L.A. Unified leaders don't make the grade
By Steve Lopez, LA Times columnist | http://lat.ms/18a3h44
September 17, 2013, 8:19 p.m. :: The nation's second-largest public school district is dealing with a few disciplinary problems of late, but it's not the students I'm talking about.
It's the grown-ups.
Members of the L.A. Unified administration think new school board President Richard Vladovic is a big bully, and in fact Vladovic has been under internal review for possible verbally abusive behavior. Supt. John Deasy had reportedly threatened to take his ball and leave the playground if Vladovic got the top job on the board but then changed his mind when it happened.
Some school board members, meanwhile, would have you believe it's Deasy who's the bully, charging around full speed all the time and flipping out when he doesn't get his way. Then last week, Deasy's right-hand man, Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino, had me reaching for a violin when he said he'd just left a tearful meeting and had no choice but to quit because he can't handle the board's interference and paralysis.
"My heart is completely broken," Aquino told the Daily News.
His heart's broken? Stand in line, pal.
How about the hearts of L.A. Unified parents — myself included — who naively want to believe this district might one day put the interests of 600,000-plus children ahead of inflexible agendas, political feuds and petty grievances?
The teachers union leadership doesn't like too much testing or evaluations or charter schools, and it never met a reform it couldn't gleefully torpedo.
The newly formed school board, still working on its chemistry, is neither leading nor getting out of the way.
And Deasy, a man of many strengths, is pulling a D-minus in the political skills needed to cultivate relationships with foes and win their support for his agenda.
Next time someone says it's time to blow up the beast and create smaller, more accountable districts, I'm not going to be as dismissive as I've been in the past. Given recent developments, you have to wonder if L.A. Unified is too big and too splintered into special-interest fiefdoms to ever succeed.
As for Aquino, he's the guy Deasy had hand-picked for two critical jobs — tech acquisition and the switch to the new Common Core curriculum. In midstream, Aquino decides he can't take it, and Deasy doesn't have the clout or inclination to change the man's mind?
Don't leave yet, Jaime. I haven't had time to figure out why there was such a rush to spend millions on iPads, in particular (for which Deasy made a pitch in an Apple commercial), and commit to software from Pearson (a company owned by Aquino's former employer) before the software was fully developed and tested.
And there are still those nagging questions about whether it was OK to use bond money for computers and/or the software that makes them run, as well as whether those computers can be taken home by students. Not to mention another little hiccup:
On top of $500 million for iPads, and another $500 million to build Wi-Fi into the schools, are students supposed to take tests and write reports on touch screens? And if not, where's the extra $38 million for external keyboards supposed to come from, and when all is said and done, do tablets make more sense than laptops?
I'm no Luddite. Maybe tablets will make terrific learning tools one day, although the jury is out, and maybe they'll be great equalizers for students whose families can't afford them, as Deasy has argued. And I like that the superintendent knows what he wants and can't wait to get started. Sometimes, though, it's OK to slow down and do a better job of explaining an agenda rather than imposing it.
As for the school board, someone needs to remind Vladovic that, no matter how badly he'd like to wake up one morning and discover he really is superintendent, his title is still board member.
Not that I don't appreciate attempts to vet and challenge rather than rubber-stamp administration initiatives, but test scores and graduation rates have improved under Deasy. And in the midst of a switch to a new curriculum, we don't need teacher training delayed by months because board members are in a contest to see who can be the biggest windbag and sabotage an agreement on how to best get the job done.
Why is it that once people enter the education industrial complex, they forget why they were on that path to begin with, and lose the ability to relate to parents and other laypeople who don't speak their strange language?
I tuned into Tuesday's L.A. Unified board meeting and was treated to a discussion of LCAP and LCFF, and if you haven't heard, let me be the first to tell you that the district got a waiver for CORE on NCLB. I don't know about you, but when I hear the words "categorical funding," "Race To The Top" or "No Child Left Behind," I need aspirin.
Whatever the decade, whatever the fad and whatever the location, all that really matters is good teaching, good training that makes for even better teaching, and adequate resources for principals and support staff.
If only school board members, superintendents and union officials could get out of the way more often and let it happen.
By Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of EdSource in EdSource Today | http://bit.ly/16g7Oxc
September 17th, 2013 | Tensions are on the rise between top administrators and the new majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District school board – underscoring the perils inherent in Gov. Jerry Brown’s move to push more control and authority for what happens in schools down to the local level.
Brown’s efforts are an attempt to reverse the top-down approach that has characterized California’s – and the nation’s – approach to school reform over the past decade – embodied both in the federal No Child Left Behind law and California’s Public School Accountability Act, and, more recently, the Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states.
But local control means that setting priorities for local districts will be thrown back into the often messy conflict zone between elected (and often changing) school boards and the paid (and often changing) school administrators and superintendents.
What is happening in LA Unified indicates just how complex local politics can be, with arguably even more potential to frustrate successful implementation of reforms than edicts from Sacramento or Washington. The relationship between the school board, with a newly elected majority, and School Superintendent John Deasy is at breaking point, causing Mayor Eric Garcetti to step in this week to try to mediate the conflict.
Said Garcetti, who himself has barely competed his first 100 days in office, “I’m concerned that there will be a culture that will drown out innovation and that may ultimately leave the superintendent feeling like he can’t do his job well.”
Adding to volatile mix was the sudden resignation last week (effective in December) of the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Jaime Aquino. Aquino said he could no longer tolerate his dealings with the board and board President Richard Vladovic in particular. The resignation came following an eight-hour board meeting that ended with the board refusing to endorse a plan presented by Aquino for how to spend the $113 million that the district will receive from the state to implement the Common Core State Standards.
The money was a key part of Gov. Brown’s $1.2 billion fund to make sure that California moves ahead in an expeditious fashion with the Common Core, slated for full implementation in the 2014-15 school year. The board finally got around to approving the Common Core plan on Tuesday – with Aquino nowhere in sight.
Deasy himself had reportedly threatened to resign should Vladovic become president, and tensions between him and the board seem to be rising incrementally with each passing day.
These kinds of conflicts are often most acute in large urban districts, where school board politics are often the most extreme, and district administrators are under pressures to improve the performance of students whose test score results typically lag behind those of their suburban counterparts – and with fewer resources.
What happens in Los Angeles is arguably more important to the state’s bold attempt to devolve more power to local authorities than anywhere in the state. The stakes are exceptionally high. The district has more than 650,000 students, more than 10 percent of all public school students in California – and 763 schools. It is also likely to be the greatest beneficiary in dollar terms of the restructuring of California’s school finance system, because of the huge number of “high needs” students in the district who will get additional funds under Brown’s plan (now passed into law in AB 97) by the State Legislature.
A slew of reports and studies over the past decade have taken a closer look at whether the basic governance model of an elected school board and an appointed superintendent can hinder or help reforms – studies that should get a closer look as the locus of reform moves closer to the school district level in California.
A 2003 report by Education Week, for example, noted “dissatisfaction with the way many local school districts are governed runs deep,” citing a poll showing that more than half of superintendents judged to be outstanding by their peers felt that the basic school governance model should be “seriously restructured.”
Interestingly, Stanford professor Michael Kirst, several years before he became president of the State Board of Education for the second time, was quoted in the same report as saying that the school board/superintendent model can be effective. “Of course it can work,” Kirst said, pointing to several California school districts like Elk Grove and Long Beach. “What you have are traditional, superintendent-run districts with supportive school boards working very much in the background and a strong community consensus to keep it going. They’re getting good results and it’s because of the quality of the district leadership.”
That kind of leadership will be needed to ensure that California’s new school reforms succeed – reforms that Kirst, a close adviser to Gov. Brown over many years, has played a key role in making happen.
Whether the school board-school superintendent relationship in Los Angeles will pass the leadership quality test is an open question.
At the moment it is getting a failing grade.