Deasy's Gone: Two Newspapers Tell the Tale
Superintendents with phony degrees may come and go, but teachers are the folks who are always there.
The first three paragraphs of the New York Times version of Deasy's resignation are a classic corporate media account, designating him as a change agent facing "powerful resistance" to change. Note that his ipad plan is termed "ambitious." Further down in the piece we get Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot charter schools and chairman of California Democrats for Education Reform (where he's situating his new ed deform), saying Deasy is a "big thinker." Why would the New York Times call upon him for a soundbite?
So check out two versions of the same event--and see if you believe either one.
LAUSD Supt. John Deasy's resignation is no cause for celebration
Los Angeles Times Editorial
Some, particularly teachers, may be happy Supt. John Deasy is resigning, but it's no cause for celebration
L.A. Unified's focus on increasing student achievement should not go out with Supt. John Deasy
For years before John Deasy took over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators there agonized about high truancy rates and large numbers of dropouts. But the problems seemed close to intractable; change, for the most part, was slow and incremental.
Then Deasy swept in with his take-charge attitude, unflagging energy and determination to improve things at every level, especially for low-income students and for students of color. Students, he decreed, would take college-prep courses. They wouldn't be suspended for minor offenses, which was one road to dropping out. Schools would call parents to find out why their children hadn't shown up for class. But at the same time, students would no longer be ticketed by police if they were late on the way to school -- a process that had encouraged some tardy students to miss school altogether rather than risk being fined a sum their parents couldn't afford.
Attendance and expectations rose; unsurprisingly, higher test scores and graduation rates followed. More students took Advanced Placement courses and the tests that went with them.
Of course, it was teachers who made these improvements happen on the ground, even with budget cuts and furloughs. But the teachers had always been there. What had been missing was a sense of urgency from the top and an unwillingness to brook excuses or delays.
So although many people are undoubtedly happy to hear that Deasy has resigned, in truth there is no cause for celebration. More than anything else, Deasy's departure is a dispiriting sign of a district that is in grave danger of losing its way.
A recent series of bad mistakes on Deasy's part -- the ill-thought-out plan to purchase iPads for every student, the error-riddled student scheduling system, the failure to fix the situation at several high schools where students could not gain access to needed courses -- gave his enemies ammunition for a full-on attack. But perhaps his biggest errors were tactical: He repeatedly fell short when it came to building alliances with his overseers on the school board, and he failed to give teachers a voice or the respect they were due. One of his biggest supporters described him as a "reform cowboy," disinclined to work cooperatively or, in some cases, even to communicate with those whose help he needed to achieve his goals. He wouldn't listen to critics whose advice might have been valuable. As a result, others' faith in his abilities faltered and there was no way for him to quickly dispel the cloud over his head when district emails were released hinting at what may have been a too-cozy relationship between Deasy and two bidders for the district's expensive technology purchase.
Deasy's unwillingness to communicate with the board sometimes hurt the very students he professed to be helping. During the recent crisis at Jefferson High -- in which students were assigned to classes with no content and were refused entry to courses they wanted or needed to graduate -- Deasy filed an affidavit in court against the state, decrying what were, in fact, his own failures, instead of working to fix things.
The fiery tone with which his supporters had always defended him grew more tepid over the last few weeks as advocates and school reformers wearied of the continued rancor and missteps.
But make no mistake: L.A. Unified is a district that has long been marked by fever-pitch politics and an overly influential and intransigent teachers union. Deasy has his faults, but the bigger problems, which confronted his predecessors as well, have been the district's tendency to settle into paralyzing gridlock, and the school board's inability even to understand its role as elected overseers.
When Deasy first took the job, the political winds were blowing in his favor. He had a reliable board majority that had been backed by his highest-profile supporter, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But that situation had its own problems. The board regularly rubber-stamped Deasy's initiatives, even those that were unwise. The one that stands out most clearly, of course, was the more than $1-billion plan to use bond money to equip every student with an iPad pre-loaded with curriculum that hadn't been completed yet, and to update campuses for the necessary Wi-Fi. Never thought out fully, the program stumbled almost immediately.
Deasy lost his majority during subsequent elections. Tensions grew. Now, instead of approving even his worst ideas with barely a murmur, the board micromanages him and questions his staff's every recommendation. There are still enough supportive or at least independent board members that Deasy could have built a coalition, but that's the kind of skill that he was either unwilling or unable to develop.
Deasy's departure is a shame, but the bigger shame will be if the board selects a new superintendent who lacks his commitment to bettering the futures of low-income students. There are other superintendents who have led large urban school districts to tremendous improvements, without major turmoil and without making teachers feel demonized.
But no superintendent will succeed if the school board can't figure out its own job -- how to act as a rational check on the superintendent without becoming an unnecessary obstruction. Does this board even support continued transformation? During a KCRW radio panel discussion earlier this week, board member Steve Zimmer lauded Deasy as a "catalytic" leader, but said the district was now in a different, transitional phase that called for implementing the changes that had already been adopted rather than pushing for more reforms. This, he said, called for a different kind of superintendent.
What new phase? This is a district of extreme poverty, where student turnover at some schools reaches 50% during the academic year, where the dropout rate is still well over 20% and rotating substitute teachers, many uncredentialed, are still assigned to too many classes. The need for reform is as urgent as ever. No, Deasy's departure offers no excuse for slowing the pace of reform, no room for complacency. Quite the opposite.
Deasy Resigns as Los Angeles Schools Chief After Mounting Criticism
By Motoko Rich
Oct. 17, 2014
New York Times
In a sign of the powerful resistance that big-city school chiefs face in trying to make sweeping changes, John E. Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, resigned on Thursday after reaching an agreement with the city's school board that ended his tumultuous three-and-a-half-year tenure.
Mr. Deasy, a strong proponent of new technology in schools and of holding teachers accountable for improving student test scores, had faced mounting criticism from board members and teachers who saw him as an enemy. He testified against teachers' unions this year in a lawsuit in which a California judge ruled that tenure protection laws deprived students of their basic right to an education and violated their civil rights.
Some of the students who are suing the State of California over tenure for teachers walked to a news conference this week outside Superior Court in Los Angeles.
Detractors also criticized Mr. Deasy, who led the second-largest school district in the country, for the difficult rollout of an ambitious $1.3 billion plan to give iPads to every student in the district, which has an enrollment of 640,000 across 900 schools. Students hacked the tablets and used them to play games or use social media rather than to follow the new digital curriculum.
A new school data system introduced this fall also ran into snags, leaving some students unable to get assigned to classes or obtain transcripts for college applications.
Ramon C. Cortines, who preceded Mr. Deasy as the Los Angeles Schools superintendent and in the mid-1990s served as the chancellor of the New York City schools, will take over as the interim chief of the Los Angeles schools next week. Mr. Cortines was named to lead the New York schools in 1993 by Mayor David N. Dinkins but was dismissed two years later by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said he was not satisfied with the chancellor's budget-cutting efforts.
Los Angeles is far from the only place where aggressive education overhauls -- such as expanding charter schools, using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and attempting to revamp tenure and seniority -- have hit pushback.
Michelle A. Rhee, a former chancellor of the Washington public schools, drew hostility from teachers with her efforts to lift performance in the district. In Newark, community leaders have objected to many of the changes pushed by Cami Anderson, the superintendent there, who has closed low-performing schools and reworked teacher evaluation systems. Two years ago in Chicago, the teachers' union went on a nine-day strike, in part to protest new teacher evaluation methods that were imposed by the State Legislature and strongly supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The Obama administration has vigorously supported sweeping changes to public education, including pushing for more rigorous academic standards and using standardized test results as a measure of a teacher's quality. But in response to enormous protests from educators and parents who decry what they see as an overemphasis on testing, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, announced in August that states could delay using test scores in teacher performance ratings by another year.
Education experts said Mr. Deasy's resignation was part of a broader pattern, partly because change-minded leaders may have pushed too hard without securing the commitment of the teachers who would be responsible for making the modifications in their classrooms. "There are a lot of places where I think it's been pressed as far as it can go," said Gary Orfield, professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles, referring to many of the latest changes. "And I hope there will be something new emerging. We have to be sensitive to teachers, and they have to be involved if these reforms are ever going to actually work."
Supporters of Mr. Deasy pointed to his track record improving test scores and graduation rates, as well as a new effort to overhaul disciplinary practices in schools to reduce arrests of students.
"John was just a big thinker, and he was going to go as long and as hard as he could," said Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot charter schools and chairman of California Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that supports test-based evaluations and changes to tenure.
Mr. Barr said the bitterness that had developed between Mr. Deasy and his critics had impeded healthy discussion. The question, he said, "is can we actually move forward without the extremes dominating the debate."
In a statement issued Thursday, the Los Angeles school board thanked Mr. Deasy for his service and noted that during his tenure, "academic achievement rose substantially despite severe economic hardships, and the students of the district have benefitted greatly from Dr. Deasy's guidance."
Commenting on the iPad experiment, the statement said an investigation was pending, but "the board wishes to state that at this time, it does not believe that the superintendent engaged in any ethical violations or unlawful acts, and the board anticipates that the inspector general's report will confirm this."
Mr. Deasy, the board said, will remain "on special assignment with the district" until the end of the year.
Critics had questioned the cost of the iPad project at a time of fiscal constraint, while some board members and other critics were concerned that Mr. Deasy had not run a fair bidding process. In August, he canceled the iPad contract.
Mr. Deasy joined the Los Angeles schools as a deputy superintendent in August 2010 and took the helm in April 2011. Previously, he worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a deputy director of education. Earlier in his career he led the school district in Prince George's County, Md., and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California.
Teachers in Los Angeles complained that he did not consult the people who would be most affected by his mandates.
"He had made a series of autocratic decisions," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers' union, referring to the iPad project, the new teacher evaluations and other changes. He said Mr. Deasy's departure signaled "a national shift towards a more collaborative style."
Steve Zimmer, a member of a Los Angeles district school board, said that seeking Mr. Deasy's resignation was the most difficult thing he had ever done, "other than my first year of teaching."
He added, "Sometimes when you've been the propelling force behind a lot of difficult changes, it's almost difficult to bring everybody on board to do the collaboration to make the changes real."
Mr. Cortines, 82, said in an interview that he was enjoying retirement but was persuaded to take the interim job after the school board voted unanimously to enlist him.
He declined to comment on Mr. Deasy's legacy. "I've been quarterbacked so many times," he said in a telephone interview, noting that he had appointed Mr. Deasy in 2010.
Mr. Cortines said his first priority would be to resolve problems with the new student records system. More broadly, he said, he wanted to start a "civil and respectful" dialogue involving the district, board, teachers, administrators and parents.
"That's not what's been going on," he said.
Editorial and Ohanian Comment
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