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Opinion

Editorial: In leading LAUSD, big goals are no substitute for planning and hard work

John Deasy

Former Superintentent of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education John Deasy during a board meeting on August 26, 2014 in Los Angeles.

(Los Angeles Times)

In school superintendent searches across the nation, parents, teachers and the public tend to rank educational “vision” as the No. 1 attribute required for a new leader. But in online surveys and focus groups in Los Angeles Unified, vision came in at a weak ninth, according to the executive search firm helping the district hire its next leader.

Interestingly, the survey results may be as much about the past under John Deasy as they are about the future. Deasy, who resigned under pressure last year, had vision galore. He wanted the largely low-income and minority students in his district to have access to up-to-date technology, nutritious breakfasts, more effective discipline and classes that would qualify them for four-year colleges. Deasy’s eloquence on the subject was admirable, and his sense of urgency was legendary; he wanted it now.

What became apparent over time, though, was that setting high-profile goals was only one part of the job; where Deasy stumbled was in getting down to the unglamorous work of making those dreams come true through meticulous planning, accounting for contingencies and addressing valid concerns raised by others.

It would be a shame for vision to fall toward the bottom of the list of the [L.A. Unified School] District’s priorities.
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As a result, Deasy left a legacy of big, bold plans but too few accomplishments. The iPads-for-all policy could reasonably be called a fiasco. The district was lambasted in independent investigations for buying problematic educational software and having little idea of how the new technology would even be used in classrooms. The college-prep graduation requirements had to be rolled back because they were imposed with little planning for how students would pass the necessary classes. Instead of fixing the district’s dysfunctional student scheduling system known as MISIS, he supported a lawsuit blaming the state for it.

Too often, Deasy’s urgency meant that sweeping new policies were dumped in teachers’ laps without the support, explanation and assistance needed to make them work. Teachers’ concerns were too often dismissed as an unwillingness to change.

Consider school disciplinary measures. As The Times recently reported, Deasy spearheaded a change in disciplinary policy that dramatically reduced suspensions. That’s good — except that he didn’t first introduce the replacement system, one that seeks to address the causes of misbehavior, before eliminating the suspensions. The result, teachers say, has been increased disruption in the classroom, making it harder for other students to learn.

It would be a shame for vision to fall toward the bottom of the list of the district’s priorities. Deasy was right about what L.A. Unified students need. Big goals should still be at the top — as long as they are paired with a commitment to the hard, incremental work of achieving them.

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