Though a long way from the public schools he oversees in Baton Rouge, La., John White presented his vision for education reform in America.
White, a former English teacher in Jersey City, N.J., and Louisiana’s superintendent of education, spoke to an audience of roughly 20 students in the Berkeley College Master’s House Thursday afternoon and presented a plan for reinvigorating education in America by “set[ting] schools free.” Describing education as a leadership activity, White called for governments to set standards for excellence and to invest in the talent of students and teachers. He said the poor design of educational programs at universities and the bureaucratic nature of the current public school system inhibits its ability to draw the most talented teachers.
“The whole system actually disempowers people closest to the education of our kids,” White said. “You have to change the system first and the culture will follow.”
White worked as executive director of Teach for America in New Jersey and, in 2012, launched Louisiana Believes, a state initiative to promote college attendance or professional training among public school students.
During the Master’s Tea, White delivered many critiques of the system to which he has dedicated his life.
Conjuring images of floppy disks, the superintendent questioned the hiring structures in place in many public schools, which tend to value teaching experience over teaching ability in career promotion. He said people who were teachers in the early 1980s are now leading many schools and districts, a trend he said helps explain schools’ inability to adapt to modern technology. He added that the highest-performing students in the state were in districts with the most computers.
“We have a real challenge just in terms of a basic commitment to technology,” White said.
White said educational standards across states have varied widely in the past, which he said has contributed to differing expectations for students from different states. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which sets uniform expectations for English and math education in the 45 states that are participating in the effort, ensures all students nationwide are learning the same level of material, White said.
Adding to his litany of concerns, White criticized the teacher accreditation programs in place in many states. He said he would like licenses to be harder to get, which he added would make the teaching profession more competitive and consequently make teachers more effective.
Making the profession more lucrative, he said, will fix the disenchanted and discouraged mentality of many public school teachers.
“Because of disempowerment, we have a culture [where] we show up [and] do our job every day,” White said. “But we don’t have a leadership culture.”
Students interviewed said they thought White was a powerful, passionate speaker.
David Carel ’13 said he was inspired by White’s talk, though he disagreed with some of his ideas.
“All of the analogies to where we were 30 years ago versus now are spot-on,” Carel said.
White led an overhaul of the New Orleans school system prior to taking the top job in the Louisiana Department of Education.