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A Crash Course for LAUSD's New Superintendent John Deasy

Leonard Isenberg: Superintendent Deasy is smart. I just haven't figured out whether he is naive or ignorant about what is going on at LAUSD or he just hasn't had the time to figure it out yet.

LAUSD's new Superintendent John Deasy spoke with members of NewTLA and other LAUSD teachers at the Santee Learning Center recently after school. What impressed me the most was when he acknowledged the fact that he, "Didn't have the answer to many of LAUSD's problems."

superintendant john deasy

Superintendant John Deasy

While he is clearly an intelligent man who wants to tap into and facilitate the talents of all LAUSD employees, he still doesn't realize that the culture of LAUSD is a top-down bureaucracy that has steadfastly fought any notion of two-way accountability that might allow Deasy to implement his goal. Just ask Professor Charles Kerschner, who wrote a book about LAUSD, how LAUSD bureaucracy destroyed LEARN reforms in the 1990s.

When President Barack Obama first got into the White House, he fought to keep his own Blackberry, because he didn't want to be wholly dependent on the White House inner circle for all of his information. He wanted to be able to access friends and dissident ideas that might have great value, simply because they were not filtered through his bureaucracy.

By listening to Superintendent Deasy for a little over an hour, where he made a short initial statement followed by taking as many questions as he could, it became clear just how unaware of the militant ignorance of those in LAUSD he is dependent on, who have seen many superintendents come and go without being able to hold them accountable.

While Superintendent Deasy has some excellent and apparently fair ideas, the common flaw in most of these ideas is that they fail to realistically take into account the subjective context in which these reforms have to get traction. There presently is no infrastructure in LAUSD to implement even the best and most balanced ideas. Rather, it has long been a culture where advancement and self-protection are achieved only by the unquestioning following of policy, no matter how ridiculous and damaging you believe it to be.

The following are some of the ideas that Superintendent Deasy discussed:

Superintendent Deasy's foundational idea for making things better is that teachers have to be accountable. When I pointed out that value added assessment, which he supports, has a 45% margin of error, so that 17% and 62% are statistically indistinguishable, Deasy acknowledged this and said that while it was flawed, it did have value if it was used as one of multiple measures to identify what worked and why. He went on to add that such a measure had a different meaning in a school with a 70% English Language Learner (ELL) population than it did in a school with greater initial literacy in English and that his administration would use these scores with that subjective reality knowledge in mind.

Superintendent Deasy also said, "Value added assessment will have a trial period with no impact on those volunteering to try it out," which seemed to show that he wasn't blindly buying into it or any other measure until it offered a positive mechanism for fulfilling his primary goal of identifying what works to improve student outcomes.

While Superintendent Deasy said that it was not just teachers that were being scrutinized, but also administrators, I think all present remained a little unclear how administrators would be held accountable. He mentioned that administrators would have to submit to training and would also be subjected to multiple measures of performance, but that's as far as he went. He's only been on the job two weeks and I am willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to see if bad administrators are subject to the same actions that all teachers have been subjected to.

This is where I believe there is a strong possibility that the subjective context of LAUSD's top-down administrative culture will be his undoing, because Deasy assumes that administrators who have a vested interest in the present corrupt and dysfunctional system will not sabotage him at every step of the way. Getting enough untouchable and uncorruptable staff to support him must be job one.

Everyone at the meeting acknowledged that their are some awful administrators- Sally Gautier's name was mentioned as somebody who was doing Stulls when she had an electronic probation tracking devise on her leg for a drunk driving offense where she hit somebody, but didn't get fired until she used a student as a footrest under her desk. Teachers mention awful teachers that seemed immune from consequences, while other excellent teachers were harassed out of the profession.

The present alliance of bad administrators and the bad or indifferent teachers that support them, so they will be left alone, is not something that Superintendent Deasy even seemed aware of as common practice at LAUSD. While Deasy talked about training principals to be able to give more meaningful Stull teacher evaluations, he showed no awareness of the present administrative practice of using teaching evaluations as a form of reprisal to get rid of a good teacher who dares to question the principal, who is presently an absolute monarch under the longstanding LAUSD system, where LAUSD administration always supports principals over teachers, no matter what the facts are.. Does Deasy think that administrators are going to give this up without a fight?

Superintendent Deasy also did not acknowledge or explain how secondary teachers that are single subject credentialed teachers without the skills set to do the necessary remediation that students who are often 5 years or more behind grade level need. And no awareness that if students are years behind, it is not realistic to expect any one teacher to get them caught up while teaching a substantive course years beyond their ability, while holding them exclusively responsible for prior bad acts and administrative policies that they have no say in, e.g. all students must take Algebra, even if they don't have adequate foundational math skills- this policy was passed by the LAUSD Board.

There is no magic bullet for longstanding policies of social promotion in lieu of timely addressing the time sensitive brain development needs of students from before kindergarten. While it is not politically expedient to say so, such permissive waste does irreparable damage that cannot be turned around by simply overlaying a rational system long after the fact.

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If Superintendent Deasy realizes that his actions must take into consideration how long students have been neglected and permanently damaged by previous LAUSD dysfunctional policies, then he will temper his proposals by asking what is still possible.and with that consideration maybe less students will drop out of school and we will not continue to lose 50% of these students between the 9th and 12th grades.

I laud Superintendent Deasy's commitment to assure that "all students fulfill college prerequisite A-G requirements," but this goal exists in the context of a typical LAUSD school like Roosevelt High School that has long had only 3% of its students graduating having fulfilled this goal. You can want a 70% graduation rate, but this will only be achieved when the root causes of the present 14% reclassification rate of ELL students and 50% graduation rate are truly taken into consideration

While he was honest enough to acknowledge the extreme achievement differences between Black and Latino students and more affluent and less decimated White and Asian students without fearing that he would be labeled a racist as I have been for acknowledged this truth, it bothered me that he accepted these students failure as a given that must be dealt with, instead of an indictment of failed LAUSD policies that maintain the illusion of Black and Latino academic underachievement by failing to address their needs in a timely manner.

While Superintendent Deasy talked about assuring that all schools offer all classes necessary to fulfill the A-G requirement, he didn't seem aware of the fact that LAUSD has chosen to create the impression of offering these classes by contracting with Apex and other companies to offer online courses without teachers for $350 per student that the students almost universally cheat on, since there is so little oversight and the assessments are the same. Will this lessen the 60% remedial need of all students arriving at Los Angeles City College from LAUSD? Not likely.

What makes teachers jobs even harder with an administration that is driven by Average Daily Attendance (ADA) payments from the state and the jobs it buys - and where real education concerns sometimes get lost - is that teachers receive no support from administration for discipline necessary to have a classroom environment conducive to education for administrative fear that the students might not show up or the parents might not like it. This is no small factor in the present daycare reality of most LAUSD schools. And yet, teacher subject to value added assessment and other multiple measures that have to show that their students are doing better. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!

And yet Superintendent Deasy wondered, "Why are teachers so frightened? I'm fearless?" Well if I made $275,000 a year and was the boss, I might be fearless too, but I'm just a teacher who has lost his job and 60% of his income for having tried to do what Superintendent Deasy is now saying he wants to do.

In the reality teachers live in houses with mortgages to pay and children of their own to raise. They do what they have to in order to survive in this hostile work environment that has been toxic for teachers for as long as I can remember. Attorney Richard Schwab, who represents UTLA put it best, "To LAUSD you (teacher) are just chattel with no civil rights.

So when teachers are given periodic assessment to give their students by LAUSD that have the answers - even though they are not supposed to grade them and they are to be given again - is it any wonder that some teachers give the students the answers or teach to the test, if it might just determine their continued employment?

Superintendent Deasy is smart. I just haven't figured out whether he is naive or ignorant about what is going on at LAUSD or he just hasn't had the time to figure it out yet. At today's meeting he tried to assuage the voiced concerns of those present about administrative retaliation by saying, "You have a strong contract."

Is he really unaware of how systematically the LAUSD/UTLA Collective Bargaining Agreement is ignored by LAUSD and UTLA leadership? Where is this strong contract for the hundreds of teachers who have been systematically removed from their tenured positions with no due process of law?

Maybe he should go over to empty Local District 6 at the corner of Slauson and Eastern Avenue and talk to some of my rubber room colleagues who spend their days on two empty floors that LAUSD continues to rent on, while laying off teachers and other staff..

To end on a positive note, while giving the new Superintendent John Deasy the benefit of the doubt, I will give him my suggestion how to "capture contribution to the community," which he said his office was interested in, but had not yet figured out:

  1. Keep the school open later, so students who have no help at home with their homework can get done it at school.
  2. Have a community market at the school on Wednesdays after 3pm and Saturdays to insure that students and their families have access to reasonably priced wholesome food.
  3. Offer a reinvigorate night school program where parents working multiple jobs can get the training they need to get one adequately compensated job, so they can be around to raise their children in lieu of the streets and the gangs that fill the vacuum when they are not there.
  4. In addition, night school can offer a vehicle for recapturing students who have quit school, need courses in addition to their daily schedule, or need the industrial arts and vocational education training that will give these students either an employable trade when they leave high school or the better compensated skill to pay for the highly inflated post-secondary education that is financial out of reach for more and more students. Starting salary for a welder is $40,000 after 6 months certification training and licensing from the state.
  5. Have affirmative outreach through the school to pregnant women in the community to assure that they have prenatal care and dietary help to assure that their children will be born having fulfilled their genetic potential and not put behind the eight ball from jump street, because their mother ate too little protein, fruits, and vegetables, while consuming too much fat, sugar, salt, and drugs.
  6. Have Baby College classes similar to those offered at The Harlem Childrens Zone where parents are educated to read to their children, talk to their children, and see to it that their children have enough intellectual stimulation with the help of the school, so they don't arrive at kindergarten having heard millions of less words than their more affluent peer group.
  7. Stagger school starting times from 7am to 10pm, so that working students can go to school at times more suited to their needs and those of their teachers.
  8. Phase out custodians and other school service personnel as they retire. Japan has no custodians and students pick up after themselves, which creates a less stratified society where all citizen are responsible for keeping their environment clean.
  9. Tenure should not trump student need as it presently does. The best and most seasoned teachers should go to the most problematic students.
  10. The pay scale should be the same for teachers and administrators to eliminate the destructive hierarchy that presently exists. This would require a drastic lessening of administrative salaries and a modest increase in teachers salaries. When professional well being does not require getting out of teaching to do better financially, the teaching will have greater continuity, dedication, and respect without requiring teachers to subsidize it as is presently the case.

Leonard Isenberg