Saying that self-described education reformers must navigate a new course that steers clear of both bureaucracy and angry populist narratives, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said that he and his compatriots should speak to a broad, national audience, not just to those in poverty and in big-city school systems.
In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, White also argued for districts to be led only by those who can first prove they are extremely effective at running individual schools , and not those who are simply making a last career pit-stop before retiring.
But he saved a great deal of criticism for local school boards and districts, the majority of which he said are governed by “stale politics” and don’t allow good education ideas to filter up from teachers and improve schools. This “plumbing” of the American education system, including onerous federal demands and programs, he said, should be fixed, and those fixing it should avoid the temptation to layer on new rules and requirements.
“Most school district offices are just loosely conjoined fiefdoms,” White said, and in most cases do not work at all with the business of boosting student achievement.
But too often, he said, those pushing for more choice, accountability, and innovation in education have let themselves be characterized in the media as elitist moral crusaders unable to relate to regular Americans who might be skeptical of authority. White stressed that self-described reformers have assumed that innovative policies would carry the day, instead of proper implementation of those policies.
“A national leader must see inequity as a sickness with much broader symptoms and implications,” he said.
That issue of policy implementation touches on a variety of issues, as White acknowledged. Recently, White and his GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal have been in the news over the Common Core State Standards, with White standing firmly behind them even as Jindal has begun to express (or at least has asked White to address) concerns in his state about the federal role of education. A push against the standards could also get under way next year in the state legislature.
When I quizzed White after the speech about whether he worried that the political backing for common core might be starting to crumble in the Pelican State, White said that, on the contrary, the support for common core from the top K-12 lawmakers as well as the state board remains strong.
“I’ve never felt stronger about our political leadership’s backing of raising expectations in Louisiana,” he said.
Not everyone was impressed with his argument about believing in educators’ abilities, given Louisiana’s recent, contentious history with teachers’ unions, as the tweet below shows.
#FixingK12 White says trust educators but fights unions. Why fight contracts bargained at the table where teachers can finally speak up?
— Connie McKenna (@Talkativity) October 1, 2013
You can review his prepared remarks for the AEI speech below.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.