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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

LAUSD’s John Deasy: “We Improve Instruction”

By Rick Hess — May 06, 2011 4 min read

In the past month, new superintendents have taken the reins of the nation’s three biggest school systems, in New York, L.A., and Chicago. These three friends--Dennis Walcott, John Deasy, and J.C. Brizard--have the chance to become the face of the next half-decade of school reform in the same way that Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee helped shape the past half-decade. What notes they hit, especially in an era of tight budgets and rapidly evolving teacher policies, will have an outsized impact.

Yesterday, John Deasy, LAUSD’s new supe, visited AEI to deliver an address on his hopes and plans for L.A. (You can watch the event here.) Deasy has just assumed responsibility for the nation’s second-largest district. A troubled district wrestling with huge budget shortfalls, LAUSD enrolls 700,000 in over 1,000 school campuses, and has an annual operating budget of about $7 billion. The L.A. Daily News has described a district suffering from “abysmal academic performance, a bloated bureaucracy, a payroll system disaster, and sexual misconduct scandals.” Deasy’s appointment has been hailed, with the L.A. Times opining, “L.A. Unified presents imposing obstacles...But if anyone can change this, Deasy can.” Deasy, most recently LAUSD’s deputy chief, has been an executive at the Gates Foundation and previously had successful runs in a few superintendencies.

A full house heard Deasy insist that the core work of LAUSD is going to be the mantra “we improve instruction.” He said the district will be “relentless” and “insistent” in pursuing that goal, and that he believes “success is found in the classroom, and almost nowhere else.”

Deasy said that he intends to improve instructional quality by focusing on “human capital,” “managed performance,” and providing “a diverse portfolio of school options” to the district’s families. Deasy described a “tale of two systems": an emerging, dynamic, and student-focused system that still clashes far too often with a “receding” system of “ossified rules and labor stalemates.”

Saying, “I take money off of people’s kitchen table and convert it to [educator] salaries,” Deasy said the district had to do a much better job of “celebrating high performance,” working to “instruct and improve practitioners,” and remove persistently ineffective educators “gracefully and with dignity.” Deasy called for a system of teacher and administrator evaluation based on four elements: clinical evaluation; contributions to learning throughout the school community; input from faculty, parents, and students; and measured student learning. Deasy said that he’s “at a complete loss as to why incorporating student learning is controversial. If our core business is learning, then that’s what you focus on.”

Deasy said he favors “mending, not ending” tenure. He called for a higher bar, with teachers having to teach five years, or “at least three,” before being eligible--"not eighteen months.” Deasy also argued the tenure decision has to “be informed by achievement data” and that tenure should not be for life but that tenure decisions should have to be “renewed every ten years or so.” He drew a laugh when he said that today’s teacher evaluation “doesn’t help, doesn’t differentiate, and doesn’t provide meaningful feedback whatsoever. The fascinating thing is that everybody agrees on that. But, when you ask about the next step...” The key player in addressing all of this, of course, will be the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Deasy could offer no reassurance that he’ll get them on board, especially amidst looming layoffs, but he’s a tough, relentless, and savvy sonovagun--so we’ll see how that plays out.

Deasy sketched out his vision of a trade-off between “high autonomy and high accountability.” He said the district should back off as schools achieve and that, “if you’re doing well, you should see far less [central administration].” However, he said that schools which aren’t performing should expect the district leadership to be in their face.

Saying he is “agnostic on charters,” Deasy said he thought there were probably enough charter schools in L.A. and the new challenge is not adding more schools but boosting the quality of charter schools. He declared that he hopes to do this by using the “same metrics” that district schools employ as “guidelines for reauthorization, renewal, revocation, and initiation” of charters.

Deasy closed by talking about LAUSD’s brutal budget situation. He said they’re looking at 10,000 potential layoffs, and are currently in active negotiations with nine local unions to forestall those effects. He said the district is working hard to tighten its belt, having cut 52 percent of administrative positions in the past few years, but is crippled by a lack of funding. He said that he’s telling the state, “I’m not asking for more money, but just the same pitiful, pathetic amount that you gave us last year.”

Whether or not new dollars are forthcoming, Deasy’s tenure in LAUSD will do much to inform national debates about schooling. Here’s wishing him good luck and Godspeed in making the most of what he termed “an unbelievable opportunity to do better.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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