Why can’t the grown-ups get it right on education?
In its most basic form, the idea is pretty simple. The bell rings, students file into class, and teachers share knowledge and tap into natural curiosity.
But the grown-ups just can’t seem to get their side of things right in public education. School officials embrace one national education reform fad after another, administrators and teachers can’t get along, and school board politics are corrosive.
If Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy is still on the job as you read this, the question is for how long. He may well have reached the point of irreconcilable differences with the school board. And if he walks or is forced out, the district will be shopping for its fourth superintendent since the year 2000, and good luck to the winner of that derby.
In Deasy’s wake, what would the next superintendent inherit?
A possible teacher strike that would erode what’s left of public confidence in the district, inconvenience families and handicap students.
A continued shortage of resources for basic school maintenance and materials.
The reboot of a tech plan following Deasy’s iPad debacle.
An ongoing war with school board members over who should run the district.
And the continued tension between so-called reformers, who want teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance, and union leaders who feel teachers are being scapegoated for funding shortages and economic challenges beyond their control.
You’d have to wonder about the sanity of anyone who’d want such a job, so I checked in with a couple of former LAUSD war horses for their take.
Roy Romer was superintendent from 2000 to 2006, and A.J. Duffy was president of United Teachers of Los Angeles during Romer’s last couple of years on the job. They went at each other, but they also established a working relationship and mutual respect that led to a number of accomplishments, including the establishment of pilot schools that operate with greater autonomy and teacher input than regular schools.
It was the kind of relationship you don’t see among the combatants in today’s LAUSD.
“Are we getting to where we’re ungovernable, or to where we can’t even get the right people to apply for these jobs?” asked Romer. “You’re right as to the increased difficulty of the job [of superintendent]. But it’s got to be done and it can be done, and there are people willing to do it.... I think education is fundamentally the most important investment we can make in this nation.”
Romer, an education consultant and Denver resident, is a spry 86 and hasn’t lost his passion for his favorite topic. So I asked if he’d be willing to come back for another tour of duty in Los Angeles, but he laughed off the suggestion.
He also declined a chance to comment specifically on the Deasy situation, although he said he winced at stories on the $1.3-billion iPad deal, which Deasy championed only to pull back under intense criticism that’s at the center of his current troubles.
“It’s a tool,” Romer said of technology, “but damn, you can’t use that as the whole platform for a reform movement.”
Romer was more comfortable talking in general terms about the complicated dynamics of a superintendent’s job.
“In L.A., you’ve got to have a good instinct for what education should be,” Romer said, “but maybe 50% of it is that you have to have an understanding of politics.”
That’s a keen observation. Romer, a former governor of Colorado, was a crafty pol who won community support for new school construction and other initiatives that sometimes required overtures to his biggest critics.
Deasy, who is neither the godsend his supporters describe nor the devil union leaders make him out to be, needs remedial work in politics. He’s got a laudable sense of urgency but a stubborn conviction that he knows best. And he has a bad habit of alienating foes rather than winning them over — not that his contempt for certain board members is misplaced.
“Roy was a consummate politician. He knew exactly how to get things done in a political world,” said Duffy, who, despite his differences with Romer, found common ground with him on contract negotiations and an informal system of peer review and assistance for teachers.
Duffy, now working as a consultant, said he had encouraged LAUSD board members to hire Deasy but warned them he would need “a collaborator” he could work with at UTLA. That hasn’t come to pass.
“People on both sides have to start talking,” said Duffy. And if Deasy is out, “the board needs to find somebody who’s willing to reach across the table and say, ‘Look, we gotta talk.’ I don’t know what agreements can come out of it…but you’ve got to start by talking, and not screaming and yelling.”
One irony, Duffy said, is that Deasy and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl share a passion for social justice that could be the centerpiece of a healthy working relationship. But it’s been squandered.
“If you’re going to win the battle for public education, it’s going to be won in the inner city, with students who live in poverty,” said Duffy. “Alex is coming from the same place as Deasy. That’s the tragedy of the oppositional relationship between [them].”
When you break down the mission of public education, Romer said, the key is to establish the standards to reach for, provide the curriculum and resources to get you there, and support, train and recruit good teachers.
Sounds simple enough, but with or without Deasy, will the grown-ups ever get it right?
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