elitist moral crusaders.
He was also a harsh critic of bureaucratic systems that oversee schools; in a 2012 interview not long after he took over Louisiana’s education department, he called this situation “perverse.”
“Oftentimes people in Washington and people in state capitals don’t fully appreciate the sheer volume of work that legislatures and bureaucracies have created over time, and how much time that takes for people working day-to-day in districts and charter schools,” he told Education Week blogger Rick Hess in that 2012 interview. He also told Hess: “And you know, part of the job of a state education agency should be getting out of the way.”
Just last month, the state won a three-year, $33 million grant from the federal government to create at least 600 new preschool slots for no additional cost to parents. White praised the news, but added that “significant barriers remain for thousands of working families in need of quality care and education for their children. We must continue to work together to find solutions and close this gap.”
Read White’s letter to the state board announcing his resignation below: