Something didn’t sit right with John White during his first day as an English teacher in Jersey City, New Jersey. When the lunch bell rang, all of his students not only filed out of his classroom, they also left the school premises along with about 3,000 other students. The union contract called for teachers to have uninterrupted lunch breaks, so administrators required students to eat lunch off campus — rain or shine, snow or heat.
It was a world away from the lunch experiences John had at an all-boys school situated on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. “We had a communal lunch. Faculty or students would run the tables, and we would all eat lunch together — we’d take out our food together and talk. It was a special time.” John created a lunch study hall in his class to mimic the togetherness he experienced as a teen with as many of his 90 students as could fit in the room. “We could create the better elements of what I had in school at no cost to anybody by thinking differently about the way things were done. I had a chance to get to know a lot of kids, and they had a chance to get to know me.”
An independent school where the children of some of the most powerful people in the nation are educated would have access to resources that a Jersey City public high school might not have. But, this was low-hanging fruit in John’s mind, a small action that could make a real difference. He said the experience of working in Jersey City first taught him about “the way things work differently for the poor, but they don’t have to.”
Just a few months earlier, he had a crisis of conscience while writing his senior thesis on William Faulkner’s “Go Down, Moses” and preparing to graduate from magazine intern to a career as a writer. “I was compelled by the plotline of that book to do work that I thought was more morally essential than what I was doing at the magazine,” said John. Instead, he joined Teach for America and headed off to Jersey City. This, he knew, was that morally essential work.
“The education I got between elementary school and universities was not a function of some magical or technological advance. It’s common-sense stuff with high expectations and challenging curriculum and good teachers. It always struck me: If that’s true for the well-to-do, it should be true for all Americans, and education should be a means of upward mobility rather than simply sorting and labeling kids in ways that will define them for the rest of their lives,” John added.
With National Public Radio on the dial and podcasts like the Axe Files and Potomac Watch at the ready, he drives from New Orleans to visit, observe and learn from school districts across the state of Louisiana as superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education. Since 2012, he has led the teams that support the district administrators, principals and teachers serving the state’s 700,000 students.
Even though Louisiana has historically been near the bottom of every education-related ranking, student performance and growth have been consistently moving upward under John’s watch. In 2015, the state’s fourth graders were the fastest improving readers in the nation, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the number of Louisiana high school students earning free college credit by passing Advanced Placement exams has more than doubled since 2012.
So, what has Louisiana been doing to drive this momentum? For one thing, they are listening to teachers. They turned to teacher-leader advisors to help review and even write curricula aligned to the Common Core State Standards — college and career-ready learning expectations adopted by the state — and then shared it with schools. “We basically created the Yelp of curriculum,” Litsy Witkowski, chief of staff to the assistant superintendent of academic content, told EducationNext. Louisiana is a local-control state, so the goal was simply to provide options — not mandates — for schools as they transitioned to the new standards. The curricula was then aligned with assessments and professional development for teachers and principals.
“A lot of lip service is paid to the idea of listening. Listening attentively to what teachers have to say about issues ranging from societal trends to very typical academic issues is important,” John said. “But listening itself is not really important unless you turn what you’ve heard into lessons.”
John savors his role in providing a vision for the educators of Louisiana. He said that partnering alongside colleagues on the work is helping the state turn the Common Core corner. He also called the political debate about the standards unfortunate for “how casually it treated issues of incredible complexity and consequence for schools, and we’re just barely moving down that road. I’m very pleased we’re set up with an ambitious system in Louisiana, academically.”
Creating new systems is familiar territory for John. After leadership roles in Teach for America in Chicago and New Jersey, he served as a deputy chancellor in New York City, responsible for supporting the turnaround of the district’s lowest-performing schools and launching 500 new district and public charter schools. In 2011, he was tapped to lead the Louisiana Recovery School District, managing the rebirth of the public education system in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
John is now six years into his tenure as state superintendent, making him one of the longest serving state chiefs of education in the country. But he has been working on a month-to-month contract with the state board of education since 2016. “The board asked me to do a job six years ago, and they’ve given me a positive evaluation every year since,” John said. “I just keep doing it. I’ve done what they’ve asked me to do. I can’t do anything more than that.”
In 2017, the New Orleans Times-Picayune called on the state board to extend his contract: “The graduation rate and ACT averages have gone up statewide. More students are scoring at the mastery level on state achievement tests. The state also has raised standards for preschools and daycares and set up a rating system to make it easier for parents to find the best place for their children. If you look at New Orleans, which is the truest example of the reforms Mr. White supports, the improvement is striking.”
Some have criticized him for being part of a group of so-called “reformers,” but John also is vocal about his frustration with reform-oriented leaders and organizations. “My concern is that it becomes as well-funded and as insular and self-assured as unions or any other group… meaning it believes only things it already believes. The greatest challenge in being a non-partisan is not telling the unions or the school boards that this is a problem — it’s telling the reformers that their ideas have flaws.”
It’s that kind of no-nonsense approach that has defined his leadership. “I’m no master of politics or policy,” John said. “It takes sharing a belief system, values and some level of humility — knowing that the long run is where the win is. It’s rare that victories come in the short run.”