Putting teachers back at the heart of policy making and change.


John White, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education.


Louisiana, U.S.A.

The pioneer

John White was appointed the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education in 2012.

John moved to Louisiana to be part of the post-Hurricane Katrina reformation, leading the renovation and unification of schools in New Orleans and the creation of the Baton Rouge Achievement Zone.

Prior to his work in Louisiana, John worked under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a Deputy Chancellor in the New York City school system during the launch of the city’s iZone.

“In our country right now, and in many developed countries, there’s a narrative about inequality and access to work and access to a meaningful, self-determined life that is having and will continue to have a lot to say about the future of the education system. That’s a tremendously powerful thing, if it’s harnessed into a story.”

The Big Change

Louisiana Believes is a comprehensive state plan to promote student opportunities across five different dimensions of the school system.

Louisiana Believes includes nationally recognised initiatives such as Early Childhood Networks, Louisiana Teacher Leaders, ELA Curriculum Guidebooks, the Believe and Prepare Teacher Residency, and Jump Start career education.

“Louisiana Believes is built on the premise that Louisiana students are just as capable as any students in America, and that those closest to children – parents and teachers – are best positioned to help students achieve those expectations.”

It has worked to:

  • unify the state’s fragmented early childhood system,
  • modernise curriculum,
  • professionalise the preparation of educators,
  • provide pathways to prosperity for all high school graduates,
  • provide families with expansive school options irrespective of their financial means.

The ambition for changes

The big vision for Louisiana Believes is: to ensure every child is on track to college or a professional career.

They achieve this through a relentless focus on access to quality early childhood, academic alignment in every classroom and school, teacher and leader preparation, and pathways to college and career.

A shift in direction

Standards-based reform by nature is very top-down and that reached a height when the Common-Core State Standards – a shared academic framework – were adopted by 43 states.

John and colleagues in Louisiana’s State Superintendent Office saw the limitations of these top-down efforts for a system of shared accountability and transparency about results in also positively affecting the behaviours of individual teachers.

It may have been an effective policy tool but it was not an effective pedagogical tool. They realised that working through the traditional hierarchical channels, passing down the obligations from national legislation to state policy, to local government, and finally to schools and teachers, wasn’t translating into a coherent change in practice in classrooms on the ground.

Making change happen

1: The start point

Thinking globally, acting locally

John and colleagues learned from models around the country and world that were effectively bringing about change. But importantly, they grounded this learning in the challenges they faced locally. Their diagnosis was that to affect change, teachers should not be expected to just passively receive and adopt state plans, but instead be directly involved in forming them.

“Our policy-making approach has been more grassroots in its formication and less conventional. It’s been our attempt to dialogue with teachers, to organise teachers, and to directly work alongside teachers in the formation of plans for change.”

Creating structures for teachers to lead change

A more grassroots approach to policy-making required teachers to be supported and empowered to seek change and articulate what the standards called for, and to be shapers of the tools they needed to capably implement those standards. John and colleagues created a group called Teacher Leaders which they could work with to build and design elements of the Louisiana Believes plan and effectively prototype ideas year-after-year. It became a symbiotic relationship and their mode of implementation.

“The Teacher Leaders grew from a couple of hundred teachers in a state of 50,000 to now about 7,000 Teacher Leaders who convene both regionally and on a statewide basis to be a part of this dialogue. Those 7000 individuals became the people who’d go back to their communities and could themselves be the stewards of change back home.”

Articulating a long term vision

Creating change in a more inclusive way than normal and at multiple levels of the system that supports children and young people in Louisiana still demanded a clear long term vision. It wasn’t just about getting out of the way, but rather offering a clear case for change and a compelling direction of travel that day-to-day activities could coalesce around.

“Articulating a long term vision of things so that there’s at least a direction to where you’re going, even as you’re flexible and loose on the process by which you get there, matters”

2: Taking off

Aligning governance in a fragmented system

John and colleagues recognised the fragmented governance arrangements in different parts of the system – particularly around birth-to-five services and pathways to post-secondary life – as a significant barrier to progress. While they worked with Teacher Leaders to develop new policies and approaches, they sought to create unified governance arrangements that brought together the various programmes of work across federal and state departments which were all trying to achieve the same thing.

“We work concurrently to engage local brokers, local actors, local leaders, in efforts to try to change the way that players were arranged locally, in order to make teachers’ work more successful and their environment more coherent.”

A case for change owned by the many, not the few

John emphasises the importance of consistently coming back to the case for change and being sure that it has popular appeal. He reflects that reformers can get too enamored by their own technocratic cases for change and can forget about the need to engage a broader range of stakeholders.

“I think it’s important that change agents be respectful of pre-existing stories, because that story, that narrative, the things that Americans or Louisianans or Britains, are telling themselves about themselves, matters. You’re going to be ten times more successful if you’re swimming with the stream when it comes to stories people are telling themselves about themselves.”

3: Keeping going

Creating a financial environment conducive to change

John saw the financial environment as an important consideration for helping change happen in the Louisiana education system, but was cautious about injecting new money into the process. Instead, he and his team were more focused on how to create an environment where existing budgeting processes were conducive to spending on change initiatives at a local level. For example, they created a line in their funding formula that supported local school systems every time they enrolled a student in a course that leads to a high wage credential. It didn’t necessarily support every cost that comes with high capital investment courses like 3D printing, or welding, but it created an incentive to fund with the change.

“Budgets are more a distractor and a disincentive, because they create so many reasons to say no to something and the important thing is to use the budgeting structures and the financial policies to give people reasons to say yes to things.”

Keeping teams moving forward

John recognised that once the political argument is won, and the decision to pursue a path of change has been made, the challenge shifts. It’s now about overcoming resistance around implementation issues which are about opportunity costs, financial costs, talent costs, time and energy costs. John’s time is now spent encouraging and supporting the various teams affecting change – Teacher Leaders, the team of local businesses and colleges, the team of the head start childcare and pre-kindergarten providers working together – to keep moving forward.

“When you get into implementation, sustaining the energy for change is very difficult. It’s driven by much more subtle feelings. It’s not about pride and anger and conviction, so much of it is about commitment and discipline and routines and structures.”

Pulling change across the community of interest

Within the five dimensions of Louisiana Believes, there were individual change efforts that mobilised a community of practice – always involving Teacher Leaders. But they were always conscious of the community of interest that included various other stakeholders throughout the jurisdiction. John and his team saw their role as pulling the change across that community of interest, growing change by engaging them in setting the right conditions for it to spread and involve more people over time.

“Students in a state like Louisiana, who now are funded, credentialed and skilled to move onto a more viable post-secondary path, has gone up by every measure possible. Students are more equipped in both an administrative sense and a skills sense than they would have been before.”

Taking change wider

John recognises that the successes of Louisiana Believes wouldn’t have been possible without a State board of Education and a State Department of Education – the regulators – never wavering from a consistent view of standards, measurement and curriculum.

This impetus for change never gave in to forces who were more interested in the status quo, therefore providing the stability for change to grow from the ground up.

“This was not a spontaneous social movement that came about organically. It came about because people at the top articulated an imperative to change, and it was because of that imperative to change that we have the ability to say ‘okay guys, let’s get together and let’s figure out the best way to make this happen.’”

The impact of change

System impact

  • “We’ve spent time to dignify the teaching profession by creating a more professional path to being a teacher. Therefore, you’re talking about a change that is affecting young people ages 18-22, who are aspiring teachers. That’s a change that’ll be 20-30 years before we really understand the sweep of the change for example to acquire that every university undergraduate aspiring to be a teacher spend a full year in the classroom as a professional resident in advance of their time in teaching, which is totally unheard of in the States.”

Learner impact

  • More Louisiana students graduated from high school in 2017 than in any year in the state’s history.
  • In a graduating cohort of 40,000 who leave secondary education every year, 7,397 more of them qualified for admission to a selected community in this year than in 2012.
  • Since 2012, the number of students earning Advanced Placement credit each year has increased by more than 3,700, an increase of 137%. That meant that Louisiana had a higher percentage of its students filling out financial aid forms to cover university, community college or low-cost training programmes to subsidise them than any state in the country last year.
  • Louisiana have doubled the percentage of graduates who are graduating having already earned university or community college credit.
  • From that cohort of 40,000, Louisiana have seen a 10% increase – 4000 kids – in students who qualify with a fully subsidised college education by the state of Louisiana.

7,397 more graduates are now more qualified for admission to a selected community