Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Legacy of Superintendent John White

John White has submitted his letter of resignation from the position of Louisiana State Superintendent of education.

In his resignation letter White claims the following:
"Louisiana is better educated today than any point in its history," 

BESE Vice-President Holly Boffy, said the state made "great strides" during White's time.

This post examines the key measures that John White himself set as standards for determining success and therefore the legacy of his superintendency.

John White was appointed State Superintendent of Education for Louisiana in January 2012 for the purpose of raising achievement standards, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students and to insure that our high school diplomas indicated real achievement and eliminated diploma mills. White was appointed at a time when Louisiana’s education performance was considered to be embarrassingly low compared to all the other states. It was expected that White would get Louisiana off the bottom of the state rankings and also take steps to close the gap between high poverty students and more privileged students. In addition, White and his TFA staff members at the LDOE set a goal of preparing all high school graduates for college or 2 year Associate degrees.

White has claimed repeatedly that Louisiana’s students were just as smart as kids in other states and  that there was no excuse for our low ranking among the states. White had never been trained as a real teacher but instead was one of those "no excuses" TFA trained reformers.

White embraced the theory that teachers were to blame for low student performance
White immediately teamed up with the big business lobbying group, The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, with the goal of totally reforming our K-12 educational system. LABI had just succeeded in electing almost all of the BESE members just as White came on, and Governor Jindal was passing legislation that blamed the teaching profession for all imagined failings of education. White eagerly implemented those reforms including placing 10% of teachers on a path to dismissal each year based on student performance on state tests. White also implemented a new, untested teacher evaluation system that was so poorly designed that principals did not have enough hours in the school year to evaluate teachers, even if they neglected all their other duties. That evaluation system had been written by an LDOE staff member who had never taught a day in her life.

The White teacher evaluation system began imploding after only one year, with some of the most highly respected teachers getting failing evaluations. The combination of the draconian evaluation system along with the shift to requiring teachers to spend most of their teaching day rehearsing students for state tests drove thousands of the best teachers to quit or retire early. The original legislative author of the requirement that teacher evaluations be based on student test scores wanted to repeal his own legislation, but White and LABI would have none of it.  They succeeded in retaining a large part of the defective evaluation including the link to student test scores. But then, because of a growing teacher shortage, White had to push BESE to allow the permanent employment of alternatively certified persons as teachers. White thought that was OK because new teachers needed only to be trained to teach to the state tests. Teaching and learning was steadily converted to a boring process, with little teacher creativity allowed.

The new Common Core standards have proved to be a failure
White promised that he would raise education standards in Louisiana and insure that our students would achieve those higher standards. He often expressed the ideology that Louisiana students would respond favorably to higher academic expectations.  The new Common Core standards had just been approved when White began his term. White embraced the new standards even though parents revolted against Common Core and Jindal changed his position to opposition of the standards. LABI and White fiercely defended the untested standards. The legislature ordered a revision of the education standards, but White rigged the revision process to allow only minor revisions of the Common Core standards. The new standards have been in effect for seven years, and student performance is now so poor now that White has had to secretly lower the passing scores on state tests to an average of 30% correct answers for a rating of "basic". White's stated goal of "mastery" requires only about 45% correct answers, but the majority of students have failed to get to that level. Over 20% of Louisiana students regularly fail both math and ELA state tests but are promoted to the next grade anyway. The new standards have resulted in a widening of the achievement gap between white and black students and between rich and poor students.

White is now completing his 8th year as the top education leader in Louisiana. He is the longest serving state superintendent in the nation. He has had more time than any other education reformer to improve student performance. So using the criteria described by White himself, what exactly is the measure of success of the John White era?

Louisiana is now at its lowest ranking ever on standardized tests
Louisiana is now 49th out of the 50 states in average ACT scores, 47th out of 50 states in NAEP scores, and the gap between rich and poor students in Louisiana is now the widest ever in recent history. The takeover charters that White authorized are still some of the lowest performing schools in the state. The standards for student promotion from one grade to the next have been dropped altogether by BESE at the urging of White. The cut scores for end-of-course graduation tests have been set so low that an average third grader could pass some of the high school tests  just using random guessing. These lowered standards easily account for White's highly touted improved graduation rate.

The Louisiana Recovery District is still on life support
Early in his term, White eagerly took over low performing schools and turned them over to charter groups for the purpose of raising their performance. The  local and national news media have been fed propaganda about how the Louisiana Recovery District, which White originally oversaw in New Orleans deserves to be seen as a model for the country to imitate. But despite the huge infusion of extra state and federal funding and lavish support for Teach for America, and the multimillion dollar grants by charitable foundations, the Orleans school system is now performing at the bottom 20 percentile compared to all public school systems in the state. That is extremely low level performance in a state that ranks very close to last in the entire country! The RSD schools outside of New Orleans are doing even worse. Toward the end of his tenure White has avoided school takeovers by the state.  Now his charter managers are going after high performing students, leaving the low performers to be educated by the real public schools. Not a great model for other states to imitate.

Some shocking statistics have been carefully hidden until now
A critical study by the LA Board of Regents was revealed at a recent joint meeting of BESE and Regents. Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed reported the shocking statistic that out of every 100 students entering 9th grade today, only 18% will actually achieve either a 2 or 4 year college degree. This reveals that one of the highest priorities of White's administration has been a disaster. The propaganda coming out of the LDOE about college preparation of our students focuses on FAFSA applications completed and on how many of our students are accepted for college. High school ratings depend in part on guidance counselors getting students to fill out applications for college. There are some so called "colleges" that would accept a ham sandwich if the application is filled out correctly. So sure enough, a higher percentage of graduates are now being accepted by college admissions. But that does not mean that students actually attend college or that those who start college actually get a degree.  The LDOE, up until now, had not reported this vital statistic about White's effectiveness in preparing students for college.
Another sad example of the hyped up phony success of charter schools is this article in The Nation where the reporter actually followed up on the college experiences of graduates from the highly touted Sci Academy charter school in New Orleans. A tiny percentage actually succeeded in college.

The teaching profession in Louisiana has been severely damaged
In his first few months as Superintendent, White testified before the legislature that a teacher's experience did not matter, that seniority should not be considered, and that teacher tenure should be made almost impossible to achieve. White and LABI decreed that Louisiana would transition to a merit system for teachers where the best teachers could command higher salaries. This new system would revolutionize teaching to transform it to a much more desirable profession.

White's reforms of the teaching profession have been a disaster. The dream of high salaries for excellent teachers never materialized. Teacher salaries in Louisiana had stagnated severely until Governor Edwards passed a $1,000 across the board raise effective this school year.  Today almost no practicing teachers are encouraging their own children and nieces and nephews to go into the teaching profession. Teachers today are sick of doing almost nothing but rehearsing kids for state tests. One major legacy White has produced is fewer qualified, experienced teachers, lower teacher morale, and a growing teacher shortage in Louisiana. Not exactly a model for other states to imitate!

Reformist propaganda does not educate children. The true John White legacy is that he has let down our students and failed on all the measures he, himself, had established for success.