L.A. schools improved, but Deasy fell short of ambitious goals
L.A. Times education editor Beth Shuster and education reporter Howard Blume discuss the tenure and possible fate of Los Angeles Unified Schools District Superintendent John Deasy.
On the eve of discussions over his future, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy can count on broad support from the civic elite, but by his own yardsticks, his performance fell notably short this year.
Deasy set ambitious and specific targets to measure progress in the nation’s second-largest school system — and in category after category, he failed to hit his marks, even though L.A. Unified maintained a long trend of gradual improvement.
He didn’t reach goals in eight of nine academic categories measured by test scores. He also slipped behind in his targets for boosting the graduation rate and in attendance for students and teachers. He shined, however, in two categories: reducing the number of instructional days lost to suspensions and in the percentage of students who feel safe at school.
This data could put Deasy in a more precarious position at his annual evaluation Tuesday, which will be conducted behind closed doors by the Board of Education. That seven-member body has become more willing to challenge Deasy’s actions and philosophy in recent months.
Last week, a frustrated Deasy alerted some top officials that he was considering leaving in coming months; those close to him say he is increasingly displeased with what he sees as the board’s micromanaging and second-guessing. Community leaders and activists plan to rally in support of Deasy at district headquarters Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview Monday that the “marriage” between Deasy and the school board should continue “for the sake of students.” And, taken in proper context, he said, Deasy’s performance has excelled.
“Achievement is up; dropout rates are down,” Duncan said. “Many more kids taking Advanced Placement classes. Suspensions are down. Many more students are on track to hit [college preparation] requirements. Community engagement is up. I don’t think anybody would claim victory here, but L.A. is absolutely going in the right direction.”
Roosevelt High School teacher Lisa Alva, a former Deasy supporter, said, however, that the superintendent has talked consistently about data, applying it to the fates of teachers and principals. Since he failed to meet his targets, he should possibly be put on probation, she said, and questioned whether his pay should also be docked in keeping with executive practices tying pay to performance.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Alva said. “If we’re going to be held to standards that include test data and all kinds of metrics, so should he.”
Deasy said Monday that he had set “very bold targets. Some we hit, some we didn’t hit. Some we exceeded. Some we didn’t come close to.”
Fewer than a third of students test at grade level in algebra, for example. Deasy had wanted that number to be nearly half by now. But students are doing notably better in that subject.
Deasy called the progress “noncontrovertible,” but added: “We certainly experienced the compounding of a dramatic loss of resources at the same time we were trying to make dramatic improvement.” Budget cuts that virtually eliminated summer school and winter classes between semesters were especially detrimental, Deasy said.
Deasy became superintendent in early 2011 at a salary of $330,000. Achievement levels this year were not strong enough for him to qualify for up to $30,000 in annual bonuses.
In 2011-12, the graduation rate jumped from 56% to 64%. The next year, the rate nudged up 1 percentage point, short of the anticipated improvement.
He wanted two-thirds of elementary students at grade level in English by the spring of 2013. Instead, the number was 51%, a drop of 3 percentage points from 2012.
Other areas were flat or showed small gains, but not what he had targeted.
UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller called Deasy’s targets “excessively optimistic,” especially during a recession.
But Deasy’s strongest supporters have included philanthropists and activists who have adopted a no-excuses view toward student achievement. Some have said schools could benefit from more funding but that money is not the primary impediment to improvement. And, they believe, teachers and administrators should be judged, in part, by test scores and other data.
In the case of Deasy’s numbers, modest progress will do for now, others say.
“High performers set high goals,” said attorney George Kieffer, a member of the UC Board of Regents. “The district has seen overall improvement with his leadership.”
“He’s set a level of energy in the district that has not been seen in many years. We have full confidence in the path he’s set,” said Kieffer, who sent a letter of support for Deasy to the school board on behalf of 19 prominent civic and business leaders.
Deasy was right to set ambitious performance targets, said Lawrence O. Picus, a USC professor of education, finance and policy. “As a leadership strategy to push people, you need to set ambitious goals,” he said. “That’s a crucial part of success.”
Picus added that Deasy should be given more time because school district transformation can take eight to 10 years. It’s the role of the school board, he said, to discuss why he missed performance goals and to decide whether to work with him or find a new leader.
Statewide, many districts had worse results this year than in the recent past. In Los Angeles, test scores improved gradually for years before Deasy’s arrival.
The critique of Deasy by many teachers and administrators — and their unions — is that he has made ever-increasing, unrealistic and demoralizing demands that make them less inclined to cut him slack on his data points.
Employee morale isn’t listed on Deasy’s “performance meter,” but it’s a concern, board member Steve Zimmer said. In Deasy’s evaluation, members are expected to consider a range of factors, including his relationship with the Board of Education.
As for the unachieved targets, “I don’t tie test-based performance precisely to the superintendent any more than I would tie it to a teacher,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer also said that he believes the superintendent retains the backing of a majority of the board and that it’s up to Deasy whether he remains.
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.
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