Commentary: For LAUSD, maybe it’s not the time to hire an outsider

superintendent search LAUSDIt’s getting down to crunch time: Thanksgiving . . . Christmas . . . Last day on the job for LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

By next week, names for his replacement will begin to flow with a list of candidates that could include such well-regarded figures from across the county as Rudy Crew, a former Chancellor of New York City schools; Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools;  Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools; and Richard Carranza, superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

No doubt all of them have fine resumes.

But in thinking about what awaits the next occupant of Cortines’s 24th floor office, one might wonder if an outsider with little knowledge of the district would necessarily make the best choice for LA Unified, given the issues at hand. Never mind the larger question, why would anyone even want the job. Consider the current state of affairs:

  • An independent financial review panel just reported that the district is facing deficits that could reach $600 million within four years.
  • The district is hemorrhaging students, nearly three percent a year, costing hundreds of thousands in lost state and federal revenues.
  • Pressure is mounting on the district to reduce health care benefits and increase employee pension contribution, already triggering union opposition.
  • Academic performance across the district was abysmal, judging by the most recent statewide tests.
  • The charter war within the district is intensifying, with a plan by outsiders to create hundreds more charter schools to serve as many as half the district enrollment.
  • The seven members of the elected school board, who serve as the superintendent’s bosses, are hard-pressed to agree on what day it is, let alone on how to solve intractable problems.

No doubt, the winning candidate would convince all or most of the board members that the challenges are not insurmountable. Pay and benefits are not likely to be issues. The winner can expect a deal worth upwards of $300,000 a year with lots of perqs.

But here’s the thing. The learning curve to run a district of this size and complexity is long and steep even in normal times, with uncountable numbers of students, teachers, assistants, deputies, administrators, schools, labor leaders, political operatives, state officials —  and issues: Difficult, politically-charged, financially-challenged, board-polarizing issues.

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Commentary: LAUSD robocalls confusing and infuriating


By Kerry Cavanaugh

I am the parent of a Los Angeles Unified School District student, and I get robocalls from the district probably two times a week. These are not calls from my son’s elementary school. These are recorded messages from various district officials, informing me of some meeting or workshop or that parents should fill out some paperwork.

I admit, these calls come so frequently and are so rarely useful that whenever I see the (213) 241 prefix, I let it go to voicemail and only occasionally listen to the message.

But last night’s call was so frustratingly useless that I had to listen to it several times to figure out if I was confused or if the district was just being confusing. Guess which one it was?

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: No single solution to the making of great schools

Ama Nyamekye

Ama Nyamekye

By Ama Nyamekye

What makes a great school? This fundamental question has been lost in a heated debate about a draft proposal spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, the most controversial part of which includes a plan to accelerate charter school growth in LAUSD.

This idea has sparked concern and curiosity among parents, community members, philanthropists and most certainly our teachers. It has inspired a proposed school board resolution opposing charters, and a series of protests led by UTLA leadership who are not only concerned about the expansion of charters, but are also skeptical of philanthropists investing millions of dollars in public education.

Every group is raising related questions: What will this mean for parents waiting on long charter school lottery lists? What will this mean for our students, particularly those still served by non-charter schools? What will this mean for the future of my job and my school; for the future of our union and district, both entities facing declining enrollment and, with it, declining dollars? Will this spark a real conversation about school equity and innovation or will this bring more polarization and turf wars in public education?

Put another way, these questions come down to one thing: Whose side are you on?

As the head of a local teacher leadership organization working with educators across the district, I stand with our most dedicated teachers who often tell me that no single solution, like charter schools, will be the silver bullet for ensuring access to a high-quality education for all students. It is equity that is at the heart of a great school, and that is the goal teachers are working towards. I know this because I have witnessed equity arguments echoed in every teacher-written policy paper, teacher-led advocacy campaign, and teacher-penned media article produced by E4E members.

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Commentary: Almost everything is wrong with LAUSD leadership

Los-Angeles-Times-logoThe more you hear about attempts to improve the nation’s schools, the sorrier you have to feel for the kids.

After years of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” initiatives, national test scores dived deeper into failure and mediocrity in the last reading. In a stunning reversal, the Obama administration, a tireless champion of more and more testing, is now whistling a different tune.

There’s too much testing going on out there.

Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, said his conversations with countless educators have made him realize “how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

Translation: Instead of testing, let’s try teaching.

Click here for the full story.

Editorial: ‘Vision’ a low priority for superintendent post-Deasy


By The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

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.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: Restorative justice is just a slogan at LAUSD


By Sandy Banks

Restorative justice is a wonderful concept; a way to make student discipline less punitive and more productive. But in Los Angeles Unified, it’s little more than a slogan, generally misunderstood and rarely applied.

The district did a lot of chest thumping two years ago, when it became the first in the nation to ban suspensions for classroom misbehavior. But as a Times story revealed this week, alternatives have been slow to materialize — and both teachers and students are paying the price.

The number of suspensions has plunged, but classes seem more unruly, teachers feel under siege and teachers and administrators are calling in school police more often to handle disruptive students. That’s the opposite of what the ban was supposed to accomplish.

Click here for the full story.

Analysis: Six months later, financial warning to LA Unified unchanged

Megan Reilly

Megan Reilly

It’s one thing when LA Unified’s Chief Financial Officer appears before the school board and warns of budgetary troubles ahead, based on current projections and obligations. That’s her job.

It’s quite another when a panel of outsiders, brought in to take a fresh look, reaches the same conclusions and expresses them in a hair-raising way that promises existential consequences if immediate change is not forthcoming.

The “Report of the Independent Financial Review Panel,” the work of nine experts called in by Superintendent Ramon Cortines, is the ultimate wake-up call for a district driving dangerously to the edge. In its essence, they say current trends are unsustainable and will lead to the end of LA Unified as configured if bold steps aren’t taken to accommodate realities that have been so far unaddressed with meaningful response.

“If the District desires to continue as a growing concern beyond FY 2019-20, capable of improving the lives of students and their families, then a combination of difficult, substantial and immediate decisions will be required,” it says. “Failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD, and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover.”

The panel is scheduled to present its findings to the board at tomorrow’s board meeting. The overall message echoes what Megan Reilly, the district CFO, has been saying all along, that despite an improving economy, budget deficits are just a few years away.

But the 75-page report conveys an urgency that Reilly’s warnings have lacked. After all, Cortines created the panel six months ago, which means another half-year has passed without substantial changes from the board and superintendent, leaving financial threats to build.

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Commentary: Disunity in finding a new boss for LA Unified

superintendent searchThe effort to find a consensus candidate to follow Ramon Cortines into the superintendent’s office is playing out as difficult issues sometimes do in LA Unified, with good intentions undermined by political pandering and a bit of disingenuousness.

While Steve Zimmer, the board president, has set in motion a thoughtful and reasonable approach to the search by hiring a well-regarded firm to identify quality candidates, he and his board colleagues are doing their best to shatter unity, rather than build it.

The friction has developed over the district’s decision to involve the public while keeping confidential — as head hunters recommend — the actual recruiting, selection and hiring.

Both are noble pursuits but for reasons that are entirely incompatible if the board is truly seeking the best candidate available.

The decision to include public opinion mirrors the district’s oft-professed need for “transparency,” a worthy goal in many circumstances. But the invitation with regard to the superintendent search is only for h’ors oeuvres, not the entree. In this case, that’s probably the way it should be.

Through open meetings and an online survey, the district has been asking what “characteristics” the new superintendent should have. “Your voice counts,” says the invitation to take the survey.

But counts for what?

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Commentary: Education splits Democrats like no other issue

LA Progressive

By Joshua Leibner

As LAUSD searches for a new Superintendent, there has been a call not to “politicize” the process by people who mysteriously or calculatingly believe that the job itself isn’t political.

Well let’s disabuse everyone of that notion right now.

There is nothing in human experience more political than Education. Whatever education you and I received over the course of our lives was part and parcel with a larger political/cultural/racial philosophy that shaped who we all are. Whatever “schools” our children go to are also part of a larger system that most certainly is not neutral.

A person’s belief in WHAT education is and HOW it is “managed” tells us a great deal about that individual.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: Teachers as mirrors, a reflection on the diversity gap

teacherBy Emilio Solano

Growing up Mexican-American in a predominantly white community in Oregon, I never had a Latino teacher. I remember men of color working as security guards and coaches, but no one of my ethnicity led a classroom. Even in our textbooks, Cesar Chavez merited just a paragraph.

While many Los Angeles residents know we are facing a teacher shortage, there is a second shortage threatening our schools that is less familiar: a diversity shortage. Statewide, 73 percent of students in California schools are nonwhite, compared with only 29 percent of teachers. It’s one of the largest diversity gaps nationwide. LA Unified has recognized the problem. In a memo last month to LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines, a human resources officer said recruiting diverse teacher candidates from colleges and universities around California “will continue to be a challenge especially as Latino and African American college graduate data remain unrepresented.”

Last month, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report sounding the alarm on teacher diversity. It found that the teacher work force has gotten less ethnically and racially diverse, and more female, compared with student populations. The diversity gap reportedly has had an adverse effect on students, particularly students of color, whose test scores and completion rates continue to lag behind their white peers in California and beyond.

To spur achievement, the Shanker report points to diversity as one possible solution. Teachers of color “tend to have higher academic expectations for minority students, which can result in increased academic and social growth among students,” it says.

But where to find the teachers? Southern California districts and charter networks count Teach For America-Los Angeles among their reliable partners for diverse, high-potential leaders for classrooms and school administration. This year the Teach For America-Los Angeles corps of first-year teachers is more diverse than ever before: more than 50 percent identify as Latino, 13 percent as African American, 13 percent as white and 12 percent as Asian American.

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Commentary: NBC probes (?) value of TV, film shoots at LAUSD schools

Cameron Diaz in "Bad Teacher"

Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher”

Oh my, where to begin with this recent NBC Los Angeles “expose” on LA Unified allowing campuses to be used for film and television shoots.

There are two angles to this story, the first is the accusation that production crews are disrupting learning and causing problems on campuses, leading NBC to conclude that the district is “lacking oversight” and has “little accountability” regarding the productions. The second is the “raunchy content” of some of the productions and the suggestion that students were exposed to it during filming. (See the full segment attached at the bottom of the story.)

NBC says it has obtained emails and documents that show schools can’t keep track of all of the production crews, which are causing “thousands of dollars of damage” and “major problems” that disrupt learning.

How many emails and how many documents? The report doesn’t say. With a district that has over 1,000 schools and has likely hosted dozens if not hundreds of film and TV shoots in recent years, how many emails constitute a “major” problem? This is not made clear, either. In fact, how many productions has the district allowed on its campuses? Right, not clear.

If the district has in fact collected $10 million dollars over the last five years from the productions, as the report says, doesn’t that more than cover the cost of the “thousands of dollars of damage” these productions have caused?

Something else: Why is Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, being interviewed in this story? How many rungs down the ladder of relevance is he in relation to this issue? Even if you buy into all the other criticism in the piece, the district is deriving a big profit from the productions. Isn’t that a wise use of the taxpayer-funded campuses?

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The ‘reanimation’ of John Deasy, will the next superintendent be a native?

school report buzzUTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl released a 12-minute video on YouTube today in which he asks members to vote for a dues increase.

According to Caputo-Pearl, the union has not updated its dues structure since its inception 45 years ago, which now “literally threatens the future of UTLA.”

In the video, Caputo-Pearl points out that UTLA’s monthly fees are lower than other large teacher unions in the country and lower than most other teacher unions in the state.

The video also includes a humorous reference to former LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who resigned a year ago. Deasy and Caputo-Pearl locked horns frequently, but now Deasy is working at the Broad Center, and its affiliated Broad Foundation is currently developing a plan to expand charter schools in the district to include half of all students.

reanimator_1024x1024Caputo-Pearl claims in the video that UTLA has confirmed that Deasy is, in fact, the architect of the plan, which was outlined in a 48-page draft report. Caputo-Pearl calls this the “reanimation” of Deasy. Reanimation? Is that a reference to the 80s cult classic film, “Re-Animator“?

The film is about a doctor who discovers how to bring corpses back from the dead. Using the film as a metaphor, it certainly shows the ironic position Caputo-Pearl finds himself in. He helped chase Deasy out of the district, which he hailed as a “victory” for UTLA. But now Deasy is arguably in a much more powerful position as he allegedly orchestrates a plan that would wipe out half of the jobs of UTLA members.

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LAUSD victim blaming backfires, White House honors Camino Nuevo

school report buzzBy arguing in court that a 14-year-old girl was partly responsible for her own sexual abuse at the hands of her teacher has not only brought LA Unified a string of negative press, it has backfired terribly and now bought on a new trial.

The state Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial in the case of a former student at Edison Middle School who was coaxed into sex by her teacher, Elkis Hermida, the Los Angeles Times reported. The girl sued LA Unified, which won the original trial after its lawyer introduced her sexual history and argued that the girl was partly to blame because she concealed the relationship from her parents and school authorities.

But after the controversial legal tactics were reported in the media, the district fell under heavy criticism — to the point that In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that bars defendants accused of sexually abusing minors in civil suits from arguing that the sex was consensual.

LA Unified fired lawyer W. Keith Wyatt after be gave an interview where he inartfully explained his legal theories that helped him win the case. But then, somewhat inexplicably, the district hired another lawyer who made the same argument in the appeal.

This very predictably spurred another round of bad headlines for the district. Now, as a result of those arguments, a new trial has been ordered, because introducing that evidence “wrongly portrayed [the victim] in a negative light and was highly prejudicial,” Judge Richard H. Kirschner wrote. Continue reading

Commentary: Save LA Unified’s agriculture and horticulture courses

Garden_7By Martin Blythe

With severe drought and sustainability on the minds of the public and LAUSD Board members, now might be a good time to ask how agriculture and horticulture are faring in Los Angeles area high schools.

The answer is: not well. They are among the programs most at risk of disappearing, just when they might be most useful.

I bring this up now because on September 24–25, 2015, California’s Department of Education intends to approve the draft Next Generation Science Framework for an initial 60-day public review period. In simpler parlance, that’s the new Common Core Science Standards. Some California school districts are rolling it out already. LAUSD is not yet one of them.

What this means is that the existing agriculture and horticulture programs at Venice, North Hollywood, Sylmar and Canoga Park high schools will need to transition to the new standards. Their chances of doing so are not good. Most ag & hort teachers are nearing retirement and they will be difficult to replace.

Do not confuse these fully developed programs with other schools, which have community gardens (Crenshaw, Fremont), or use gardens for electives (Dorsey), or where their gardens are ornamental (Sherman Oaks CES, Culver City) or they are at Career and Transition Center schools (Miller, Widney), or where they are languishing or have disappeared (Hollywood, Bernstein).

A few years ago, things seemed promising: school gardens were springing up everywhere. But, agriculture courses can be expensive to maintain – livestock can chew through $200 of feed in a day – and nowadays they survive by fundraising. Many horticulture courses are either “ornamental horticulture,” i.e. flower arranging, or “culinary arts” — not what you might think of as botanically-based horticulture.

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Commentary: What, exactly, are the new statewide tests testing?

student computer testBy Joshua Leibner

What do the most recent California Common Core test scores mean?

This is a question that deserves real attention, but the initial response is not encouraging.

My last LAUSD principal told us four years that we are just “going to have to accept the testing pill” and get on with the program that would have our lives dictated by these tests. And, frankly, I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for testing than some Matrix-style fantasy pill.

In a commentary in LA School Report, Michael Janofsky states: “The new test scores illustrate the magnitude of the problem because they are designed to prepare students for a successful life beyond high school.”

A variation of this belief has circulated throughout the very start of standardized testing, starting, of course, with the IQ test. The tests do not prepare students for a successful life. A million other factors contribute to “a successful life,” but I would rank a test at the very bottom.

The meaning of these results is, in reality, political. First, using new and literally inscrutable tests, administered in a new and for many students inscrutable format, school “reformers” hope to use these bad results to create yet another “sense of urgency” for reform solutions. Which, to no one’s surprise at this point, will involve doubling down on the skills needed to do well on these tests: standardized test preparation and computerized pedagogy.

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Commentary: OK, we’ve seen the test results. Now what happens?

YOU-ARE-HERE testThey’ve been talking about these new statewide tests in terms of setting a baseline for the years ahead. That’s fine as far it it goes. But here in LA Unified, we should think of the results in another way:

As a redline.

Statewide, more than half of students taking the test (56 percent) failed to meet state standards for English and a full two-thirds, 67 percent, failed to meet the standards for math.

In LA Unified, the state’s largest district, the numbers were worse: 67 percent fell below the line in English and 75 percent in math.

So now what. The easy thing to do is point fingers. But two hands don’t have enough of them, which is to say, there’s no simple solution here, and no one group is more responsible for the dismal results than the next.

Remember that village we’re always talking about that needs to raise a child?

Let’s start taking roll:

Teachers, principals, school counselors, parents, clergy, extended family, tutors, mentors, volunteers. Oh, and let’s not forget the students, themselves. They bear some responsibility for this, especially the older ones who have been in school long enough to understand the lifelong rewards for paying attention.

LA Unified has plans underway to do its part. Superintendent Ramon Cortines’s recent reorganization of area superintendents includes a requirement for each area chief to design learning strategies tailored to each individual student. Subsets of the overall test scores included breakdowns on specific skills in addressing English and math challenges to help educators identify where help is needed most. Interim tests throughout the year are also part of the plan, to use as measuring sticks for progress.

That’s inside the class room, and in most respects, that’s the easy part.

The hard part is what happens from the end of one school day to the beginning of the next.

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Commentary: Too much ambiguity in plan for LAUSD charters

Eli and Edythe Broad

Eli and Edythe Broad

Another charter war is brewing in LA Unified. But the early warning shots are taking aim at ambiguity, not facts.

The flashpoint was two sentences in an Aug. 7 story in the LA Times that described a meeting at which three major foundations discussed plans to expand the number of charter schools in the district. The participants are the usual bete noirs of teacher unions for their roles in the education reform movement — the Broad, Walton Family and W.M. Keck foundations,

Here is what the story said:

“One person who attended a meeting said the goal was to enroll in charter schools half of all Los Angeles students over the next eight years. Another said there was discussion of an option that involved enrolling 50% of students currently at schools with low test scores.”

The story did not discern which observation hewed closer to the truth, leaving the impression that an all-out assault (the first sentence) was entirely possible, and maybe it is.

The LA teachers union, UTLA, certainly thinks so. It has repeated the assertion in a recent wave of material from leadership to rally the troops in the name of unity and union survival.

In an email to members, UTLA referred to “Broad the Billionaire” (Eli Broad), saying, “He is attacking public education with the likes of John Deasy and has plans to take 50% of students out of LAUSD and put them in unregulated, non-union charters. Deasy works for the Broad Foundation and is leading Broad’s attack on LAUSD.”

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Commentary: Warnings ignored for years on ‘lease-leaseback’

Sacramento Bee

By Dan Walters

California’s public schools saw an enormous enrollment surge during the 1950s from the post-World War II baby boom.

It overwhelmed many school districts’ capacities to build new facilities, and one response, enacted in 1957, was called “lease-leaseback.”

The law authorized a district to lease a school site to a contractor for a token amount. The contractor would build the school and then lease it back to the district for up to 40 years, after which ownership would revert to the district.

One feature was that a school contractor/lessor could be chosen without competitive bidding, which may have been a fatal flaw.

It became a much used – or misused – way for school boards and administrators to build facilities without going through the messy process of asking voters to approve bonds and therefore tax themselves.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: Challenges await for wave of new LAUSD charters

Eli and Edythe Broad charters

Eli and Edythe Broad

It was a bombshell of a story on Saturday, the LA Times reporting that a group of foundations is exploring plans to expand the number of charter schools within LA Unified to serve many beyond the 100,000 students who now attend charters in the district.

What would that mean exactly? Unclear for the time being. No details were included, and charter officials talked about the effort only in the most general terms. As close to specifics was an unidentified source telling the Times that the goal was to enroll half of LA Unified’s 650,000 students in charters within eight years.

Today, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, one of the participating groups along with the Keck and Walton Family Foundations, said the guiding force behind the effort was to satisfy parents of children in low-performing schools who desire more and better educational choices.

“L.A. families still want more high-quality public school options in their neighborhood,” the foundation said in an email to LA School Report. “Too many of our school children still aren’t getting the quality of education they deserve, which is why tens of thousands of students are currently on public charter school waiting lists. We are in the early stages of exploring a variety of ideas about how to help give all families—especially in low-income communities of color—access to high-quality public schools and what we and others in the philanthropic community can do to increase access to a great public school for every child in Los Angeles.”

What the public response will be when any official announcement is made is unclear — but from some sectors, it’s not hard to guess.

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Commentary: LAUSD board meeting lost in transparency

LAUSD school boardFor more than a year, students, parents, community groups and even LA Unified members, themselves, have demanded greater transparency in how the board conducts the business of the nation’s second-largest school district.

Too often, critics say, the board moves with no apparent effort to broaden the conversation or even allow the public to watch the process unfold, let alone participate.

And now it’s happened again.

Maybe it’s only a small example, but it’s a perfect metaphor that illustrates the sometimes cavalier approach the school board takes to informing the public, thus strengthening community participation, input and trust.

The LAUSD board had a meeting last night — an open session, followed by a closed session. The agenda went up early in the week, along with the reminder that the open session would be televised on KLCS and live-streamed over the internet. Closed sessions remain private.

But when 6 pm came, time to start, screens stayed blank.

No video. No audio. Nothing.

A parent, a student, a community member who might have wanted to see what the members were up to were shut out. And so they missed an update on the federal government’s efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. They missed a flurry of committee assignments.

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