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We discuss education reform with our top school chief.
A year ago, we spoke with John White when he came to New Orleans to head up the Recovery School District. In January, he was appointed the State Superintendent of Education. We caught up with him recently to discuss his education reform initiative “Louisiana Believes,” part of which involved the passage of the landmark Act 2 legislation.
NBF: You were the architect of legislation that expanded private-school vouchers statewide, changed tenure as teachers know it, and rolled back the powers of local school boards. What was the most challenging part of Louisiana Believes?
JW: I think that the most challenging part was not the legislative part. The most challenging part is raising standards and expectations for what students and teachers can accomplish in every classroom in the state. We have 55,000 classroom and we are implementing a system of teacher effectiveness and student effectiveness that try to really give a rigorous bar and a road map to both teachers and students and that’s a lot of people and a lot of work to be done.
NBF: I latch onto the “expectations”—that’s so key. Is that a big part of your communications? Letting parents and students know what they should expect of their educational experience, what they deserve, what they can accomplish? And then also, working with the teachers so they know what’s expected of them? How has the reception been, as you’ve been going around the state?
JW: We’ve been meeting with community members broadly—teachers, parents, school board members. And I’m actually on my way to a meeting in Rayville. You’re right, that expectations really are far and away the most powerful tool we have for promoting better outcomes for kids. I learn that every single day. That, and I really, really mean this, if every single person who touched the lives of children had a sincere belief that each child could achieve a college education or a professional career, I think that we would be in a fundamentally different place. That’s not to blame anyone who has come before or who doesn’t believe those things, it’s just to say that when people truly believe things, they tend to do everything they can to make those things come to fruition. And I would say that we have a lot of evidence that our system isn’t reflective of a universal belief that every child can achieve college or a professional career.
NBF: How much input did you get from community groups before you put “Louisiana Believes” together?
JW: A lot. Of course you’re always building on success that’s come in the past, but this is a plan that was recently developed. What we did essentially was go on three different tours of the state. The first, to gather opinion generally. The second, to have people to respond to a draft of a set of priorities. And the third, to communicate the final outcomes of “Louisiana Believes.” And the reception has been really, amazingly positive. People have questions for sure. They want to understand, there’s a lot of change. But they really, I think, want to find those elements within the plan that they can grab a hold of and really use to make change for children and I have—it’s called Louisiana Believes because every bit of evidence we have is that when people believe in their kids and believe in themselves as change agents, kids will succeed. And I get the sense that our state deeply believes that.
NBF: You initially came to New Orleans to head up the RSD, which comprises mostly charter schools. Did your brief experience here influence your efforts to see the state expand its charters?
JW: It did, but more than that it influenced my firm belief that the power to make educational choices should be at the hands of adults who are closest to the children, and not in the hands of bureaucrats. The New Orleans school system, whether it’s the school board or the Recovery School District, is really the only in America that has fully embraced that idea. Educators run the schools. Parents choose which schools to send their kids to. It seems like a simple concept, and it works, as demonstrated by the progress in New Orleans, but it is unfortunately very rare in Louisiana or elsewhere. Thus you see in everything that we’re doing in the state, in New Orleans and elsewhere, everything we do is all about empowering people who are closest to the kids to make decisions. It’s not about elected office holders or bureaucrats, it’s about people who set rules. It’s about decisions. Billions of decisions on behalf of the children and empowering those who are closer to the children to make those decisions.
We talk a lot about accountability, which is very important. But too often with teachers we don’t talk about the fact that teachers are burdened with hundreds of rules that they’re told to obey in order to do their job. Well, I’m tired of teaching being viewed as a compliance role. Teaching is a creativity job. Teaching is an innovation job. It’s not a compliance job.
NBF: Initially at least, many teacher groups were unhappy with the passage of Act 2. As you’ve gone on your speaking tour this summer, have you seen any change with how teachers are responding to “Louisiana Believes” as they learn more about its specifics?
JW: I think so. I think it is about when everyone rolls up their sleeves and does the job, people realize that we’re all in this together. It’s up to the people in the schools either to make or break the changes that are coming. And teachers can see this moment as a time to really increase their level of skill as a professional, or they can see it as a time to sit back and let the laws and the regulations do what they have to do. And if you’re about children, you see these moments as times where you look at the landscape and you see these times as ‘Okay, what can I do to use these tools to make change?’ And that’s generally the reaction that I’ve gotten. It’s less about me coming to meetings, and more about the fact that this summer, we’ve trained nearly 10,000 teachers on the common core standards and on our compass system of teacher evaluations. When you get into the work, people realize that it’s not a different universe, it’s just a different way of working, and frankly teaching is too often a kind of static profession: You do what you’ve done in your world every year for the last however many years. So this is a challenging moment. And the teachers who really want the outcomes with the kids are embracing the challenge.
NFB: What about the public schools? With a move toward expanding charters, and vouchers allowing students in lower performing public schools to attend higher-performing publics, or private or parochial schools, are you concerned about what will happen to our struggling public schools? Yes—“F” schools will be placed into the RSD and be placed into new “Achievement Zones,” but what about the “D” schools that students might leave behind with their vouchers?
JW: Well, the best school choice plan is a plan where every school is a good choice. Our first responsibility is to do everything we can in those schools. That’s why we have all of these changes around the power to hire and evaluate—all of this professional development for teachers across the state. These things are done in the service of improving schools. And at the same time I think you can work with both objectives in mind. You can say, ‘We’re going to improve these schools,’ and on the other hand, if someone wants to leave because they’re dissatisfied with their child’s education, then they should have that right. Those are not polar-opposite ideas. Do I worry about “D” and ‘F”-rated schools? Absolutely. I would worry about them if no one left, just as I worry about they when people are leaving. It’s a worrisome thing that we have “D” and ‘F” schools in our state. And whether or not people leave, we have the moral obligation to try to turn them around.
NBF: After Act 2’s passage, there was a lot of talk about accountability—making sure that private schools accepting vouchers meet certain academic standards. The BSES just approved your newly established and detailed standards for accountability (The Criteria for School Participation in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program). You came to Louisiana with a solid reputation for accountability—had you always intended this to accompany Act 2?
JW: As an educator, since my first day in the classroom, accountability has been a bedrock principle, so that’s a nonnegotiable in my mind; however, we worked with educators and policy makers on this specific plan as you also don’t want to disempower teachers by having government agencies try to run every part of their day-to-day work. So there’s a middle ground that the policy strikes by establishing very rigid accountability for the results that the students make while at the same time not trying to micromanage everything the students do.
NBF: Regarding one area of the new accountability program: much of it details that if the school underperforms academically, it will be unable to accept new voucher students until its performance increases for a specific length of time. What about voucher students currently enrolled?
JW: At the state level, we have the discretion to terminate a school immediately, at the end of the year, or give it a year off, depending upon the circumstances. It’s really the point of all of this. Let me first say, I think in the vast majority of circumstances, I think schools are going to succeed. If the school fails, I’m going to assume that most of them will learn how to succeed and will come back and succeed. If the school persistency fails, then we have a period where we say, ‘You’re out of the program until you prove that you can be back in.’ And then if the program is truly doing academic harm to students, of course you want to say that this school shouldn’t participate in the program at all and kids need to find a different option. But we need to remember that often times saying to a student, ‘You have to leave and you have to leave today,’ offers them no better option than what they currently have and could do them harm. So you need flexibility in any circumstance. And I also want to emphasize that I don’t foresee any of those circumstances.
NBF: What would you like to say to New Orleans family specifically about “Louisiana Believes”?
JW: New Orleans in particular should be extremely proud of what it’s accomplished. We have a long way to go in New Orleans, but what the children have achieved in New Orleans is of national significance and if we continue to give parents the power to say what’s best for their kids, and give teachers and principals the power to do what’s best for their kids, New Orleans has a very, very bright future.