What a heady moment it must have been for Michelle King, a respected and well-liked administrator in the Los Angeles schools, to reach the pinnacle of the district's leadership as superintendent in 2016. These are the schools she attended as a student, and then devoted years of her life to as a professional educator. She is the first African American woman to have led the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But King had only a little more than a year and a half to savor her extraordinary achievement and leave her mark before health problems forced her to take a medical leave early last fall. She will remain on leave until June and then retire, she announced late last week after an article in The Times questioned whether she was ever coming back and why there hadn't been more transparency about her condition. At first it wasn't clear what her ailment was; reporters were told she had undergone surgery for severe leg pain. Last week, King clarified that she has cancer.
After her many years of service, King was certainly entitled to a lengthy medical leave when she needed it, and she of course is entitled to keep the details of her illness private. We wish her the best in her battle against what appears to be a tough diagnosis. Granted, having a superintendent on hiatus indefinitely isn't acceptable, and it's good that King has given the district clear guidance about her future. But if the board wanted to step up efforts to improve student performance, it didn't need to wait for King to return. King gave her temporary replacement, Associate Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, the authority to take action, and to some extent Ekchian has done so. For one thing, the district is going forward with a plan proposed by an outside task force to cut down on chronic absenteeism.
King brought a period of needed calm to the school district, after the sometimes exciting but often dismaying years under Supt. John Deasy. Ramon C. Cortines, who served on an interim basis between the two of them, fixed some of the problems left behind by Deasy, killing the ill-considered iPads-for-all plan and repairing the scandalously dysfunctional student records system. But Cortines was on his third temporary stint heading L.A. Unified, which desperately needs the stability of long-term leadership. It hasn't had that for more than a decade.
King's retirement means that the district won't have that stability for the immediate future, especially with one of its board members, Ref Rodriguez, facing criminal charges.
Because her time as superintendent was so abruptly foreshortened, it's hard to know what King's ultimate legacy might have been. She's a smart, organized and caring administrator whose innate likability and consensus-oriented personal style enabled her to get along with teachers as well as administrators and board members.
King had mixed success with her campaign to improve graduation rates. She took quick command when it looked as though the district's requirement that students complete college-prep courses would leave many students without a diploma. And graduation rates did increase significantly — but that happened in part because students were offered the option of taking less-than-rigorous online makeup courses.
She also was at work on another important initiative: expanding the number of magnet schools in the district. The district's data show that students in its magnet schools significantly outperform those in independently run charter schools. They give students a choice of schools centered around specialized educational themes and provide L.A. Unified with its best shot at keeping students, and funding, from migrating to charter schools.
On the whole, though, King has been an able implementer of others' educational visions more than a visionary leader herself. And that's fine as long as the school board supplies the vision and provides clear direction to its superintendent.
That's one of the issues the board will have to consider in searching for a new superintendent. It has tended to tilt back and forth between wanting a chief executive with a bold vision and seeking someone who will responsibly carry out steady improvements. The two qualities seldom come in one person.
But there's another way to look at it: Abrupt new overhauls aren't what the district needs most right now. Its path forward is clear: It needs more and stronger magnet schools; a continued push on increased graduation rates and reduced absenteeism without lowered standards; a stronger emphasis on effective literacy programs; better teacher training and a commitment to placing more of its top teachers in the schools with the most challenges. It must be willing to have the tough talks with the teachers' union about the financial realities of the district's pension obligations. It needs fewer new initiatives, with better follow-through on the ones it's already launched.
More than bells and whistles, what the board needs is a superintendent who will carry out the relentless work of improvement. Even more than that, it needs a chief executive who will hold everyone's feet to the fire — including board members' — and never let up on a single-minded conviction that education can, and will, improve.