Sunday Talk: Superintendent of Education White touts state's progress

By By Bobby Dower / American Press

Louisiana state Superintendent of Education John White has been Gov. Bobby Jindal’s point man in leading education reform

in the state for the past two years.

White talked with the American Press’ editorial board about those reforms and their implementations.

American Press: What brings you to Lake Charles?

John White:

I’m here to focus on three issues; we’re out on a statewide tour

discussing these issues. In specific, they are our early

childhood system and unifying our early childhood system.

Calcasieu (Parish) has a really special place in that because of

its long history of, or not too long, but long enough history of

having a unified system of early childhood education which

is really important to the success of our state. Secondly, about

the Common Core standards and about moving our kids toward

new expectations in reading, writing and math. And third, our high

school system and a resuscitation of our career education

system, which also couldn’t be more important than any part of the

state than it is here.

On early childhood, the Legislature two

years ago passed a piece of legislation called Act 3 of the 2012

session which essentially

posited that part of the issues with so few kids showing up ready

for kindergarten is that there is this fragmentation in

the early childhood system. You’ve got some kids going to Head

Start, which is the federally funded program, some kids going

to LA4 which is our pre-K state program, you’ve got child care and

you’ve got private school pre-K. And they each had different

standards, each overseen by a state government agency. They are

each run by a different local agency and it really is all

over the map.

Essentially the idea was to unify and create a network of unified early childhood care and education, including standards,

measuring a child’s development, professional development for teachers and funding in a way that was equitable across all

of those programs. We would really be the first state in the country to achieve that in full.

And so in implementing that, we tasked

15 parishes across the state with kind of being the leading edge and the


for the rest of the state and Calcasieu was one of those because

it has already brought in Head Start and I credit Superintendent

(Wayne) Savoy and the board for doing that. It’s a decision that

not enough parishes have made. It’s within the reach of parishes

but it’s a difficult decision. This board has done a great thing

in bringing it in. And we’re six months into this pilot implementation

and I was here to discuss it with the participants.

The pilot goes beyond Head Start to

bring in child care. They have so far started down the road of measuring

students’ development

across child care, Head Start and pre-kindergarten equivalently,

providing professional development and doing visitations

from one site to the next so teachers are trained on the same


They are beginning a professional development tool called CLASS that will help educators gain the skills and the feedback

from an outside observer that they need.

And soon we will get into identifying

every child in a parish that is 3 and 4 years old, measuring if we have

adequate funds

for those and ultimately moving toward a time when even child care

educators have some minimum education credential that allows

them real preparation for the classroom and hopefully a

sustainable wage, which is really what we need to get to. Right now

we have too many of our childcare educators are not themselves

educated and then when they do get educated, they leave for

a higher salary elsewhere.

We have to change that. And that day

when we have the common standards, common expectations, common tools,

common professional

development, common enrollment process counting and identifying

our kids and finally at least a minimum level of background

education for all educators — that’s the day when we will have

really unified our system and that’s what we’re working toward

and that’s what I was here talking with the educators. So this

really in Calcasieu is ground zero, the most aggressive parish

in the state in terms of early childhood (education).

Second, I spoke with teachers

(recently) at the Center at the Lake Charles-Boston Academy about the

Common Core state standards

and about our implementation across the state. I was meeting with

about 100 teacher leaders. There’s at least one per school

in the state. They are trained specifically on how to use tools to

choose curriculum, to create lessons and to create unit

plans for our kids based on the new standards.

It certainly is a difficult process,

relearning to teach a lot of the things that we learned to teach a while

back, but I’m

incredibly enthused about what I see in Calcasieu in terms of the

readiness. And I think the good news is there are so many

educators here already that in my couple of years in this job that

I’ve gotten to know who have been doing work along these

lines for so long — Judy Vail and Sabrah Kingham and others who

really are gems.

I appreciate the administration’s

approach too — the administration has let them lead this change. I know

for businesses coming

here and for businesses recruiting employees these basic

expectations and the idea that you can live in Louisiana and get

just as good an education here as you can get anywhere else and we

are beginning to get away from the bubble test mentality

and really get into measuring deep skills of our kids — critical

thinking and independent thinking skills are at the heart

of this and I was enthused by the educators responses as much as

they acknowledge that it is hard and very challenging. And

I don’t think we should shy away from that.

Third, I’m excited about it, but on a

less optimistic note, is the career education system. I think we just

need to be honest

with the fact that our career education system has not been

respected, it’s not producing the outcomes, therefore are going

to be needed for a 21st century workforce and that’s one thing if

you are in an area, worker’s economy is sort of flat-lined,

but if you are in an economy like this one, in this part of the

state, we have a basic choice in front of us: among the tens

of thousands of jobs that are coming to Southwest Louisiana, do we

want them to be occupied by Louisianians or do we want

them to be occupied by other people? And that seems to be a pretty

stark question.

The K-12 education system can’t do everything, but it can do a lot. And when we have only 1 percent of our graduates graduating

with a career credential rather than aspiring to go to a four-year university or whatever else, we know we have a problem.

Our diploma system does not honor career preparation, it does not encourage career preparation in the same way it does four-year

universities. In a world where a technical education can be a path to a lucrative, middle-class career, that’s a problem.

We’ve been talking at Sowela toward

moving toward one diploma so that we no longer have a hierarchy of

systems where it’s

college on top and career on the bottom. Two, we talked about

creating a system of funding where students could access TOPS

dollars early and take them to technical colleges and get the

training they need. And third, we talked about honoring career

outcomes in our accountability system so that it’s not just

advanced placement and those kind of outcomes, college preparatory,

but it’s actually when a kid gets credentialed in a welding

profession or nursing profession or pipefitting profession, that

they are actually getting significant points and the school is

getting credit for that in their system.

That will take higher education,

industry and K-12 school boards working together on that. But the good

news on that, I don’t

think there’s a part of the state that’s better positioned. Every

time I come to a meeting here and the human resources executives

at Sowela and Chennault and so on are all here. Sowela is always

at the table and obviously has a very progressive mindset.

And the school board is at the table.

I’m very encouraged by the idea that

they can come together, they can design these career path themselves and

if we do their

work by honoring them by funding it and giving them points when

they create good outcomes, we can revitalize the career education

system in the state. I think it starts right here. ..


Press: There’s the sense that the Sowelas and McNeeses and the high

schools are stepping up and ramping up to try

to meet the need, but there’s also the notion about how well they

are doing in terms of their recruiting efforts to get people

through the doors. Are they looking at how they are recruiting and

how they are getting their message out? And do they need

to reflect on the numbers they are getting students enrolled in

some of these technical programs?

White: The

answer is yes. I do think we have to acknowledge just how deep this

stigma against career education is within our high

schools. I’m part of it. Everybody in a high school who works

there, other than maybe the custodian, is by definition a four-year

college graduate themselves. So all we know is that world.

Second, parents and grandparents,

especially our parents, were educated in a system that had this bias. So

going to a parent

and convincing them that somehow a more lucrative option than

McNeese or LSU is to go to Sowela and become technically educated

and go to work in a plant or refinery, that doesn’t sound as

great, when in fact, it could be even a more technical and more

lucrative environment.

I think it starts with giving principals a reason to do this. Right now there is a disincentive in the accountability system

which is there evaluation for them doing this. Give them points when their career outcomes are achieved.

Secondly, we need to educate our

parents. That means going beyond traditional counseling to have at least

annual meetings

with every parent about career future choices. Just talk to them

about this stuff. We need to have career specific counselors.

The average counselor is inundated by no fault of their own with

hundreds of kids every day and the problems of the 10 percent

that truly have issues, not with truly thoughtful career

counseling. That’s not happening.

And third we do need a marketing effort

I think. We are talking statewide to corporations and policy people

about doing some

marketing on this. But I think the average person does not

understand that an operator job in a plant today is a highly science-

and technology-rich job. It is not a manual labor job and I don’t

think that is very evident to those people who are not involved

in those industries. So it’s natural that parents would say,

‘‘Well, I’m going on the lower quote, unquote path. ...

I think the school has to be where the

starting point is. And for me that means the principal has to feel like

that there’s

something in it for them. We have conditioned our principals to

try to get every kid through the doors at LSU and that’s an

aspiration in a positive direction. For a long time, that right

was denied to too many kids.

But if we pretend in a state where only 19 percent of high school kids get a four-year university degree, if we pretend that

those other 81 percent don’t exist and we can hope that they go through those gates at LSU, we’re just denying opportunity

to a set of kids who could have a very lucrative career and be educated otherwise. That’s the challenge in front of us.

American Press: What are the early returns on ACT 3 and what is happening with these pilot programs?

White: It’s very positive. We’re getting our first assessment results back in October. The best thing that I’m seeing is that child

care is actively engaged in modernizing and becoming an education institution. That is far and away the biggest gain that

I’m seeing.

When you are sitting in a room of

child-care providers who are saying I want my teachers to want to go get

a credential or

associates degree or other side, I want them to be compensated for

it, I want them to be paid and judged based on the merit

of their day-to-day classroom teaching, and I want them to learn

from the people who are certified, that’s a really big deal.

That’s a huge percentage of our group.

Second, I think just the idea that we

should identify every 3 and 4-year old,. I think it’s fair to say I was

in a little

parish in central Louisiana (recently). They said they had 275

kids in kindergarten, we have 225 who were in pre-K 4. So the

question obviously stands right before them is who are these other

50 kids and are we making that we are making these services

available for them?

Every parish has that story. It’s true

here is as well. And as the superintendent said, rallying to identify

those kids is

really critical because we can then begin A. to serve them, but B.

to say how much money are we actually spending on early

childhood when you go all in —Head Start, early childhood, private

and public school, child care, how much money are we actually

spending and if we are going to serve those 50 kids, do we need

more? The answer is probably yes and at the same time I don’t

know if we have much of an idea of how much we are spending all

in. Those two things are critical also.


Press: John Warner Smith, the CEO of Education’s Next Horizon, has

warned that there’s an urgency to get this done,

but we need to be careful that in doing this and by putting

standards there, there might be some providers who are eliminated,

thus limiting access to pre-K students. Is that a legitimate


White: I think the caution has been taken to the point that we’re not going to do that. I do agree with his caution and we’re not

going to do it.

I think it would be a mistake to think that a high school accountability type system can be levied on a pre-school. It’s just

a different environment. The metrics are different. It’s a different animal.

I do think that there are places as in

any industry that are just failing and we need to either tell them this

is what you

need to do and if they can’t do it then they shouldn’t be getting

public money. I don’t think that’s a small percentage. And

I agree that if we put those stakes on right now before we even

learn really how to measure child’s development at this scale,

you’re talking about tens of thousands of kids, that would be a

mistake. We don’t know enough right now to develop the accountability



Press: There’s been some questions about the teachers’ accountability

when it comes to the principals’ evaluations.

There seems to be some questions about subjectivity and it varying

from parish to parish and even from school to school. What’s

the solution?


Well, on this year’s COMPASS report which all in all I was quite

pleased with, the numbers aligned with the overall progress

of schools in districts, for example. In districts that made great

strides, you had fewer ineffective teachers and more highly

effective teachers and the reverse is true in having more

ineffective teachers in regressing school systems. However, it is

true that when you drill down within that overall trend, there is

variation and you see some districts that were relatively

flat that had a high number of teachers that were highly effective

and see other districts that made great strides and they

didn’t have that.

I think to some degree as in everything

in management, you are going to have to allow for some subjectivity.

For example,

some of our best districts didn’t give many teachers highly

effective. Well, I think that’s, in part, because they made such

great gains with kids, they were very, very rigourous in their

definition of good teaching. However, we do have some places

that are being a little loose in their process.

We just need to give people more examples of what good teaching looks like. We’ve created a video library and we’re doubling

the size of that in October and we’re going to work with school systems to what we call norm their expectations as to the

quality of teaching as they see it.

But in the end I think the best way to

get there is to end this two-part system between Value Added teachers

which receives

statistical information and everybody else. I believe principals

should feel accountable for a rigorous evaluation of all

employees and I think, in part, you are seeing the principals are

still feeling their way through the Value Added system so

they are rating a little bit looser on some of the other. And I

just think that we should just say we should get to a point

where we say a principal is responsible for everyone’s evaluation

in the building and they should use the goals, they should

use the statistical information, they should use the observation

as sources of information and evaluation, but they should

be the decider.

I think if we make them accountable for

that, you will see a more even distribution because you won’t see

people dancing around

what’s the Value Added result going to be because it’s going to be

one piece of information and they will feel as principals

wholly and fully responsible for the rating. I think that will

make principals want to embrace the rigor more.

American Press: One of the issues that has been raised by local teachers that some of the new testing is going to require

some technology that may not be available in the classroom or in some situation, the Internet connection being slow at the

school that it might prevent students from finishing a test. Some of these teachers feel like they are handcuffed because

the computers are not up to speed or they don’t have the capacity in the classroom.

White: Let me say they have an impressive number of iPads at Clifton Elementary where I was earlier, for whatever that’s worth.

And the Lake Charles Academy as well.

The question about technology has become kind of a political issue because it is associated with the new tests. The tests

are not exotic in any way because they are on computers. Day-to-day life is on computers. It would be crazy if we started

putting pencil tests in the year 2013. That’s my own personal view.

The same is true of day-to-day

learning. It’s crazy that if we’re continuing — and we are — to buy

paper and pencils when

you have on your iPad, you can update your textbooks in five

seconds. I think that technology is more a part of our children’s

lives than we give them credit for and often time it is us

administrators who are educated in a different generation who are

holding them back.

However, to your point, it’s important that we become ready and we make sure every school is ready. A year ago only five out

of 69 districts had every school technology ready for these assessments.

Today, 38 districts are technology

ready. In terms of kids themselves, 86 percent of the kids in this state

attend a school

that is technology ready to meet the standards of these tests. I

think we will get the remaining 14 percent there. It’s taken

us running annual reports that provide an annual review of every

school building in the state, their electrical capacity,

their Internet broadband capacity and their devices, whether their

devices have the memory, the processor and the operating

system to be able to use these assessments.

And what we found is that when we focus on that, we create a public report that is very transparent and school boards respond

by making investments and I would suggest that these school boards should have been making these investments all along.

We have too many computers that are

using operating systems that are from the 1990s and we have not enough

kids that are learning

on computers that they run home and all they do is be on computers. It makes no sense to have the school be the least technology-rich environment that

kids are in, but unfortunate that tends to be a reality.

So you have a sense of it, the student-to-device ratio for tests is seven-to-one. So you have seven students for every one

device and rotate the kids through the device to take the test.

American Press: Why do you think there is so much backlash with Common Core?


I think there are two forces at work. One, there is a political

dimension to this that I think is fueling the anxieties.

Remember, this was passed 3 1/2 years ago by the state

Board of Education. So this is not new news for school systems,

it is not new for school teachers. I came to Louisiana in 2011 and

this had already been in place for six or nine months.

This is not new to anybody.

The backlash started because a certain group of people who are political nationally came to understand that this is something

that they wanted to attack, Glenn Beck and others and to put it in their cross hairs. And all of a sudden we have this kind of dialogue.

At the same time, we have a lot of

parents, who, any time there is change in their kids’ lives, have very

legitimate concerns.

I think those two things have coincided with one another and maybe

you can tell by my tone of voice, I’m less sympathetic

to the political concerns than I am to the parental concerns, and I

regret the fact that the political overtones have given

parents even further reason for concern.

If I’m a parent and I’m sitting out there and hearing that my kid is being taught something new and I turn on the TV and

hear somebody saying that it’s politically motivated and my kid is in elementary school, of course I’m nervous about that.

So, on the ground, change is hard. It’s made much harder by this political air war that’s being fought by people on the far

right and the far left. This is not just a conservative issue or a liberal issue, this is both.

We will get through it because in the end I think teachers will know what’s right for their kids and I think they are going

to make the most compelling case to our parents. It’s going to be a hard change, no doubt about it.

American Press: What are the misconceptions out there about Common Core, the things that are repeated and said and parents

hear it and they take it as the gospel, but it’s so far from the truth?

White: I think the most prominent one is that this is a federal curriculum. It is a simple set of standards. I can tell you at the

outset of this, Paul Pastorek, who was my predecessor, Eric Smith, who was the commissioner (of Education) of Florida and

Mitchell Chester, who was the commissioner (of Education) of Massachusetts, they got together and said our states need to

have a common way of viewing student achievement. We can’t just look from Calcasieu to St. Tammany (Parish) and everywhere

in between and expect that tells the world story. It doesn’t.

They began this concept, the National

Governors Association and the membership organization that oversees

people like me,

developed them. Yes, the federal government paid some money to help

us develop some tests. No question about that. We should

be totally clear about that. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not

free to leave. We can leave any time we want.

This is a state-led initiative that an

elected state Board of Education voted to support. And why? Because we

want our kids

to be competitive with any other kid in the country in terms of

their critical thinking skills and their ability to read and

write. And to make them employable and live productive lives as

adults. That’s why we did it. So I think that basic thing

is one.

Second of all, it’s not a curriculum,

it’s just a set of basic descriptions of what a kid can do. The kid will

be able to

interpret a theme in a novel and to write a persuasive argument

about that theme. A kid will be able to balance an equation

by adding or subtracting from one side or the other. It doesn’t

say what textbook to use, it doesn’t say what novel you read,

it doesn’t say any of that. Local communities are able to make

that decision.

Now, to your question, I do think that

this is surfacing some things about the choices that school systems make

for their

kids and parents are saying, ‘‘Hey, I don’t like that.’’ That’s

not because we went to new standards. That was always taught

here. You might not like it and this may be making you aware of

it, so there are novels that people that are reading that

are controversial for example, in some places. Local communities

should always be empowered to make those choices for themselves.

We’ve got in our country very liberal communities and very

conservative communities and everything in between. Communities

should be empowered to make that decision. This set of

descriptions and standards are not suggesting one or the other.

Third, I think there is a data and

technology concern. Similarly, I think that if I’m a parent in today’s

age or a teacher,

I’m concerned about my kid’s information getting out there.

Absolutely. And that’s not an in-school questions alone, that’s

also an at-home question.

But we need to be real. Whether it’s

using your credit card or surfing on the Internet or buying something on

line or registering

for a club, whether it’s anything today, our data are uploaded

into databases in want to make use of those choices and their

records. That is not created by this.

Also, the federal government has been asking for the names and student identifiers for the students in Louisiana since the

days when the government started giving money to the state of Louisiana to educate kids. So that’s nothing new either.

We need to be very, very careful about our data, but nothing has changed about student information or data because of these

new standards. There’s the perception that that has somehow changed, then you get further extrapolations like people want

to put bracelets on kids or imbed microchips in their brains.

I think those are the big ones. If the

national piece and the curriculum piece and the curriculum choices, and

the data are

the big three and are totally understandable from a parents’

perspective, but they are politically inflamed by those who have

particular agendas.

The data thing is a great case. I know

that people in particular those who are critical of the Obama

administration, look

at NSA, they look at Obamacare, they look at the IRS and they say

this seems to be very logical — the federal government is

just coming for more of our information.

I think we need to try to put those political issues aside and just admit that our kids need to be competitive. We cannot

be a state that drops out of an initiative where 45 other states say, ‘‘We are going to raise the bar’’. And we’re the one

state that says, ‘‘Don’t do business here’’ because we decided not to compete.