In the Arena: A Tribute to John White

David Coleman
Jan 10 · 3 min read

It takes a lot of bravery to enter the arena; it takes even more to stay there. That’s what I admire so deeply about John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education.

Leaders change often in the education field, especially when they have strong convictions and a willingness to push for them. So I have a special respect for people like John, who carries the same courage and intensity today that he brought to the role eight years ago. He’s stepping down this spring, but his long commitment will be long remembered.

The most beautiful thing about educational leadership is that it depends on so many people moving together with shared purpose. When we praise John’s achievements, we praise most of all the work of students and teachers. John understood that leaders are meant to orchestrate and encourage the finest work of others.

That’s what made him a superb superintendent, and you don’t have to take my word for it. The data from Louisiana tell the story. John helped drive a notable improvement in the state’s NAEP and ACT scores. During his tenure, Advanced Placement participation and performance in Louisiana increased dramatically; the number of AP credits students in the class of 2018 earned nearly tripled from 2012.

John championed the imaginative policy of requiring every student in Louisiana to complete the FAFSA. That single achievement helped secure a more promising future for tens of thousands of students, demonstrating that smart public policy really does change lives. Louisiana’s breakthrough gains have become a model for other states, a legacy that will far outlast John’s tenure.

But John White is much more than a sharp technocrat. One reason I so admire him is the deep love of teaching and learning he brings to every part of his work. He is obsessed with the quality of the curriculum and the richness of the classroom experience, remembering that every good thing in education flows from the connection between an effective teacher and an engaged student. No leader has acted more boldly on the fact that students must build coherent knowledge to master reading. John used every tool he had to make sure that research and policy helped improve classroom work, the lifeblood of daily learning.

Across the country, leaders like John confront immense responsibilities with shockingly limited resources. We have given more educational authority to states without supporting the tools they need to be effective. Instead of feeling paralyzed by the burden, John and his team found ways to innovate. Like true public servants everywhere, they artfully used the infrastructure on hand. It was always a privilege to work with them.

I’m not the only one who thought so. A big part of John’s legacy is proving that poise and raw productivity can transcend partisanship. He worked with leaders from both parties, making Louisiana’s progress an inspiration in these fractured times.

I can’t wait to see what John will do next. But before we cheer him on his next endeavor, let’s pause to honor the work done. The lasting legacy of leaders like John in Louisiana and Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C. reminds us of what is possible.

David Coleman

Written by

David is CEO of the College Board, a mission-driven non-profit organization that clears a path for all students to own their future.

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