They don’t come more buttoned-up than John White. A native of Washington, D.C., the tie-wearing, lanky, fresh-faced 38-year-old looks more like a shiny new member of Congress than head of Louisiana’s challenged school system. So why does this single guy find himself in shirtsleeves at school meetings in bayou towns like Houma or largely African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans? And why is he stirring up the education reform movement?
In the education reform community — loosely comprised of nonprofits like Teach for America (TFA), charter school organizations and education groups whose north star is achievement accountability — youth, boundless energy and earnest ambition like White’s are commonplace.
Still, White’s ascent has been meteoric. In about 12 years, he moved from teaching high school English in Jersey City to running Louisiana’s statewide system of nearly 700,000 kids and 70 school districts — serving in some of education reform’s highest profile urban hotspots along the way.
So White’s speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute in his D.C. hometown, in which he warned his fellow reformers not to become the beast they’ve been trying to slay, immediately burned through inboxes and got people talking.
We reformers, no different than anyone else with authority, risk becoming the establishment we resist.
Said White, “We reformers, no different than anyone else with authority, risk becoming the establishment we resist: well-funded, doctrinaire and more focused on policy than action.” He went on to offer a new playbook for the movement: move beyond sympathy for the urban poor and accompanying self-righteousness, tackle new sacred cows not just unions, and put a laser-like focus on effective implementation instead of endless compliance.
What’s at stake? To White, possibly the future of the movement itself.
“We’re unable to break out of this ‘elitist reformer’ versus ‘populist educator’ narrative [and it’s] a real risk to our future relevance,” said White. As supporters like Michael Bloomberg move out of office, it’s urgent to get “new thinking into the ether.”
When he’s not shaking up the ed reform movement, White’s main focus is Louisiana, where he served as superintendent of its Recovery School District for seven short months before getting fast-tracked to the statewide post.
He has his work cut out for him. Governor Bobby Jindal has made education a key priority but is tussling with the Obama administration on school vouchers. Data for 2013 released earlier this month from the U.S. Department of Education shows that while there was some improvement in eighth-grade reading, progress overall remained flat and the state’s students still rank near the bottom of the country in both reading and math.
White believes his initiatives represent the type of pragmatic changes that will make educational standards reform succeed.
White is using the data to underscore some of his statewide priorities. Here are five of his top initiatives.
1. Common Core
First among his priorities are the rigorous Common Core math and reading standards that have become a hot-button issue in Louisiana and elsewhere recently. (On November 21 he announced that the state would phase in some of its accountability measures for teachers and students tied to the Common Core.)
2. Early childhood education
3. “Course Choice” program
Course choice enables high school students to take free classes outside their home school.
4. Teacher training
5. Career Diplomas
A new program that helps teens get solid industry jobs after graduation.
White believes his initiatives represent the type of pragmatic changes that will make educational standards reform succeed. But they aren’t the kind the ed reform community is talking about. “And that’s just emblematic of the rut we’re stuck in,” he said. ”If we’re just stuck arguing with unions, if we don’t think about what’s necessary to make this stuff work, we’ll be sitting here in 10 years with worse results and less political power.”
During White’s tenure, the state has also increased its charter schools. While expansion is slowing in charter-heavy New Orleans, communities like Baton Rouge are planning for an uptick, drawing both praise and concerns from local leaders.
Fortunately, White is used to the hot seat. As executive director for TFA’s Chicago program, he was a key player in Chicago Public Schools, then led by current U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In 2006, he joined Chancellor Joel Klein’s team in New York City, eventually rising through the sizable ranks to become the deputy chancellor of talent, labor and innovation.
It was his work in the nation’s largest school system that truly tested him. He implemented some of Bloomberg’s most hotly contested reforms, from shuttering dismally performing schools to negotiating with the city’s powerful teacher’s union.
The same things that have made him the darling of the ed reform movement have also occasionally made him a lightening rod in the Bayou state…
Managing New York’s complex school portfolio “laid a lot of blueprints for what a lot of us are doing around the country,” said Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee and a fellow TFA alum who has known White for more than a decade.
To Barbic, White embodies ‘’that combination of being smart in policy and having been in a role to implement and get things done — it’s a rare combination in education.”
Yet the same things that have made him the darling of the ed reform movement have also occasionally made him a lightening rod in the Bayou state, where his ambitious strategies, aggressive time lines, consolidation of central office staff and lack of Louisiana roots have raised some hackles. Some of his critics sponsored a state bill to make the superintendent job — currently a gubernatorial appointment — an elected position, but it was defeated in a May legislative committee vote 4-2.
Michael Faulk, former president of the influential Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and current superintendent of the Central District School System, credits White for getting out into the state’s various communities and talking to teachers and staff to understand their issues. But he adds, “You can talk to people, the question is, are you listening?”
White acknowledges that he’s had a lot to learn.
“When you’re working at the top of a state’s entire education system, you come to appreciate the extraordinary range of needs. I see a need that starts at birth that goes all the way to adulthood. And is not confined to cities; it’s certainly rural.”
He’s also learned to deal with the delicate but obvious issue of race as a white school superintendent in a state with one of the highest proportions of black residents in the country.
”I’m not African-American. I did not grow up poor. And I think being able to say that and just being honest with it is really important.”
“I think race is always a factor,” he says. “It’s important to come into a society understanding the privileges you’ve had in your life and being honest about what you bring and don’t bring to the discussion … I’m not African-American. I did not grow up poor. And I think being able to say that and just being honest with it is really important. At the same time, I think showing and demonstrating your earnest commitment to making things right is really important. If you open your door to people and don’t walk away when they open their door, you’re going to have a better time of it.”
White decided to get into education as an English major at the University of Virginia. Toiling over his senior thesis on William Faulkner’s novel Go Down, Moses and its complex themes of overcoming a family’s legacy of racism, he came across a set of interviews the author had given about the story at his school.
We need … people who say, ‘This is a problem and I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to change it.’
White was deeply moved by Faulkner’s points about the main character’s inability to take action where he knew there was wrong. For White, Faulkner’s message was “We need … people who say, ‘This is a problem and I’m going to do something about it. I’m going to change it.’”
“I literally applied to Teach for America the next day,” he said.
Now, he is fast approaching his second anniversary as Louisiana’s state superintendent. As an appointee tightly aligned to Jindal, whose term expires in just over two years, the question is what’s next for White, who seems drawn to scaling new heights. Perhaps a large city pioneering new reforms, or a state where changes loom for education reform? Or what about a bigger, higher profile role in his old D.C. stomping grounds, home to his beloved Redskins?
Displaying his innate political skill, White demurs about his future. “The best contribution I can make to the national scene is to get these things right, and by sharing what works with people outside of Louisiana.”
Leanne Shimabukuro, a freelance writer and consultant based in New York, has worked in the education field for 12 years.
Why you should care
Because the education reform movement may be at a turning point if John White has anything to say about it, and that has big consequences for everyone.