Adios, and good luck
I HAVE DONE many things in my life -- sold tractors, owned a flight school, owned and operated a ski resort, climbed the Matterhorn, served as governor of Colorado for three terms and chaired the Democratic National Committee. So it’s not surprising that many have asked why I wanted to take charge of the L.A. Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the country. I certainly wrestled with the choice of retiring and spending my days exploring life through the eyes of my 18 grandchildren or embarking on yet another career.
One morning in early 2000, I visited Los Angeles to explore the superintendent’s job and prepare for the upcoming Democratic National Convention, which was held in L.A. that year. I stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. It was then that I made up my mind.
As I approached the restaurant, I saw a dozen elementary school students climbing onto a school bus. They were being transported from their neighborhood to receive their education elsewhere. In those few minutes, it occurred to me that the best legacy I could leave my grandchildren was to demonstrate that, at age 71, I could still help improve the lives of others, especially children.
Later that summer, I accepted the job and committed myself to educating more than 700,000 children in a bursting-at-the-seams district whose academic achievement had flat-lined for decades. Yet I knew when I accepted the job it would require a unique set of skills -- educational expertise, political acumen, willingness to think outside of the “educrat” box and, at times, stubborn persistence -- that I was naive enough to think I possessed.
After six years of leading and always pushing change in the district, I can honestly attest that the superintendent’s job has been the most difficult and rewarding job I have ever had. I say this after having spent decades helping advance education reform at both the state and national levels. As a Democratic governor, I convinced Colorado’s Republican Legislature to dramatically increase education funding. I chaired the first National Education Goals Panel, a group created to implement President Clinton’s vision of measuring academic outcomes through tests and agreed-upon standards.
Yet, despite serving in these capacities, as I learned more about the state of urban education, I was struck by something incredibly basic: Kids were simply not being taught to read, to think critically or to do basic math. For all the fancy academic talk about school reform and how to educate kids, we had lost sight of something as basic as “the three R’s.”
These revelations underlined the challenges I faced at the LAUSD and inspired me to push for an agenda to build a community of learners -- students, teachers, administrators, school board members and, most important, myself. To accomplish this, we had to create the conditions for learning in and outside the classroom, and build our instructional capacity so we could teach the basics and create schools full of critical thinkers and learners.
As I envisioned this work, one phrase immediately came to mind: “first things first.” So we focused on radically improving elementary education by emphasizing reading and math. Five strategies were used: teach to high standards, provide rigorous curriculum for all students, intensely train teachers and administrators, periodically measure results with an eye toward improving learning, and use data to continuously improve our instructional practices. These strategies are working and are making a remarkable difference, but they took time to produce results.
Going back to the basics required tough choices. When I became superintendent, I didn’t know that the district hadn’t built a complete high school in 30 years. I didn’t know that it had lost much of its ability to teach even first-grade reading. I had -- and still have -- grand dreams of generations of beaming LAUSD students going off to Ivy League schools, diplomas in hand, years of rigorous and well-taught education behind them. I believe that the district can and will realize this dream if its reform efforts are not waylaid by politics.
People want silver bullets in education. But too often, those silver bullets just make bigger holes. The ill-advised and counterproductive legislation to give the mayor new authority in district affairs is a perfect example of this. It gives the teachers union even more power, blurs the lines of accountability and threatens to roll back the instructional reforms that have led to unprecedented gains in student achievement.
Because there is such widespread agreement about the LAUSD’s problems, people assume that any dramatic change will be a solution. But I have learned that it takes hard work, tough choices and day-to-day perseverance in implementing reforms to improve education. You do not fix the dropout rate overnight. You do not fix it by just keeping ninth-graders in school, though that is obviously important. You fix the dropout rate by giving all kids a better foundation of learning long before they ever enter high school. You fix the dropout rate by giving kids the space they need to learn and by showing them that they are valuable enough to invest in. You fix the dropout rate by letting kids go to school in their own neighborhoods, where their parents can be involved and where they can work on their homework with their fellow students. You fix the dropout rate by teaching first-, second- and third-graders better. Yes, it takes much more than this, including reducing the student population at existing schools, which we’re working very hard to accomplish. But without these foundations, other reform efforts will fail.
When I look back on my six years as superintendent, I am astounded at -- and proud of -- how far the district has come. In 2000, classrooms were tremendously overcrowded. Upward of 16,000 kids a day were forced to ride buses to and from school, up to an hour each way, because their neighborhood school was too full to accommodate them. Test scores -- and the dropout rate -- hadn’t budged for decades.
Today, the academic performance of our elementary school students has gotten remarkably better, outpacing not only state averages but those of other urban school districts in California. And, six years later, we are beginning to see the fruits of that success in rising middle-school scores.
This year, we will have opened 60 schools, with 95 more to build. We have already gotten 3,200 kids off buses and into their neighborhood schools, and more will come off every year. As a result, future superintendents will have a strong foundation from which to launch the next generation of reforms, including seeing through implementation of our small learning-communities project, which will break up our large high schools into smaller, more personalized settings.
Although I’m justifiably proud of our successes, it is only natural to contemplate what could have been done differently. Superintendents are the public face of their school districts. But given the state of the LAUSD when I arrived, I had to spend a lot of time managing day-to-day operations to ensure that our reforms were implemented throughout the system. As a result, I did not spend as much time as I would have liked building relationships with the broader Los Angeles community. If I had, we would have more out-of-district advocates for the reforms we’ve implemented. I would also like to think that the current debate about the district would be better informed and better understood if I had reached out more.
I do not know what will happen if the legislation that the mayor is proposing passes in Sacramento. I started out with high hopes that the discussion about improving the LAUSD’s performance would lead to changes that accelerated and deepened the reforms we’ve already made. I now fear that proposed changes threaten to make things much worse, and beyond just frustrating me, that saddens me.
However, no matter what happens in Sacramento, I believe this district will prosper because there are too many good people -- teachers, parents, administrators, board members -- committed to improving the lives of children.
So, as the majority of our 712,000 students head back to school, and as I prepare to enter the next chapter of my life, I remain convinced of a few things: In an age of globalization, outsourcing and cutting-edge technology, education is absolutely key for the future success of our society. Involved parents, committed teachers and creative principals will always make schools great, no matter who’s in charge of the district. And if we continue to aggressively pursue the reforms we have begun, L.A. Unified will be one of the nation’s best.