The Los Angeles Unified School District board bought itself a little stability last week when it extended Superintendent John Deasy’s contract for a year by handing him a “satisfactory” rating in his annual evaluation.
Buying stability can be a good thing; it’s a key to educational success.
“Stability helps move toward continuous improvement,” said Marshall “Mike” Smith, a policy scholar for four decades and a top federal education official in several administrations, including U.S. under secretary for education in the Clinton administration and a former adviser to current education secretary Arne Duncan. Smith points toward the countries that have done well on international comparison tests, as well as U.S. cities and states.
Finland – the international poster child for well-run schooling – has built a system of governments supporting educator-run schools largely isolated from external politics. Massachusetts, which if it were a country would be near the top of the international rankings, has had governance, testing and curriculum stability for 20 years, through changes in governors and dominant political parties, and through sometimes contentious union and charter school battles.
“There’s no single rigorous evaluation that tells the story, but the anecdotal evidence (of benefits of stability) keeps piling up,” Smith said. For example, most of the Broad Prize for Urban Education winners had made steady progress for more than a decade: Boston, Garden Grove and Long Beach in California, Houston and Aldine in Texas, Charlotte-Mecklenberg in North Carolina.
Stability does not require keeping the same superintendent in the saddle; it requires keeping the same basic idea about education in place through several superintendents. This is what has happened in Long Beach Unified. Carl Cohn, the much-honored retired superintendent, was replaced in 2002 by the equally respected Christopher Steinhauser. The administrative team largely stayed in place along with the instructional program.
In LAUSD, the reverse has been the case. Each recent search for a superintendent has been preceded by a declaration of crisis, and each comes to office with “a new broom sweeps clean”
approach. Political processes are intended to interrupt stalemates and resolve crisis, but they haven’t worked that way in Los Angeles. The politics of LAUSD have produced no stable regime and no permanent winners.
Strength, not length
LAUSD has had 15 superintendents since 1937. The longest serving was the first on the list, Vierling Kersey, who spent 11 years in the office. The shortest serving lasted two years. But it’s not the length of an individual superintendency that makes the difference; it’s whether successive leaders built a strong system.
For the first 60 years of the last century, the city’s public schools were a model of the “Progressive Era” civic reforms pioneered in California in the early 1900s. Superintendents ran a professional hierarchy. School board members were “trustees” rather than politicians, and citizens voted for property taxes to pay for the expanding system. Voters raised property taxes and supported bond measures 24 times after World War II, expanding the schools’ capacity to educate the children of the baby boom.
This system was dismantled. With good cause, civil rights activists organized against segregation, racism and the inequitable distribution of resources in public schools. Property tax protesters promoted the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13, which effectively hollowed out the fiscal capacity of Los Angeles Unified and local governments throughout the state. And the momentum of educational change shifted from big city school systems, long thought to be educational lighthouses, to think tanks, foundations and government agencies in Sacramento and Washington.
William Johnston (1971-1981) and his successor, Harry Handler (1981-1987), faced the tide of political change and increasingly tight budgets. These caused LAUSD to shed the capacity to develop its own curriculum. An entire wing of the old school headquarters at 450 N. Grand Ave. (where the high school for the performing arts now stands) once housed teachers and specialists writing learning material. Now, that intellectual and pedagogical core is outsourced. Instead of being created from within, the knowledge of teaching and instruction is purchased from vendors.
Leonard Britton (1987-1990) was brought from Miami, where he had been successful in creating a civic coalition in an ethnically diverse city, with the hope that he could do the same here. Instead, he immediately crossed swords with United Teachers Los Angeles and was the object of a long and bitter strike.
William Antón (1990-1992), the district’s first Latino superintendent, held office during a time of brutal budget cuts. He resigned after two years, citing a micromanaging school board and an activist teachers union.
Sidney Thompson (1992-1997) led the district during one of its most ambitious reform projects: a broad-based effort of political and business leaders, civic organizations and teachers union leadership called LEARN. Its object was to decentralize the district and move decision-making down to principals, teachers and parents. (My co-authors and I tell this story in the book “Learning from L.A.”)
But the LEARN coalition only lasted for half a decade. The civic coalition refocused its energy on charter schools, and the choice of Ruben Zacarias (1997-1999) as superintendent signaled a school board shift away from the reform program. Zacarias would be the last LAUSD superintendent to start as a teacher in the district and rise through the ranks.
Politics of reform
The 1999 school board election featured a slate of candidates supported by a well-financed coalition led by former mayor Richard Riordan. The challengers all declared the district to be in crisis. Upon winning, they quickly ousted Zacarias and brought in Ramon Cortines – a veteran superintendent of several districts including San Francisco and San Jose – as interim leader before choosing former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who would serve six years.
Romer (2000-2006) declared LEARN a failure, recentralized many district functions and adopted a single district-wide reading program. At the same time, the district greatly expanded the number of charter schools in the city. Most significantly, he led efforts to approve bond measures that would physically reconstruct the schools. The $19.5 billion construction process is the largest municipal public works project in the nation’s history.
Romer was to fall victim to a second round of crisis mongering and an ambitious mayor who sought to take control of the schools in the model of New York’s Michael Bloomberg or Chicago’s Richard M. Daley. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s own slate of school board candidates declared LAUSD to be failing. In one of the most pathos-filled moments in recent political history, the old Colorado governor challenged the new mayor with charts and graphs showing the schools’ progress, but no one at City Hall was listening.
David Brewer (2006-2009), a retired Navy admiral, was appointed superintendent, and Cortines became deputy mayor under Villaraigosa. Brewer tried to be captain of the ship, but struggled with an organization that did not follow a military command structure. In 2008, Cortines joined the district as deputy superintendent in charge of day-to-day operations.
As superintendent, Cortines (2009-2011) strengthened the focus on measurable outcomes and moved to reconstitute schools deemed failing. He implemented a school board resolution called “public school choice” that allowed charters and other organizations to compete with internal groups to operate schools in some of the newly constructed buildings.
People in and around the district began to speak openly of the school district as a “portfolio,” a collection of schools with different operating characteristics. Some would be traditional public schools, some charters, some groups of autonomous schools, and some a new form of in-district charter called Pilot Schools.
As this organizational experiment rolled forward, Cortines edged toward retirement at age 78, and Deasy, a former schools superintendent who had been working as deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, became deputy superintendent, and then assumed the top job in 2011. Deasy was heavily supported by Villaraigosa’s coalition, both on the board and by the collection of venture philanthropies that had influenced the course of school reform, particularly the Gates Foundation and that of Eli Broad.
The Villaraigosa coalition lost control of the school board in 2013, challenged principally by United Teachers Los Angeles in some of the most expensive school board races in history. The board turned from compliant with Deasy’s leadership to querulous.
Deputy Superintendent Jamie Aquino resigned in September, citing board micromanagement. And the board members questioned Deasy’s teacher evaluation system, which was already stymied by union opposition, and the state’s decision to abandon the existing testing system. And the growing uproar over the decision to purchase student iPads with construction bond money made Deasy’s Oct. 29 review a pivotal moment.
Drama over Deasy’s future with the district grew when the L.A. Times reported that he had told board members he was planning to resign, and that a resignation agreement had been drafted.
No one knows whether a “satisfactory” evaluation means that Deasy will stay. The scholarly research on superintendent turnover suggests that when school board members are defeated for reelection, the superintendent’s tenure will be brief. But the more important question is whether Deasy or the board is building a system that lasts.
“This doesn’t have to be fancy,” said former Under Secretary Smith. “It’s picking out the little things that make a big difference. Health care got a lot better when we got practitioners to wash their hands.”
Charles Taylor Kerchner is a professor at Claremont Graduate University and a columnist at EdSource Today.