In Louisiana, we’re behind in education.
It’s not disputed by anybody. The causes go back in many cases decades, and in some cases only a few years, as Louisiana reduced investment in education.
The effects of being behind compounded over time. Parents, and then their children, grew up in our state without the fire-in-the-belly for schoolwork because our economy was based on extracting natural resources. A successful family could once be built on a strong back in the timberyard or refinery, and a high-school education.
No longer, and the adjustment is wrenching. Today, in a continuation of dramatic changes since the 1980s, Louisiana is slowly gaining ground. When it comes to changing our course, the eight years of Superintendent John White will be seen as a success story that transformed Louisiana’s educational direction in significant ways.
For White, who resigns in March, the impact of his work is already being felt.
High school graduation rates are higher, and early childhood education — the most important years of brain development are the very youngest — is better coordinated and funded. Schools with poor test scores are being given more assistance. No longer is poor performance seen as a rocklike inevitability of our history at schools across the state.
White’s years are recognized already as a success story by his peers in state departments of education, The nation is now looking to Louisiana and its initiatives for lessons, including teacher training and curriculum development. While much attention has focused on the “portfolio model” of Orleans Parish, where the school board oversees independent charter schools, less-prominent consequences of White’s leadership have been in traditional systems and schools, where the vast majority of Louisiana children go to class every day.
White didn’t invent Louisiana’s accountability system, but he refined it in ways that refocused traditional schools on 21st-century methods and goals. Workforce skills are based on certification from national groups so that a diploma can be a ticket to a better job. Achieving some college credit early gives students a leg up on the post-secondary education vital to success in this century.
Some of White’s methods have been somewhat indirect, and thus not entirely appreciated. One example: requiring every student to fill out the federal aid form for college or career education. It’s good for families to do, but the real goal is to nudge students and parents to think about education after high school.
Louisiana is one of the states rising in the national report card, with every grade testing showing some of the best rates of improvement of any state. We’re a long way from where we want to be, but John White has significantly improved our potential to be winners and not laggards in this century.