Wagner alumnus John White, the new state superintendent of education for Louisiana, discusses school reform at Rice Forum

If you had the chance to rebuild a school system, what would you do?

Just ask recent NYU Wagner graduate John White (EMPA ’11), the newly appointed State Superintendent of Education for Louisiana. He returned to Wagner for the 2012 Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum on April 23, where he gave the keynote speech.

A former school teacher, Teach for America official and New York City education official, White discussed the administrator’s path to meaningful school reform. The Rice event is an annual forum on issues paramount to the future of cities and urban policy.

Until quite recently, White served as Superintendent of the state-run New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD). In this high-profile role, he explored and utilized mechanisms designed to foster a more responsive, efficient and effective school system. The constellation of schools in the district were spread across areas overwhelmed by the  Hurricane Katrina disaster.

White described some of these mechanisms, and focused, too, on the national education reform debate across sectors, saying it has been framed with false dichotomies. For White, regardless of where individuals stand on issues such as the relevance of poverty and family background, we have no choice but to acknowledge the problems afflicting the public education system and redouble efforts to improve it.

The solution, he says, lies in a new mode of policy making that diverges from the one  that  reformers and traditionalists alike advocate. What is “education, ” after all, but the choices  that are made every day on behalf of students and schools, and the quality of those choices. If we are to revive our school systems for the 21st century, he said, we must revisit our definition of education and include within it the right to attain a vibrant education and equity of educational opportunity. Improving education systems also has implications for our nation’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy.

Today, many schools operate in spite of the overall education system, not because of it. White’s experiences have helped to shape his belief that a school district based on top-down directives is not going to be one that is responsive, flexible, and adaptive. In America, he said, the problem comes down to such troubled systems and a crisis of governance. It is hardly the fault of the people within a system, or even of funding challenges it may have, according to White. Rather, the greatest tragedy of the American education system is despite massive investments and reform efforts, school systems and education outcomes have changed little if at all.

As Superintendent of the RSD in New Orleans, White oversaw an initiative that placed in state hands those schools in which students had underperformed consistently. While the larger school system was left in tact, the state turned over the long-faltering schools to autonomous charter schools, whose principals has the authority to hire and assess instructors. At the same time, certain funding incentives enabled the school system to re-evaluate its primary purpose and core responsibility of providing standards, intervening when standards are not met, and ensuring equity.

Where there are strong standards for education excellence and informed, empowered school-based leadership, there will be better on-site governance. So education systems need to be open to innovation and change from the ground up to meet the diverse needs and challenges of local schools, he said.

Moreover, the polarized conversation about education reform cannot take place in isolation from the front-end equation of inputs. Regardless of partisan politics, the nation must recognize the importance of funding research on public education, investment in classroom technology, and workforce development for teachers in order to combat inequity and boost competitiveness. Local schools, he said, should not be the least technologically equipped facilities in any locale, and teacher compensation must reflect the importance of attracting talent.

For White, interests on both sides of the aisle can agree on the inefficiencies of a large, inflexible bureaucracy. White emphasized the distinction between governing and managing. He pointed out that schools should first and foremost be places for providing quality education. Governments should be expected to promulgate standards and issue block grants that promote flexibility. Additional services and management expectations can only be successful and effective if they are generated with locally generated influence and support. The lessons of the New Orleans RSD reflect the importance of adaptability, flexibility, and bottom-up, positive change, he concluded.

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