Education reform advocate John White: We’re in danger of becoming the enemy

Advocates for charter schools, teacher evaluations and other changes to public education that have become mainstream in recent years are at risk of turning into the establishment they once railed against, warned the man at the center of Louisiana’s schools upheaval.

Louisiana State Education Superintendent John White told a crowd Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute that he and others pushing for new ways of educating children have grown in stature and impact.

“We went from small-time advocacy to seeing our ideas through the halls of Congress,” White said. “We now oversee not just classrooms but entire state education systems. Charitable foundations back our efforts. Federal programs bear our slogans.”

But achievement carries risks, said White, a Washington, D.C. native who began his career as a teacher with Teach for America and then worked for New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein to create a teacher evaluation system and expand charter schools. He led the Recovery School District, a nearly all-charter school district in New Orleans before Louisiana Bobby Jindal (R) tapped him in 2012 to run the state education department.

Against growing populism in American politics, advocates for change are in danger of being seen as elitist ideologues, White said.

Instead, they should broaden their focus beyond failing schools in inner cities, he said. Otherwise, “we let every parent in middle class America, every family in rural America, every mom looking for a good pre-K, every kid looking for work on an oil rig, every debt-ridden undergrad feel like we’ve got nothing in it for them when it comes to ed reform,” White said.

In addition, White said advocates need a long-term strategy for implementing ideas. Most of the country’s 13,500 school districts are “collections of fiefdoms” rather than organizations that can manage changes to technology, labor and curriculum, he said. State and federal regulations hamstring principals, said White, adding that he has cut the bureaucracy in Louisiana.

“In order for schools to change, the central office has to change,” White said. “And I believe the best way it can change is to trust educators to do their jobs. Hold them accountable, but trust them. No more strings, no more distractions, no condescension, no more reports, no more white noise. We reformers must create conditions of trust if our ideas are to work.”

Before his talk, White repeated Louisiana’s commitment to the Common Core, new academic standards in math and reading for K-12. Forty five states and D.C. have adopted the standards, which are strongly endorsed by the Obama administration.

Jindal said for the first time last week that he had “concerns” about the Common Core after conservatives in the state suggested the standards amount to a federal takeover of the public schools.

Created by governors and state education officials in both parties and largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Common Core standards aim to create consistency in what students learn from kindergarten through 12th grade. Academic standards vary widely among states, and that patchwork nature has been partly blamed for mediocre rankings of U.S. students in international comparisons.

The Common Core standards do not dictate curriculum. Rather, states decide what to teach and how to prepare children for standardized tests based on Common Core. But they spell out the body of knowledge so that for the first time, a third-grader in Maine would learn the same skills as a third-grader in Hawaii.

The standards have sparked pushback from critics on the left, who are opposed to standardized testing and some of whom think the standards are too weak, as well as opponents on the right, who see the standards as federal intrusion. Tea party activists have been particularly active in trying to kill the Common Core, dubbing it “Obamacore” and persuading lawmakers in a handful of states to halt implementation or strip funding for the standards.

Last week, Jindal asked White and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to answer questions raised by one state lawmaker who wants Louisiana to drop the standards.

White said Tuesday that Louisiana is committed to the Common Core, which the state adopted in 2009 and has been rolling out in classrooms.

“Our teachers have been doing this for three and a half years now,” White said. “You don’t tell your teachers in the middle of the year to stop doing this.” Jindal is not likely to abandon the Common Core, he said.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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