He’s been called “Pastorek 2.0,” a tech-y reference to former state Superintendent Paul Pastorek, whose bedside manner was something akin to that of a grumpy mortician. John White, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hand-picked replacement for Pastorek, certainly possesses better diplomatic skills than his predecessor, who tearfully quit the job last year amid mounting rancor with state teacher unions and school boards.
A tall, lean, handsome 36-year-old who was voted state super in early January by the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education after just a few months on the job as superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, White seems unfazed by his daunting task: shepherding through his boss’ aggressive reform agenda for public schools.
Jindal got the reform-minded majority on BESE he wanted in last fall’s elections, but the package he rolled out a couple of weeks ago — changes to the way teachers are hired, fired and retained, school choice via a controversial voucher program as well as the promotion of charter schools and more accountability for teachers and administrators — could be a hard sell with state lawmakers no doubt already getting an earful from the public-education establishment.
A former deputy chancellor of New York City’s public school system and an executive with Teach for America, White got his start in education as an English teacher at an inner-city school in Jersey City, NJ. His $275,000 annual salary as state super, which is about $100,000 less than Pastorek was pulling down, will buy him a nice house in Baton Rouge. What it won’t buy is the trust of Louisiana’s public-school teachers who, through their unions, have expressed plenty of skepticism with the reforms White is touting.
White has been making the rounds of newspaper editorial boards recently to explain the governor’s plans. He stopped by The Ind last week. Unlike every state official in recent memory who has visited this paper, White arrived alone — no press flacks or handlers poking at their Blackberries and whisking him off to his next appointment. He spoke for about an hour. Here are some choice cuts:
On Jindal’s overall reform agenda:
“I’m so excited about what the governor’s doing to get a great teacher in every classroom. You do have to do some of the nuts and bolts right: You have to get funding formulas that are about student need and merit; you have to provide early childhood education; you do have to have better labor policies than we’ve had in the adults-oriented labor universe where we live. But you have to do it in the service of wanting an enterprising system. I don’t think that just the standard classroom day of 8 o’clock to 3 o’clock with textbooks and 750-square-foot classrooms is going to be good enough to prepare people for the 21st century, no matter how effective your average teacher is, to be honest.
“So, I don’t think that a one-size-fits-all system, no matter how good it is, is what we want.”
On innovation in public education:
“We constrain to death innovation in public education. The government can’t do that...
“I don’t think that bureaucracy inherently reforms itself. I think you have to shift power to the people who are closest to the kids and accountable to them, which really is not the people from Washington and in Baton Rouge...”
I don’t think that a one-size-fits-all system, no matter how good it is, is what we want.
On vouchers, which use taxpayer money to cover private- and charter-school tuition for children at failing schools — a program critics charge drains the public-school system of funds:
“You should have ... the ability as a student in Louisiana to choose among those options in order to construct an education that is the one that you want. And having the courage to make that part of the funding formula in the way we operate is actually, I think, a huge, huge step for two reasons.
“One, it’s about kids who are not in high-performing environments right now and not saying we should just put faith in our school boards to miraculously change things overnight. But, two, it also is going to stimulate people who are outside the traditional K-12 system to create new options and to say there are different ways of doing this. “K-12 education has been a locked box that no one else can get into. Just talk to someone in philanthropy about how hard it is to give an effective grant in K-12 education.
“So, in effect what we’re trying to do in Louisiana is not just to give kids the right to choose, which is most important, but also to create an environment where there’s more than one way of doing this because the monolithic one way of doing this isn’t going to work.”
On teacher accountability, especially grading educators in high-poverty schools versus affluent schools:
“There are two types of benchmarks. One is a qualitative rubric that basically looks at how a teacher is performing in the classroom and grades them on a rubric.
“The other side of that is the quantitative side. Not all but most teachers will ultimately be graded on a quantitative measure of student learning as well, and that formula actually specifically looks at poverty, special education status, English language learner status...
“[W]e totally need to take into account poverty when we look at how well a student is performing...
“I think every teacher is actually going to feel a lot of pressure to be honest, and I think we need to work with them so they have a clear understanding of what it is, to make them understand we’re rooting for them and we’ll support them, because I think what will actually end up happening is, teachers in well-to-do districts will have a harder time statistically showing that they are having a measurable effect on kids...
“I’m not going to say there’s not going to be any situation where an ambitious, accountable teacher in a high-poverty setting isn’t going to feel a lot of pressure. I would feel that way without a value-added measure.
“I think what we do need to do is communicate with them in a way that alleviates their concerns. If they’re setting goals, if they’re calling home — all the things good teachers already know how to do — they’re going to see results with their kids. And if they see results with their kids, there is no reason to be concerned. We are not going to fire our way to success as education administrators; we need to value teachers.”
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