Commentary: Ray Cortines, the once and future

work begins zoneProbably no one has flunked retirement worse than Ray Cortines.  At 82, he’s signed on to steer the Los Angeles Unified School District for the third time.

Twice before he served as an interim superintendent, and he held the post for three years immediately before John Deasy’s tenure.

Cortines understands big city school systems.  In addition to Los Angeles, he was superintendent of New York, San Francisco, Pasadena and San Jose.  But why Ray again?

The answers are straightforward: peacemaking and getting things done.

The school board and the education policy elites (maybe) are tired of toxic warfare.  Cortines has a reputation of someone who can have a constructive relationship with the teachers and administrative unions without being a doormat.  He both charmed and bludgeoned the school board, threatening to resign if they misbehaved.  (Unlike most superintendents, he had a 30-day contract, which he would periodically threaten to not renew.)

And then there is the craft and politics of getting things done.  Most politicians, and most journalists, ignore the politics of implementation.  To them, reforming schools is about getting the right law passed or achieving a favorable court decision.  But as past school reform efforts in Los Angeles illustrate, the heavy lifting starts after decisions are made, not before.

Holding the school board together, implementing an agreement with the union when some teachers balk, attracting administrative leadership: all this is part of the political kitbag of seasoned superintendents.  Cortines is one of them. Continue reading

Commentary: On a momentous day, where was Vladovic?

Richard Vladovic

Richard Vladovic

What a momentous day it was. One superintendent out. Another steps in.

The LA Unified community and social media were alive with chatter — people sorry to see John Deasy go, people celebrating his departure, people happy to see Ray Cortines return for a third deployment, people wondering what the school board was smoking in bringing him back.

So many comments, opinions and responses.

But one person was conspicuously absent.

Board President Richard Vladovic had nothing to say.

Apart from whatever contribution he made to the district’s “joint statement” from the board and Deasy, he issued no press release. He made himself available for no interviews. He made no public appearances to talk about the day’s events.

He appeared to be missing in inaction.

At times of crisis and change — in a family, an organization, even a public agency — constituents want a comforting word that everything will be okay, that problems will be solved, that divisions will be closed, even if it’s more hope than certainty.

In the case of the LA Unified family, teachers deprived of raises for years might like to know there could be better times ahead, parents might like to hear that their kids’ schedules will be straightened out, students might appreciate encouragement to stay the course despite the messes created by the grownups.

If there were ever a moment for a leader to step forward at a critical time from within a bureaucracy wracked by divisiveness, technological dysfunction and public discontent, this was it. And the logical person to utter those soothing words would have been the school board president, the elected face of the school district, second-biggest in the country.

But in this case, the school board president had nothing more to say beyond the joint statement, or so his office advised.

Other board members were quiet, too, but they don’t set the board agenda. The board president does. Continue reading

Commentary: Deasy’s impatience eclipsing accomplishments?

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | by Jim Newton

There’s a storm cloud gathering over Los Angeles politics these days, and the man at its center is schools Supt. John Deasy.

In office since 2010, Deasy has fenced with his bosses, the seven-member school board, almost from the get-go. Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated: United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents teachers in the L.A. Unified School District, has sharpened its critique of the superintendent, calling for him to be held “accountable” in his upcoming evaluation. A recent election to fill a vacancy on the closely divided board went to the candidate, George McKenna, considered less friendly to Deasy.

Deasy has made matters worse by some admittedly sloppy handling of a deal intended to put iPads in the hands of students. The board is scheduled to deliver its performance evaluation of Deasy next month, and that could turn into a major confrontation.

Read the full commentary here.

Editorial: Pre-Deasy days weren’t as great as you thought

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | by the TImes Editorial Board

At L.A. Unified, tensions are high and crisis is in the air. The relationship between Supt. John Deasy and the school board that oversees him is at what is perhaps an all-time low. Deasy is again muttering about quitting; others are grumbling that he should be fired.

Not surprisingly, United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, is practically giddy. The union has regularly lambasted the superintendent, calling his performance “anything but satisfactory,” suggesting he be placed in “teacher jail” like a teacher accused of misconduct would be, and making it clear that it would like him to resign. If Deasy resigns, the leadership no doubt figures, it can go back to the good-old days.

Read the full story here.

Editorial: LA Unified schools won’t get better if leaders fight

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | Editorial Board

This would be a difficult period for Supt. John Deasy and the Los Angeles Unified School District even if he and the school board were intent on working together for the benefit of students. But these aren’t the most cooperative of times, to put it mildly. The questions surrounding the superintendent’s 2012 emails with Apple and Pearson, well before the companies were picked as the winners of the contract to provide thousands of iPads for the district’s students, have further damaged the already tenuous relations between Deasy and the board. Nothing is likely to get better until the matter is resolved by further investigation.

Read the full story

Commentary: Vergara could be a win-win for students and teachers

EdWeekVia EdWeek | by Carl Finer

As a veteran urban educator and career union member, I care deeply about both my students and building the systems to ensure that all students and teachers have what they need to be successful. In the legal precedent laid out in the controversial Vergara decision relating to teacher tenure in California, I see a potential window of opportunity opened for all of us to rethink our current conceptions of accountability and advocate for something that will serve both students and teachers better.

Registration is required, but you can read the full story here.

Commentary: The problem with teacher tenure

NYT logoVia NY Times | by Frank Bruni

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Read the full story here

Commentary: Teaching and business do not mix

NYT logoVia NY Times | by David Kirp

Today’s education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy. Some place their faith in the idea of competition. Others embrace disruptive innovation, mainly through online learning. Both camps share the belief that the solution resides in the impersonal, whether it’s the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology.

Neither strategy has lived up to its hype, and with good reason. It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.

Read the full story here

Commentary: To those who live with Parkinson’s, you’re not alone

Bennett Kayser LAUSD

Bennett Kayser, representing district 5 on the LAUSD board of education

By Bennett Kayser

As we learned yesterday that Robin Williams had been in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, I felt the need to step forward and share my story, and perhaps let others know they are not alone, that there is hope and that life with the disease can be joy-filled.

I was recently honored to be the guest speaker at a Parkinson’s conference in Pasadena and delivered the address, which follows below.

The sad loss of Mr. William has caused me to recommit my energies, as a member of the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to serving children and adults, burdened with seen and unseen physical and mental challenges. I am here to help, as are others, never give up.

My speech was called, “What Parkinson’s Has Done For Me”

     About seven years ago, my right hand would occasionally tremble, and then it would stop. I attributed the shaking to cold weather and air conditioning. When the frequency of my hand’s shivers increased, I decided it was time to see a doctor. He told me that it was likely Parkinson’s Disease and referred me to a neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis.

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Opinion: Teachers unions oppose change — why?

wsj-wallstreetjournal-convertedVia Wall Street Journal | By Antonio Villaraigosa

President John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” This message has apparently been lost on some people in our teachers unions who used their recent national conventions in Los Angeles and Denver to argue against desperately needed changes in our public schools.

At a time when only one in 10 low-income children is earning a four-year college degree and two out of three jobs of the future will require one, change is needed. At a time when more than half of young people attending community college need to retake high-school classes because the education they received was not rigorous enough, change is needed. At a time when American 15-year-olds trail their counterparts in 30 countries in math, 23 in science and 20 in reading, change is needed.

For some time now, teachers, elected officials, community, business and nonprofit organizations have advanced bold changes in education. America is raising standards, investing in teachers, rewriting curriculum, bringing technology into the classroom and exploring new learning models like public charter schools that are getting results in higher graduation and college-enrollment rates.

Read full story here

Commentary: When educational options reverse fate of location

New OCRcom logo final 3

Via OC Register | by Jalen Rose

Many young people in America today face a harsh reality. Their fate in life is determined by their ZIP code. For an overwhelming number of African Americans and other minorities, having the wrong ZIP code keeps you from a high school diploma, a college degree, and a future that offers you opportunities that match your talents.

That’s wrong. And it’s entirely avoidable.

We are not assigned to certain grocery stores or restaurants based on our ZIP codes, which is why it makes no sense that between K-12, children are required to attend a school solely based on where they live.

The fact of the matter is that the high school graduation rate for African American males is just 52 percent – 26 percentage points below the national average of their white counterparts. In other words, more than half of all African American children in America will never have the basic skills to compete in the 21st century workforce. Odds are many of those children will turn to crime, violence or drugs, causing problems for every single American who pays taxes or simply seeks to live in a society that allows people to realize their full potential.

There is an obvious solution at hand to deal with this chronic crisis – educational choice.

Read the full story here

Commentary: Vergara decision on tenure — and our union

Teacher tenure LAUSD Vergara

Cartoon by David Granlund

By Ron Taw

I came to education out of the business world. Before entering the classroom, I was making my way up the corporate ladder at a Fortune 500 company. But then, over 15 years ago, I realized that I wanted a job where “success and advancement” would mean changing more lives, not just earning more money.

That’s why I came into teaching, and why I stay. So as someone who deeply loves his job and his students, I am disappointed in the reactionary response of many of my colleagues to the ruling in Vergara v. California, in which California’s teacher tenure laws were ruled unconstitutional.

Rather than an attack on teachers, Vergara has given us an opportunity to completely rethink the systems of teacher tenure, support, evaluations and lay-offs. When I received tenure, it was the result of an arbitrary and opaque process, divorced from my work in the classroom helping students. At the moment, tenure remains the only official milestone for most teachers’ careers. So rather than an empty stamp, we want tenure to be meaningful, impactful, and part of a career-long system of professional development.

This ruling presents a rare opportunity for actual classroom educators to own our profession and lead the nation in creating an innovative, student-focused and teacher-driven system for how we hire, evaluate and retain educators.

The impending wave of retirements and decline in new teacher credentials being issued means we have to do something new to ensure that we are not facing understaffed classrooms in the coming years. Changing tenure is not the silver bullet, but it can be a key part of the solution.

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Letter to Editor: Parent finds Zimmer comments ‘offensive’

letters to the editorEditor’s Note: This letter, by Michael Schlesinger, an LAUSD parent, is in response to an article published May 30, entitled, Zimmer: LAUSD ‘culture war’ over co-locations on the west side.”

I’ve never been accused of racism before, so I was surprised to read board member Steve Zimmer’s comments last week, pitting neighbors against each other in an alleged “culture war.”


I know I speak for thousands of Westside parents when I say that I don’t have “a lot of fear about public schools,” as Zimmer suggested. In fact, I decided to send all three of my children to public schools – two to a traditional public school and the other to a charter public school – because I believe deeply in public education.


I also believe there’s a value in choosing a school that will provide a child with the type of education that will best enable him or her to thrive academically, culturally and personally. For some students, that might be a highly structured environment, while others might gain the most from project-based learning. For my eldest son, I chose New West Charter because I believed it would provide him with the type of social and emotional support he needed to thrive, which it has.

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Commentary: What I learned in school this year

Teachers with students LAUSDWith this essay, Ellie Herman concludes her year in the classroom — and sharing her observations and insights with LA School Report.

This year, I had the remarkable experience of taking the academic year off to visit high schools across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A. in an attempt to understand better what we mean when we talk about education.

As the school year ends, here are the five biggest things I’ve learned:

1. A great teacher serves the needs of the community—not some pre-packed top-down agenda.

It’s axiomatic these days that “all effective instruction looks alike.” That may be true. But so-called “effective” teaching, or teaching whose primary intent is to produce test score growth, does not necessarily meet the needs of all students. The great teachers I’ve seen first listen to the students in front of them and then try to meet those needs, often in a variety of ways and in different styles. Some teachers are wildly entertaining and charismatic; others rely on clear, consistent routines. Some teach from the traditional canon; others teach from high-interest pieces. What all of these teachers have in common, though, is a deep understanding of the needs of the students in front of them and a willingness to balance high standards with the reality of meeting those needs.

2. Teaching in a high-poverty community is a far more complex and difficult job than teaching in a more affluent community—and should be at a higher pay scale.

I’m not saying that teaching is ever easy. But teachers in affluent or middle-class communities are primarily dealing with students’ academic needs. In high-poverty communities, first of all, students are often coming in with skills so far below grade level that the standards-based reading expected of them is inaccessible. To get students closer to grade level, teachers need to learn a variety of reading intervention tactics, along with strategies for working with English learners. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Students often have multiple symptoms of trauma related to poverty including hunger, chaotic living situations, abuse and violence. Teachers in high-poverty communities need to become experts in dealing with all of these issues. Their pay should reflect the higher complexity of their job.

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Commentary: It’s not the outsiders to blame, it’s the system

System prevents us from listening to teachers Larry Sand Commentary LAUSDThis commentary is written in response to Ellie Herman’s commentary last week, asking why policy makers don’t listen more to teachers.

By Larry Sand

Why aren’t we listening? Well, in fact we are. There are organizations whose members include current and former teachers. Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence and StudentsFirst take positions on education policy issues, exchange ideas with the likes of LAUSD honcho John Deasy and pile into Sacramento attempting to affect legislation.

Are they as effective as they should be? No. But blaming the likes of Eli Broad, Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp who have “little or no experience in the field” is way off target.

The real villains are much closer to home: the sclerotic, union-dominated state education code, school boards which are, all too often in the unions’ thrall, and strangulating industrial-style union contracts. Hence, there is realistically only so much that can be accomplished by straight-jacketed teachers in California and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Ms. Herman indulges in shibboleths to make her case. For example, she bangs on the small class-size drum, taking Stanford’s Eric Hanushek to the woodshed because he “never spent even a single day facing down a classroom of squirmy, perspiring, cranky, hormonal children.”

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Commentary: Why aren’t we listening to our teachers?

Listening to our teachers LAUSDI’m fed up with the inefficiency of the judicial system! I’m going to become a judge. I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen all my life, I mean, how hard could it be? I have 20 years of business experience in the TV industry. When I blow into the courtroom demanding accountability, I am going to shake things up! Who needs legal experience when you understand the bottom line?

Wait—no. I’m going to be Surgeon General. Sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a million of them! You should have seen the pair of “specialists” who nearly killed my grandma. It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and set some standards. Patients first, dammit!

No, you know what? I think I’m going to be a Rear Admiral in the Navy. I grew up right near Lake Michigan, a large body of water, and with my business experience . . .

Okay, all of these ideas are preposterous. Common sense and business savvy are no substitute for a lifetime of training and expertise. What’s crazy, though, is that in education, the opposite view prevails. I cannot think of another profession in which major policies are set by people with little or no experience in the field.

Look at who’s driving education policy these days: Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Wendy Kopp. None of them has ever been a teacher. Three years ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion led by one of the U.S. Department of Education’s Deputy Secretaries. His years in the classroom? Same as everybody else high up in the DOE: zero. He had an extensive background in . . . improv theater. That was gonna be your next guess, right?

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Commentary: UTLA needs online voting for a wider union voice

online votingBy Linda Yaron

A vote for online voting next month might be the most important decision UTLA members make as a union. It has the potential to systemically increase teacher participation at a foundational level of our union and make it far easier for all members to have a voice.

As a 10-year teacher in LAUSD, I’ve seen, and have experienced, various levels of participation in the union. Though some teachers are engaged in union processes, many are not. Teacher and online voting proponent Marisa Crabtree states, “The majority of the union is disengaged from the voting process.  This is disconcerting when the union leadership is directly responsible for decisions that directly affect our workplace.”

At the very basic level, voting itself can be a transformative tool to leverage the union as a vehicle to improve student learning and teaching conditions.  Yet, in the 2011 leadership elections, only about 10,000 teachers voted — less than a third of our members.  In both rounds of voting in this year’s elections, barely a quarter of our members cast ballots as they elected Alex Caputo-Pearl the next president.

If we are to truly have a union that represents the voices and needs of teachers and the students we teach, we must both examine the causes of low participation and take steps to make it easier for our busy and overworked teachers to have a voice. The first step is to make it easier for teachers to vote.

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Commentary: Another test, but what is it, exactly?

common core standardsIn a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “When the Circus Descends,” David Brooks derided opponents of Common Core Standards, implying that they were ideologues on the far left and far right making “hysterical claims and fevered accusations.” But as I visit classrooms across the city talking to teachers about the Common Core, I don’t hear any hysterical claims or fevered accusations. I do hear one deep concern:

That the test will be a disaster.

Here’s the thing: I haven’t talked to anybody—anybody!—who objects to the actual Common Cores Standards. The Standards are incredibly vague; basically, they value the processes of analytical reasoning, reading, writing, speaking and listening. In other words, the Standards are like the education version of Peace, Love and Understanding. Who could possibly object?

The problem is that we are about to test the standards—and people do not like the tests. The teachers on the East Coast who are protesting, the children fleeing classrooms in tears, the parents forming an “Opt Out” movement are not a bunch of ideological clowns. They are angry because this new Common Core test, which has been implemented sight unseen by almost any teacher or principal, may have enormous power over their future without any serious public discussion. What are these tests, exactly? Do they even measure the standards?

Here in California, where the launch has been much slower, teachers across Los Angeles are administering a field test version of the Common Core test this month. There are two versions being rolled out nationally — here, it’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test.

This morning, I took the online practice test for 11th grade English. Here’s a breakdown of what it is, what it isn’t and whether it measures the standards:

First, it’s not only multiple choice but it does have some multiple-choice elements. As on the California State Tests or the Verbal SAT, students are required to read short passages and answer multiple-choice comprehension questions. The content tends to be grounded in practical real-world concerns: whether a city should fund public art, whether teenagers should have a curfew, whether water should be fluoridated.

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LA Times endorses McKenna for District 1 board seat

Los Angeles Times logoVia Los Angeles Times | By the editorial board

The seven candidates for the District 1 seat on the Los Angeles Unified School Board include several teachers, a reality-show contestant and a former member of the board. The one who stands out, though, is former principal and district administrator George McKenna.

In 1985, years before “school reform” became a buzz phrase, McKenna was profiled in People magazine for refusing to accept the high truancy, campus crime and terrible academic performance at George Washington Preparatory High School in Westmont, where he was principal. He enlisted help to clean up the rundown, low-performing school physically, socially and academically. Students signed behavior contracts, teachers were required to submit lesson plans and assign daily homework, and truancy plummeted. A year later, his efforts became the subject of a made-for-TV movie.

Though there are several qualified candidates on the ballot to replace longtime board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December, McKenna strikes us as the one who would put the needs of District 1′s largely low-income and minority students above any particular ideology or political alliance. The victor in this election will serve out the last year of LaMotte’s term, which ends in mid-2015.

Read the full endorsement here.




Analysis: Just what does Caputo-Pearl’s first-round victory mean?

Caputo-Pearl at the podium; Fletcher, on the right

Caputo-Pearl at the podium; Fletcher, on the right

The first round of the UTLA elections produced two stunning results.

One: For the first time in recent memory, a political faction within the union — Union Power – has gained near total control of the union. In a field of 10 candidates for president, Alex Caputo-Pearl out-polled his nearest competitor, incumbent Warren Fletcher, by a 2-to-1 margin — a runoff is now underway — and Union Power candidates won outright nearly every other union leadership position.

Two: Not that many people cared. In a turning-point election, barely a quarter of UTLA’s 31,000 members bothered to vote.

The combination is a real head scratcher because it makes entirely ambiguous just what members were saying if they were saying anything at all. Even Fletcher bowed to the inevitable, announcing he would no longer actively campaign for another term.

On the one hand, the true believers lined up behind a change agent and his deep bench of compatriots with a lengthy platform that included a focus on raises and the end of teacher jails.

On the other, a silent majority declared they have enough on their hands, with crowded classrooms, curriculum changes and the challenge of providing the best for kids with the least.

It’s as if most teachers, feeling beaten down and demoralized over so many years, considered the options — more of the same under Fletcher or new activism under Union Power — and decided, “Yeah, whatever.”

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