Strengthening Standards, Teaching and Tests in a Deep Red State

By: John White, Louisiana State Superintendent of Schools, written for FutureEd

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the FutureEd Interviews by FutureEd, an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. It has been republished with permission.


In his seven years as Louisiana’s state superintendent of schools, John White has introduced new academic standards, new curricula and, now, new ways to measure student success. It’s an ambitious attempt to bring school reform to the classroom, and a campaign fraught with challenges. FutureEd talked to White about the work and the lessons he’s learned about scaling instructional reform, finding the right balance between state and local control, and the value of building standardized reading tests based on what students have studied in English, social studies and other subjects.

The Common Core has been unpopular in deep red states like Louisiana yet you have set about revamping your curriculum and instruction to align with the Common Core. How have you fended off your critics?
I should say first that polling on the substance of academic standards that are comparable across state lines is actually pretty good. So I don’t accept that the idea itself is wildly unpopular. I understand that certain brands and taglines in political environments incite anxiety, but that’s really not always the same thing as substantive objection.

Insofar as the new standards were simply standards that are comparable across state lines when properly explained and when properly delivered, my experience is that the teachers and parents have been supportive.

What does that look like in Louisiana?
The notion of standards-based reform was really that it would inspire a more coherent set of academic pillars for our country’s school system. And that included the preparation of teachers in accordance with higher standards, the design and implementation of curriculum, the ongoing support of teachers, and ultimately then, accountability systems and measurement systems, including tests, that reflected those standards.

It was never meant to be simply an accountability element. It was meant to inspire action. And those other three legs of the stool—preparation, curriculum, and ongoing support—we’ve tried to make available at scale, across district lines.

How have you scaled new standards and stronger instruction statewide? That’s a tough task.
We have effected important changes in the standards across subject areas—in the way teachers are prepared, in the materials they teach, and in the way they measure student learning. But change in the daily habits, strategies, and approaches—the methods—of thousands and thousands of teachers, there are a lot of forces influencing those methods. Even now, even with strong curriculum and regular preparation supporting the curriculum, for example, we see some old instructional habits hanging out. Implementation can be messy, especially across the scale and fragmentation of an entire state. What’s important is to have a way of learning where the instructional potholes are and to address them.

What does success look like for you?
There’s a lot of evidence of teachers in Louisiana increasingly selecting curriculums and texts and organizing their lessons with high-quality instructional materials in ways that embody the standards. We’ve seen initial success in those areas. But those things are just indicators of positive movement toward a much longer-term goal, a more opportunity-rich life.

You touched on curriculum. Teachers often push back when the feel that curriculum is too prescribed.
Louisiana teachers have been very involved in creating [the state’s new] curriculum. That said, there’s always going to be a tension between coherence and autonomy in any matter of public policy and any matter of academic work at scale. A good curriculum is coherent in that it embodies the standards that it is meant to. And it is aligned with assessments that measure whether or not students have learned the material or the skills they’ve been taught. At the same time, a good curriculum doesn’t micromanage the minute-to-minute actions of teachers; it challenges them to think.

So I don’t accept the false dichotomy between coherence and autonomy. It’s important to acknowledge there’s a tension between them, and it’s important to have curricula that are coherent but that also challenge teachers to think. I do think teachers are concerned about curriculum being overly-prescribed. But at the same time, teachers do appreciate consistency across the legs of the academic stool and across classrooms and across schools and across districts. Teachers know that a curricular free-for-all, which is too often what has been the case in this country, is not helpful to them, is not helpful to their students.

Louisiana is one of the first states to take advantage of the U.S. Education Department’s innovative assessment pilot allowing more flexibility in standardized testing. Can you describe what you all are doing?
One of the foundational premises of our curriculum in middle and high school English is that knowledge is an essential component of reading comprehension. And yet, standardized tests of reading skills measure them as if knowledge is not an essential component, and that reading skills are instead generic, irrespective of whatever knowledge of books or the world a student has, when that’s simply not true.

[Read More from John White: Managing School Choice…and the Hypocrisy Around It]

Therefore, we have started the process of creating an assessment that is embedded within a curriculum, so that when students take reading tests, they know the social studies knowledge and the English language arts texts that will be on the tests because they’ve studied them throughout the curriculum. Our hope is that the new assessments will create an incentive for teachers to focus on the meaning of texts, to focus on building background knowledge rather than specific skills like summarizing or finding the main idea of a text, which really do not have a strong basis in evidence of assisting students in learning to read.

E.D. Hirsch would be proud. Do the new reading tests align with your Common Core-based curriculum?
The test embodies the curriculum, and the curriculum embodies state standards. At the same time, districts will have a choice as to which form of the test to take and thus as to which texts to read. There is not a mandate from the state as to which texts the district is choosing. The district has options as to which units and which texts within the curriculum they want to be tested on.

What a great way to focus schools on rigorous subject-matter knowledge. Is this real-time testing versus end-of-the-year accountability?
We will be administering it three times over the course of the year at times when units in the curriculum have concluded. The tests will be an authentic outgrowth of students’ experience with the curriculum.

For the purposes of accountability, will you look at the three tests together, will you average the scores, or is it cumulative?
The relative weighting of that is something that we’re piloting. The law gives us many years to pilot it, so that the relative weighting is going to be a matter of some discussion. At the end of the year, we’ll be piloting an open-ended question and asking students to draw on their knowledge of several texts and of the social studies and other world and cultural knowledge they’ve built.

Joel Rose of New Classrooms argues that ESSA’s requirement that students be tested on grade-level material is counterproductive, because many students lack “predecessor skills” required to do well on grade-level tests and because the grade-level tests discourage teachers from focusing on those skills students should have mastered in earlier grades. What’s your thinking?
The principle that assessment should embody what we want teachers and students to focus on is spot-on. And I think in a number of ways the accountability system that the federal law requires needs to evolve over time. For example, the federal law in a sense requires us to focus less on the primary grades and more on upper elementary grades which from my perspective does not make a lot of sense. It requires us to focus on four-year cohort graduations perhaps to the exclusion of other ways of measuring success and life trajectory.

What’s important is that we have an open conversation about the long-term future of measurement and accountability and that we be ahead of the game when the next federal authorization comes.

Do you think states weren’t ready for the latest iteration of the federal K-12 law?
If there is one criticism I would have of the policy environment and perhaps even the policymaking community and the research community related to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, it is that when there was a call put out for other measures or new ways of thinking about measuring success, there were very few answers. That’s a problem, not because the accountability systems are wrong-headed, but because they need to evolve.

Many, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are now pressing for more local control in education. Where do you come down?
At any given moment in history in our system, there are times where a more robust central presence is needed and there are times when it has exhausted its utility. It’s no secret that over the last 35 years there has been a movement toward a much more centralized role. But I think it is fair to say that absent a strong local response [in the wake of ESSA], all of that energy at the federal and state levels will not end up manifesting itself.

So should we simply surrender all regulatory authority at the federal and state level and create a system entirely based on a consumer-driven model? That seems imprudent. At the same time, some of the things the secretary has said about the system needing to accommodate the will of parents are also quite accurate.

How do you try to achieve that balance at the Louisiana Department of Education? What role does your state play and what power do you give to the locals?
At its best, the state creates coherent frameworks within which locals develop solutions. And this has to be the way that central entities think about their roles going forward. Trying to get into the daily micromanaging of schools from state capitals that are hundreds of miles away makes no sense, just as it makes no sense for states to have no view at all as to what happens in classrooms.

So we create frameworks for coherent action—for local entities making decisions about resource allocation, about their own standards for selecting curricula, for evaluating educators, for prioritizing everything from childcare to industry pathways. And that’s going to look very different in rural Western Louisiana on the Texas border and in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Therefore, our framework has to be flexible in a way that is both inspiring and ambitious for local actors.

What has that work cost and where did the money come from?
The word “cost” can mean a lot of things. But if we’re talking dollars and cents, our system will be more efficient and more productive as a result of coherent academic policies. And we have moved toward a more coherent policy framework amidst flat federal and state revenue, and amidst really significant cuts to state government’s operating funding. So in the simplest way of defining cost, we’re not spending more real revenue per student than we were when we started in this direction.

You said at a recent conference that your most difficult discussions were not with unions or school boards but with textbook publishers. Why is that?
I think the reform community has been generally very slow to recognize that the private sector has for many generations exercised significant influence over the classroom. Meaning, while reformists have been arguing about collective bargaining agreements and school board governance and state takeovers, publishers of formative assessments, curriculum providers, and professional development companies have been very, very powerful influences over teachers’ day to day lives. And when you really, really get into the mature stages of implementation, you have to address that, both the good and the bad of what private service providers are selling to school systems.

Are textbook publishers reluctant to change as you try to shift your curriculum?
One piece of good news is there are many more actors in the publishing space today than there were prior to the development of standards that are comparable across state lines. And that’s a good thing because that’s what that effort largely was designed to produce: a more transparent marketplace in which small businesses could get involved. I think that the vast majority of publishers today are on board.

I’ve sometimes been critical of the industry because I think there have been some half-hearted efforts to align to state standards. There were often times cosmetic changes made. And occasionally—I think rarely but occasionally—there were even efforts to wait out what were very difficult politics rather than getting involved and trying to help get teachers the tools they need. But that’s not really reflective of the industry broadly, and publishers by and large are stepping up.

So what advice would you give at this juncture to other states who want to ratchet up their curriculum and instructional systems?
I say all of this acknowledging that Louisiana has a long ways to go, in many respects, and has much to learn from others. But the first advice I would give is that you have to take on what is important in the classroom. And as I said earlier, our take has been that you can talk all you want about assessments and the accountability ratings systems, but it really means quite little unless it is undergirded by strong standards, strong curriculum, strong systems of preparation, strong systems of ongoing professional learning.

To a certain extent, teachers are hearing conflicting messages. They’re prepared on one system. They are given curricula on another system. Their formative assessments speak another language. And their ongoing professional development providers speak something wholly different. Of course, that’s going to be very frustrating. So my advice is to understand the multiple voices that are speaking to teachers. And to the degree that they’re contradictory and counterproductive, try to reconcile them.