Los Angeles Unified School District interim superintendent Dr. Ramon Cortines, left, talks with Board member Steven Zimmer before LAUSD board meeting. (Los Angeles Times)
28 Oct 2014 :: With John Deasy no longer in charge at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board needs a new superintendent who shares his passion for improving the lives of children in poverty, but not his adversarial approach or his refusal to listen to critics.
Even if the board finds such a person, however, that alone won't clear the poisonous atmosphere or do away with the rancorous politics that regularly slow progress at L.A. Unified. Even the world's most talented and collaborative superintendent will not be effective in a district where opposing camps are at war over high-stakes testing and weakening of teacher job protections, and where the board regularly interferes in minor administrative work. In fact, the board's reputation for grandstanding, micromanagement and factional conflict could well diminish its ability to draw top candidates.
As the board begins its search for Deasy's replacement, it must also take concrete steps to overhaul its own operations.
As the board begins its search for Deasy's replacement, it must take concrete steps to overhaul its own operations as well. In recent weeks, one message has come through loud and clear from parents and the public: They're sick of the continual disruption. They want to talk about improving education, a conversation that too often has been drowned out by loud and bitter arguments over rules governing charter schools and whether student test scores should be counted in teacher evaluations. Parents, especially, were less interested in which ideological group won these arguments than in getting past the animosity and down to the business of teaching students well.
The school board has an opportunity right now not just to choose a superintendent based on educational rather than political considerations but to change the future of L.A. Unified by transforming itself. That doesn't mean that board members have to drop their personal philosophies or that there shouldn't be a healthy, productive debate about school reform. But they must reshape old habits if they hope to be effective at improving schools:
Common vision. In recent years, the board has tended either to cede the role of visionary to its superintendent, or to fight over clashing visions. Yet there are plenty of issues on which all parties should be able to agree. That doesn't mean there won't be future arguments about what to do about low-performing schools or how to reshape teacher evaluations, but by finding common ground now for constructive change, the board will rebuild trust with teachers, parents and one another.
Training of both current and future teachers, for instance, should be one of the board's top priorities. Enrollment in teacher training programs in California has been dropping precipitously, and about 40% of teachers leave the field within five years. Without more math teachers, students at Jefferson and other schools will continue to suffer from shortages of critical courses taught by qualified instructors.
While teachers unions and their opponents have battled each other furiously in recent years over whether teacher tenure agreements should be weakened, both sides can surely agree that there is much to be gained by better training of good teachers, who far outnumber ineffective ones. Training is especially important as schools move to the new Common Core-based curriculum.
L.A. Unified's iPad purchase was a mess from beginning to end, but no one should doubt that students need access to computer technology as part of their studies or they will be at a distinct disadvantage in college and future jobs. There are almost certainly more cost-effective ways to go about by purchasing a top-of-the-line iPad for every student, but the initial mistakes shouldn't overshadow the importance of purchasing adequate technology for district schools.
The district has gone a long way toward reducing truancy, but that's not the same as reducing absenteeism from valid but preventable causes. Two of the leading reasons for legal absenteeism are asthma and pediatric tooth decay. And legal absenteeism sets students just as far behind as truancy. What initiatives could the district launch to reduce these problems?
Whatever goals it sets for the next couple of years, the board should stick to them, avoiding unnecessary distractions or changes in direction. And it should determine in advance how to measure whether it's getting the results it sought.
Governance. The board's single biggest weakness is that its members do not understand their jobs. They're not supposed to run the district. They're supposed to hire a superintendent they trust, and then, on most issues, they should act merely as overseers. Micromanagement of the district superintendent impedes progress, frustrates administrative staff and leads to divisive arguments and gridlock.
The board must set goals and overall policies; it must pass a budget, reflecting its priorities. But after that, its job is to stay informed about district operations and issues, and to make sure the superintendent is moving the district toward the goals. That frequently means board members must set aside their personal philosophies about exactly how the superintendent ought to proceed.
There are times to question the superintendent closely. Large, costly, districtwide initiatives such as the iPad proposal, breakfast in the classroom or the new student tracking system called for better-informed board members asking sharper questions. What shouldn't be part of their discussion, however: the minutiae of each school's small outside contracts or exactly which special-education consultant is employed by a high-performing charter.
Focus on education. What could be more elementary? But the school board is so politicized that it can't even get through a meeting without introducing and discussing scads of resolutions that aren't directly the job of operating the district. It celebrates long lists of tiresome, symbolic pseudo-events: retirement awareness days, for instance, or cultural awareness months. And it regularly takes positions on legislation or ballot initiatives that aren't about education.
When in doubt, board members should ask themselves this: Is what I'm talking about or debating directly related to better education and a smoothly running school organization, or am I bringing it up to satisfy my ideological itch or to give a speech that will impress my supporters?
It remains to be seen whether the board has the ability to take a hard, honest look at itself in the interests of reshaping the district's future.
The Board has Deasy’s replacement; Ramon Cortines is the General Superintendent of the LAUSD. He is not interim, he is the man – his contract runs through June.
Before June there will be a new contract with UTLA, There will be primary and general elections to decide a majority of seats on the Board of Ed. And a District Budget for 2014-16. That said, board now has the time to search for the next LAUSD superintendent. They need to begin the search process but they need not trip over their shoelaces in the rush.
They need to agree on the process and the priorities and the protocols, but they have the time to do a good job. They shouldn’t waste it by adding ‘’procrastination’ to the alliterative “p’s”
Much of the rest of the warnings and criticism above are constructive and well founded – but The Times and the Board of Ed need to realize that The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board and the publisher and Tribune Communications do not speak for parents and the public no matter how hard they pretend otherwise. The message that comes through loud and clear from parents and the public lacks both volume and clarity …and seems to emanate more from The Times traditional powerbases in business and commerce and well-funded philanthropy and less from actual parents and the actual public.
I believe that print journalism is still relevant, but it longer runs the show – we need to be careful which show runs it.