Saturday, May 21, 2011

JOHN DEASY’S PRESSURE CHAMBER: LAUSD's new leader needs to make things happen fast

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

Posted on 5/19/11 • Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy was asked to talk about a career failure during a breakout session Wednesday at NewSchools Venture Fund’s annual Summit in Burlingame, the Lollapalooza for education reformers. Deasy talked about his first effort to move forward a multiple-measure teacher evaluation system combined with tenure and teacher compensation reform while superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md. This was years before the Obama Administration pushed the issue in Race to the Top and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it at the top of the agenda in a labor-management summit in Denver.

(smf: NewSchools Venture Fund is a venture capital firm that invests in charter schools.)

“It all sounded good on paper,” he acknowledged, “but this  proved to be a huge problem. There was no appetite at the state level. When it got sticky with labor unions, predictably – and I was hell bent on it – there was no national context, and  I was left alone with a great idea.”

Deasy did eventually create the system and pushed it through, but, he acknowledged, “it was always compromised from day one because there was never basis at the state and national level to explain why we needed to move to it.”

John Deasy

< John Deasy

Shift to May 2011, and Deasy, one month on the job, has context working for him: New teacher evaluation systems are being rushed forward in many states – in some ways wisely; in many cases, using test scores as the predominant factor, not. The Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, created by Deasy’s predecessor, Ramon Cortines, has proposed a new teacher evaluation process, along with differentiated compensation, new tenure laws, and an end to layoffs strictly by seniority. Deasy has district trustees behind him. And Los Angeles is a lead district in California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, which had made collaboration on teacher evaluations a priority.

But the  leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles is balking at including the impact of any student standardized test scores as a multiple measure in a new system. Deasy wants student test scores to comprise 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but that’s the maximum, and not a hard and fast figure, he told me during an interview. (Getting this man in perpetual motion to sit down for 15 minutes was not easy.)

By his own admission, in the caldron that is LAUSD politics, Deasy said he has little time: six months, at the most a year on the job, to make good on his stated priorities, or good will and trust will dissipate. Revamping evaluations is at the top of the list.

Other districts have moved deliberately on evaluations, but the reality of LAUSD politics, he told me, is that his board faces reelection in 18 months, and the mayoral election is less than two years away. Time is ticking.

“What matters is to do what you say you are going to do – and be transparent about how you did it,” he said.

On officially taking office last month, after serving as superintendent in waiting for eight months, Deasy listed five goals and 15 performance metrics with ambitious annual targets. He will be judged by the progress:

  • Increasing  the graduation rate (70 percent by the class of 2013-14, compared with 55 percent in 2009-10, with huge gains in students qualifying for a four-year university);
  • Attaining proficiency for all (English language arts, elementary math, algebra, and reclassification of Engish learners);
  • Raising  the numbers of students and staff with 96 percent attendance ;
  • Engaging parents (doubling numbers of parents who fill out satisfaction surveys);
  • Improving safety in schools (lowering violent and non-violent suspensions by about 20 percent).

Everyone in the district will know the 15 metrics, he said. They will be “the guard rails when people want to steer off course.” And the way to achieve them is to improve instruction. “That is the fundamental work that we do as a district.”

The teacher evaluation system will have four goals:

  • Identify and celebrate top performers;
  • Provide specific ways to improve the practice of teaching;
  • Identify underperforming teachers and call for remediation;
  • Create leadership opportunities for teachers without leaving the classroom for administrative jobs. (The latter would imply a change in pay levels – something that would have to be negotiated.)

Within a day or so, Deasy will release the numbers and names of schools that have agreed to pilot the multiple measure evaluation system that the district has been drafting. How students perform on standardized tests will be one of many benchmarks.

The pilot program next year will be low stakes – teachers won’t be held to the results, and teachers facing discipline action won’t be included. Deasy says the contract with teachers permits this, but he knows UTLA will oppose, possibly fight, the pilot program.

But Deasy says, “I have been overwhelmed by the emails from teachers who want to be involved in the system – thousands of them.”

They may make the difference if Deasy is to avoid the resistance and failings he encountered years ago in Maryland the first time around.

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