The 74 Interview: Outgoing Louisiana Chief John White on the New Orleans Experiment, His Longevity and What It Means to Be Well Educated

Louisiana Department of Education

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When you tell people you’re going to conduct an exit interview with John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of schools, reactions are swift. The longest-serving state education chief in the country, White has steered some of the most audacious education and school-improvement initiatives of the era, ranging from prodding teacher training programs to professionalize to creating a list of evidence-based curriculum and incentives for districts to use.

And, of course, guiding the grand experiment that has been rebuilding New Orleans’s schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina into a system of independent charter schools, first under the control of the state-run Recovery School District and now, in an unprecedented governance arrangement, by the elected Orleans Parish School Board.

In the process, White has acquired a public profile that’s unusually high for an education policy wonk. And so it is perhaps inevitable that in the weeks since he announced he will step down this spring, the education community grapevine has lit up with speculation about his next act.

White recently sat down with The 74 to talk about his tenure, what he learned from being a classroom teacher and what challenges education advocates should be thinking about next. He did not quell any of the rumor-mongering about his own future except to note that he will continue to be involved in Propel America, the nonprofit he co-founded that works to bridge the gap to skilled, entry-level jobs for high school graduates. And he is a new dad.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Your friend Paymon Rouhanifard, former superintendent in Camden, New Jersey, suggested I ask about your experience as a teacher. In his view, much of what you’ve done in the years since you taught in Jersey City was influenced by that experience.

White: I learned a lot about what it meant to be well educated. I have carried a sense with me from then about not just wanting kids to graduate and not just wanting them to do well on certain measures, but also wanting them to have a good education. One thing this job has allowed me to come back to is the essentials of being well educated and insisting there are non-negotiables that have to do with what that means.

One of those things is to have a base of knowledge, having read certain materials and had certain discussions and studied certain places and people. If you haven’t done those things in this society, it’s very hard to think critically or strategically because you simply aren’t playing with the raw material, the raw knowledge that well-educated people are playing with.

I struggled with that as a teacher. Ultimately, I arrived at a pretty good plan for my kids to bolster not just their conventional skills, but the knowledge of the world and of history that would allow them to be good readers and critical thinkers.

What’s a present-day example of an outgrowth of that belief?

We’re one of four states that’s operating an assessment pilot under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is effectively a test that is purely based on curriculum and texts.

As an English teacher, I always ask myself, to what degree are my kids going to be able to step into a literature seminar at a university and be comfortable with and perform in that environment? The test that we’ve designed and are now implementing with more than 10,000 kids actually measures, “Did you understand and can you make sense of the books that you’ve read?” Not just, “Can you adequately summarize this passage you’ve never seen before?”

That’s a different level of understanding and a different level of education.

Other education leaders who have tried to make the kinds of big changes you led had much shorter tenures that often sparked political backlash. What enabled you to persist? 

I’ve worked for the state of Louisiana for nine years. I’ve been in this role for eight years. It’s a shame that we think of that as a long tenure. Students and school leaders deserve much greater continuity than they get.

I think we all can acknowledge that education has a particularly long tail in terms of impact. It takes time to see what’s worked at the scale that we’re contemplating — across 700,000 or 800,000 kids.

I always thought it would be better to be more invested for the long term to see things through to greater levels of fruition and to be able to evaluate whether the things you’ve done have worked while you were still in office.

In terms of why I’ve been able to do it, the people who work around me in the organization have persisted too. And the team of board members and legislative leaders and superintendents and teachers, teacher leaders that have been in my orbit very regularly.

You have to have that team. Our ability to keep the team together allowed us to weather political vicissitudes and to confront strategic challenges over a longer period of time.

New Orleans schools returned to local control a year and a half ago. Is there still work to be done in easing the tension between autonomy and accountability? I’m thinking of the ongoing grading scandal at Kennedy High School and other issues that seem to have bedeviled the Orleans Parish School Board.

Big urban school systems are messy. They have a history of underserving low-income kids of color and people with disabilities in every city in this country. Part of the problem is that there’s not a light shined on their struggles, whether their struggles are manifestations of corruption or incompetence or just circumstance.

Look at New York City, where I was before. That is a massive bureaucracy that employs 120,000 people. For the media or the public to get a lens into the daily dysfunction of the bureaucracy is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of forces working to make sure that the world doesn’t know just how difficult educating kids is and how often people fail at that challenge.

In every other school system [than New Orleans], there’s an incentive to make the world think that everything is OK. The legal watchdog on the system is also the system itself. That’s a contradiction.

In New Orleans, you have a situation where the watchdog is only a watchdog, and that’s the school district office. So things like the grade-fixing at Kennedy High School, as one example, they come to light largely because there is a watchdog and the watchdog’s job is to transparently lay those things out and deal with them and find ways of making sure they don’t happen again.

We have a circumstance now in New Orleans where buses have not, in 13 school management organizations, been adequately reviewed. The school board isn’t going to the media and denying it. They’re addressing it. They’re putting out statements and they’re sanctioning people who won’t get on board.

The incentive structure is different. So when I see things happening like that, of course I’m disappointed, but those things exist in every large school system in the country. What’s more shocking is that there are not more stories about it.

There are a number of places around the country where education policymakers are attempting to find a third way — giving schools in traditional districts charterlike autonomy but not going as far as New Orleans. Texas, for instance, has created attractive incentives for districts to ask outside nonprofits to run schools.

There are a number of experiments going on around the country that are playing in the gray space between pure autonomy and pure regulation. Renaissance Schools in New Jersey. The empowerment zone concept that’s at work in Springfield, Massachusetts, which I know [the nonprofit organization Empower Schools] is taking elsewhere, including Denver.

These are incredibly exciting innovations because in a way, more than collective bargaining, the one thing that is the most static in the system across 14,000 school districts is governance. That is the ultimate force right now for uniformity, for kind of a one-size-fits-all approach.

Of course, all those things come with risks. If you’re claiming to be creating autonomies, but in fact the incentives — political or otherwise — are not those that people who are really autonomous truly possess, you could be risking creating a charade and a whole bunch of work that ultimately really doesn’t manifest itself in anything particularly different for kids.

“Autonomy” is a word that needs to be scrutinized and understood for why it’s so powerful before you just go around granting it. It’s not a thing that exists in shades of gray, in my experience: You either come to work feeling that your job is to fulfill the mandate that someone else has given you or that your job is to fulfill the challenges in front of you. An entrepreneur is a self-generating problem solver. An actor in a compliance-oriented system is simply absorbing passively what they’re told to do. Of course, in all of our jobs, there are variants of both of those things.

There is a risk in thinking that you can finely thread that needle. I have not seen a lot of experiments where people think, “Well, we’ll give them autonomy on this, but not on that” and still have it result in really entrepreneurial behavior.

About your initiative to vet curricula and push schools to use high-quality materials, versus what we know plays out when teachers of varying talents take to, say, Pinterest in search of lessons — how do you enable teachers, or, for that matter, their leaders, to be entrepreneurial in a way that promotes excellence?

That’s a question we’re wrestling with. Ironically, we’re sitting here in New Orleans, the school system where schools exercise the greatest flexibilities of any district in the country. Then [there are] the other 63 counties — we call them parishes — where we have done a lot to say curriculum is a non-negotiable. Your curriculum shall have certain features, and the publishers that live up to that standard will be active here, and the ones that don’t will not.

That would seem to be the antithesis of autonomy. But I would say two things. First, there are conditions within which autonomy flourishes and conditions within which that does not. Autonomy flourishes in the presence of coherence.

“We in the education establishment in America have treated [curriculum] as ancillary, as if it’s like it’s the drapes on your walls and windows rather than a fundamental piece of the framework of your home. In every other functional education system in the world, it is thought of as a foundational piece.”

There’s nothing hurtful to autonomy about there being standards, about there being clear assessments that measure those standards and about there being a curriculum that embodies the standards. That encourages autonomy because it creates a road map for teachers. They know that if they roughly follow that map, then they’re going to get, in a linear way, to the goal. It’s a trust environment.

We in the education establishment in America have treated [curriculum] as ancillary, as if it’s like it’s the drapes on your walls and windows rather than a fundamental piece of the framework of your home. In every other functional education system in the world, it is thought of as a foundational piece.

Secondly, your principal has to be in a position to translate the academic program into a system of learning for teachers. I don’t care how good your curriculum is, I don’t care how autonomous your school — if your principal can’t take the academic program and translate it into a daily means of teachers reflecting on outcomes, learning the curriculum and making plans for future implementation, that won’t be a good school.

You’ve gotten pushback from both sides politically on vouchers. Was it worth it?

I don’t view our traditional public program, our charter public program and our nonpublic program as different from one another. In my view, school choice has a moral dimension and a practical dimension. The moral dimension is that affording rights to the privileged and not to the underprivileged is anti-American and wrong. And the practical dimension is, in a world where there are not enough good schools, why would we take off the table the ability of someone to attend a good school?

Unfortunately, the issue of private school choice, or school choice generally, is typically neither approached from a moral perspective or a practical perspective. It’s approached from an ideological perspective, which means it’s a purity test for both conservatives and liberals. I’m not that interested in purity tests.

I’m for school choice. I’m also for good schools. I’m not for funding bad schools, and I am for increasing enrollment at good schools. So we have an accountability system. The accountability system has shown that there are good private schools and there are not-so-good private schools. I’m for kids going to the good private schools. It seems very simple to me.

On the left, there is an aversion to even entertaining the notion of publicly funding religious institutions, which is tying one hand behind our back, I think, because you are taking off the table potentially very rich opportunities for social-emotional, values-based education. In a state like Louisiana, taking off the table the ability of kids to attend institutions that have served kids here for literally centuries.

“I’m for school choice. I’m also for good schools. I’m not for funding bad schools, and I am for increasing enrollment at good schools. So we have an accountability system. The accountability system has shown that there are good private schools and there are not-so-good private schools. I’m for kids going to the good private schools. It seems very simple to me.”

On the right, there’s an aversion to regulating those schools and establishing even a very limited bar for minimum standards of quality. I can’t see the justification of that from either a moral or practical perspective. Morally, it can’t be right that we grow schools that are failing to teach young people basic things like reading. And from a practical perspective, if our goal is increasing the odds that you’ll be able to attend a good school, why on earth would we accept schools that are patently failing generations of kids, all in the name of them escaping failing schools?

What’s next in terms of educational progress, writ large? What is the next frontier?

Families are ridiculously strained in the first five years of childhood and in the years immediately following childhood. I appreciate the fact that Democrats and Republicans now are generating ideas in that space.

Complementing a children’s agenda should be a family and work agenda. I’m excited about the popularizing of childcare, of maternal and paternal leave policies. I’m excited about the promotion of work attainment systems and subsidies and education subsidies to get certain credentials. The cost of college and debt reduction.

In the K-12 system, we just passed a federal law that we’re supposed to be implementing. This is not the time for bunches of new ideas. This is the time for following through on our commitments, and it will take new and creative ways of doing that work.

For example, if we believe that our job is to get kids to grade level on standards, standards-based assessments and otherwise, we need better curriculum, we need better teacher training at scale, we need a generation of better tests. We need colleges of education and other prep programs to get serious about educating kids on using specific curriculum in a way that is seamlessly integrated with schools themselves.

We need early college courses that are challenging our students in terms of the real rigor of the world beyond. We need a legitimate career and technical program that involves workplace-based education.

Nothing that I’m saying is new, but the law is new. If you’re implementing the law in a way that is really faithful to the goal of elementary and secondary schools, you’re doing all those things. And what I see is an aversion to talking about the substance of schooling.

Has becoming a dad changed your worldview in terms of your work?

No. I mean, I want to leave open the fact that it might in the long run. The day I became a parent is the day that I most viscerally felt how fortunate I am. Because when you’re given the charge by God or nature or whatever power you ascribe it to, to take care of a person who has nothing, you really do realize how much you have. And especially when you walk around the maternity wards of these hospitals and you glance at the different circumstances among the people — especially in a city like New Orleans, where you really have the wealthy and the poor in the same shared little space — you understand what is I think sort of cheaply called the achievement gap. You understand its roots very deeply.

What’s next for John White?

I have no plans. I’m going to take some time and figure it out. I’ve been very blessed to have extremely good mentors, to work for incredible people and to have worked on, in my view, the most important domestic issue that our country presented me. And I’ve done it for 21 straight years. I am going to take a little bit of time and think about how I replicate the learning and the mentorship and the mission orientation that I’ve had in the first 21 years of my career in the next 21 years.

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