“John White lacks the qualifications to be hired even as a principal in any Louisiana public high school, and yet inexplicably, he is guiding the future of thousands of principals in Louisiana. How did this come to pass?”
Life has an uneven mix of pleasure and pain, fatefully intertwined. Education, too, has such a mix, and educators are struggling with a new world of technology and societal changes in the family structure. Louisiana presently has a reputation, deserved or not, as being near the bottom of the barrel in terms of its education system. Over decades, leaders have struggled with providing a quality education to its 700,000 students, and that struggle will never end. While no clear answers have surfaced, one thing is painfully clear: State Superintendent John White is incapable of shepherding Louisiana’s educational situation through these tumultuous times.
John White’s qualifications are appallingly slim, and they betray a pattern of short-term jobs without any accurate measure of his effectiveness in those brief positions. A 2003 English graduate of the University of Virginia, he became a Teach for America teacher and taught THREE years at Dickinson High School in New Jersey until 2006. From 2004 to 2006, he also became the executive director of Teach for America Chicago and Teach for America New Jersey. From there, he has been fast-tracked with inordinate speed into positions of leadership that far outstripped his abilities. In 2006, White became a Deputy Chancellor under New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein. While there, he attended the Broad’s Superintendent Academy, which trains him to become a superintendent after a paltry six seminars over ten months. When Paul Vallas left as New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal courted White to take the job, even though he had never been a superintendent before. Within months, Jindal made it clear that he wanted White as the State Superintendent, and after serving only eight months as RSD Superintendent, White was elevated to the top education position in the state, where he has now served for sixteen months.
His path to becoming State Superintendent was typically political. The eleven-member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) must approve state superintendents, but the 2011 BESE Board wasn’t too keen on White. Four members, in fact, openly opposed him, making his appointment impossible since eight votes are needed. Louisiana politics being what they are, the governor has an undue influence on the BESE Board by appointing three of its eleven members, meaning the governor with seven votes only needed one more to secure White’s appointment. The Jindal political machine, with support from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, began pouring money in the 2011 elections to get those four White critics removed. Incumbent Dale Bayard was unseated by Holly Boffe, who called her first conversation with White “memorable and inspiring.” Jim Garvey successfully beat back two challengers to keep his seat and subsequently voted for White. (One of his challengers was Lee Barrios, another relentless critic of both White and Jindal.) Keith Guice, a former school parish Superintendent himself and therefore highly qualified to judge the qualifications of another Superintendent, said White would not be his first choice. He, too, was unseated by a Jindal-backed candidate named Jay Guillot. Louella Givens was also ousted by Kira Orange Jones, a Teach for America executive director just like John White. Linda Johnson, who also opposed White but chose to retire after serving twelve years on the board, was replaced by Carolyn Hill, who voted for White’s appointment. In a rare instance of Jindal money not getting the desired results, Dr. Lottie Beebe, who flatly stated that White lacked the qualifications for the appointment and was the only board member to vote against him, unseated Glenny Lee Buquet. Still, Jindal got his wish and the BESE board voted for White in January of 2012.
Since then, White has proved a colossal failure. Though he was not responsible for creating the COMPASS system designed to evaluate teacher effectiveness, he is directly responsible for executing it statewide for the 2012-13 school year. It has been so roundly criticized, so badly implemented, so highly demoralizing, and so constantly changed, that even the Louisiana state House of Representatives voted unanimously to delay the punitive portions for another year. (The Senate in typical fashion never even brought the bill before the full Senate for consideration.) The Superintendent at first denied there’s a teacher exodus, and then insulted the very group he’s tasked with improving education by claiming that most teachers who were leaving must be the ineffective ones. You do not save a child by savaging a teacher. Adding insult to injury, White appointed Hannah Dietsch, another TFA alumna in her early 30s, to oversee the COMPASS evaluation system. Though she holds degrees from Tulane and Harvard, Ms. Dietsch, a fellow Broad Superintendents Academy alumna, has limited teaching experience, if any, and her knowledge of evaluation systems is mostly book-knowledge and not hands-on. White’s office has been plagued with inefficiency—it is difficult to determine who’s in charge of what in the LDOE these days—and has been in defense mode from the beginning of his term. Numerous reports keep surfacing of millions of dollars in misplaced money or equipment from the New Orleans RSD or of students in the voucher program scoring lower than students in the public schools. White assured the people of Louisiana that the State Supreme Court would uphold the voucher system and its use of Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funds. He was wrong. Nearly every act that Jindal and White wanted passed through the 2013 legislature has been withdrawn or voted down outright. And whose bright idea was it to evaluate special education teachers according to the same standards as regular teachers? How does the group-teaching-is-best method work for a class of students with autism? While the state legislature is fixing this gross error, the question remains: who at the state department even thought this was a valid concept to begin with? Is this what we call competence in Louisiana?
I am also increasingly appalled at the poor evaluation skills of this state’s leaders and the media. Evaluation is the highest level of knowledge in Bloom’s taxonomy, but the things I have witnessed have only proven our leaders lack this skill. Governor Bobby Jindal has said, “I’ve been so impressed with not only [White’s] credentials but his on-the-job performance…” White had only been the RSD Superintendent for seven months when Jindal said that, and White came with only five years of experience as a deputy superintendent. How can Holly Boffy, herself a Teacher of the Year, claim that White “understands what it’s like to be in the classroom,” considering his limited classroom experience? Former BESE president Penny Dastague called White the “natural choice” for superintendent, especially “When you look at what he brings to the table…” Again, how does three years of teaching, and five and a half years of administrative positions qualify one for such an important job? Even the Broad Superintendents Academy contradicted their own mission statement (“An advanced development program that identifies and prepares experienced leaders to successfully run urban public school education systems.”) by admitting John White to their numbers with only three years of teaching, which hardly qualifies him as an “experienced leader.” Three days before John White’s appointment as state superintendent, Peter Meyer interviewed him for EducationNext, an educational blog devoted to “bold changes,” and Meyer penned this hagiographic statement: “His three years in the classroom at Dickinson High gives White a firm grasp of these fundamental teaching challenges…” (Please ignore the incorrect subject-verb agreement.) No, they do not. Twenty years of teaching experience might, but three years in a classroom does not enlighten any soul to the true complexities of education nor the needed solutions.
There is but one true step that can be taken to improve the state of education in Louisiana: find a competent, highly-qualified state superintendent. Every teacher has to meet certain requirements to attain the definition of “highly qualified.” John White would not even meet those same minimum standards. Rumors abound that White will possibly accept a position under Arne Duncan at the federal level. While I heartily endorse White leaving his present position, the thought of his advancing his pernicious ideas to the federal level sickens me. It only reinforces the notion that only these inexperienced outsiders can fix what’s wrong. If they couldn’t last in the classroom more than three to five years, why are we trusting them to fix education? We don’t let first-year medical students revise and revamp the entire hospital system, so why do grant the awesome task of education to adults with so little first-hand experience? Just take a glance at John White’s biography on the Louisiana Schools’ website to witness his hubris: he claims that he initiated “12 commitments to the city of New Orleans” and in eight short months, fulfilled all those commitments. John White was never qualified for this job, and it is past time he relinquished it. So, John White must resign or, in the words of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to Pope Gregory VII, “come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages.”
Note: This is an older article I composed several months ago, but it seemed timely to remind people of the state of education in Louisiana.