Petrilli: With Superintendent John White Leaving, Louisiana Needs a New Education Leader — Not a New Education Plan

The 74

In his classic 1998 book, Spinning Wheels, Frederick M. Hess explains the logic that animates much of the nation’s education system:

Superintendents are faced with a dilemma. They can assume the role of manager and concentrate on refining specific initiatives; this enhances the likelihood of bringing about significant change but is politically dangerous. Or they can assume the role of reformer, initiating a great deal of activity and letting others worry about the results; this puts them in a position to take credit for successes — even while making significant change unlikely. 

Significant change becomes unlikely because on-the-ground educators quickly weary — and despair — of reform after reform. In Hess’s words:

Teachers who take reform at face value, investing their time and energy in the new proposals, find their efforts wasted when reforms rapidly fall out of fashion. … Veteran teachers quickly learn to close their classroom doors and simply wait for each reform push to recede.

Members of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education should keep these lessons in mind as they meet this week to review the state’s plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act and start the difficult work of looking for Superintendent John White’s successor. They may be tempted to search for another change agent with a bold new plan for reforming the state’s schools. But that would be a mistake. Instead, they should seek someone with the skills and fortitude to stay the course.

That’s not advice I’d give every state board when a vacancy opens up. Plenty of state school systems are listing, treading water, with little forward momentum or wind at their backs, often with a hodgepodge of policies that aren’t getting traction in the real world of the classroom. In those cases, an energetic new captain who can get the ship moving again in the right direction is precisely what’s needed.

But gladly, that is not where Louisiana finds itself. More than any other current state education leader, White has put teaching and learning at the center of his reform agenda, and he has provided the political cover, and policy smarts, to keep it there. While other states talked the talk on implementing college- and career-ready standards, he walked the walk, clearing out regulatory and other barriers that kept schools from adopting the best instructional materials and supporting front-line teachers with a massive investment in professional learning along the way.

He showed similar leadership on other key issues, from pre-K through college prep, from school choice to school accountability. Staying at the helm for eight years helped him make sure that these various reforms took root, and they are starting to bear fruit.

Yet, it’s still early going. Those of us in education have a bad habit of switching strategies just as reforms start to pay dividends. That was the case with the small schools movement, and I worry that it could be the case when it comes to the push for higher standards. We expect immediate returns and give up when we don’t see them, only to learn from rigorous studies later that the efforts were working — sometimes remarkably well.

A sense of urgency is essential in ed reform — kids have only one shot at a great education — but it has to be leavened with patience. It’s almost a cliché, but it shouldn’t be: Children grow slowly. It takes time to see reform efforts pay off.

So leaders in Louisiana should not be satisfied with the present outcomes of their state’s education system, given the alarmingly low academic achievement that the system continues to produce. But they also shouldn’t conclude that the answer is to abandon the hard work of the past eight years.

What kind of state superintendent should they seek, then?

First and foremost, they need someone who understands and buys into the reforms that White and his team have put in place, especially the savvy way they incentivized educators to embrace high-quality curriculum without running afoul of the state’s local-control traditions. It’s very likely that someone is already working in Louisiana, and has spent time on White’s crew, in one way or another.

And second, they need a proven manager with the sophistication and know-how to step in and be ready on day one. That means someone who understands the state’s political players and dynamics; who knows how to navigate the education bureaucracy; and who isn’t looking to use the post as a stepping stone to somewhere else.

Like all boards, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will be tempted to spin the wheel and come up with big-name candidates from other states with their own bold plans and big promises. The smarter, more courageous and, yes, more reform-minded approach would be to show confidence in Louisiana’s current path and stick with it.

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