The Education of Roy Romer

A former governor of Colorado runs the Los Angeles school district with a hands-on passion for high-quality instruction.

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District administrators still shake their heads in telling the story. In the summer of 2000, Roy Romer had already shocked them by accepting the superintendency of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It was, to put it mildly, an unlikely career move for a then-71-year-old former Colorado governor and general chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Then, he did something that truly amazed his staff. Anxious to better understand the district’s recently adopted reading program, he read the teachers’ guides over a weekend. By Monday, he could quote them chapter and verse.

“You will find very few superintendents who take the whole program home and study it,” says Maria Gutierrez Ott, the senior deputy superintendent, whom Romer recruited shortly after arriving.

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The tale illustrates the central irony of Romer’s leadership: He’s not an educator by trade, and yet, by many accounts, he’s more focused on instruction than any Los Angeles schools chief in recent memory.

True, he knew plenty about school policy when he arrived. Romer had played a lead role in the national movement for standards-based school reform throughout his three terms as Colorado’s top elected official, as the head of the National Governors Association, and as the chairman of the National Education Goals Panel.

But few could have predicted the hands-on approach he has taken to improve what goes on in the classrooms of the nation’s second-largest school district. Romer has instituted common instructional programs across the 720,000-student system. He’s deployed legions of coaches to help teachers at each school polish their craft. And he’s built up a system of regional district offices to monitor and improve classroom practice.

Even the district’s massive building program is but a means to his end of instructional improvement. By constructing 160 schools—more than are in the entire Denver school district—he aims to end such practices as “multitrack” scheduling, a juggling act performed with students in overcrowded schools that he sees as educationally harmful.

Roy Romer speaks at the ceremony marking the opening of  HighTechHigh Los Angeles.
Roy Romer speaks at the ceremony marking the opening of the HighTechHigh-Los Angeles charter school, founded with a support from the Lowell Milken Family Foundation and other philanthropies.
—Ringo H.W. Chiu

“Unfortunately, the thing that people are probably going to remember are the buildings,” says Romer, who wears work boots to the office. “It’s important to do. It’s massive. It ain’t why I’m here. I’m here to change the practice of what goes on in those buildings.”

In pursuing that end, he faces his toughest challenge to date. After four years of strong gains, test results in the elementary schools of Los Angeles have tapered off. Secondary school performance has been less impressive. Algebra scores remain downright dismal. Critics say the recent results point to a failure of Romer’s administration, which they deride as top-heavy and dictatorial.

Meanwhile, a school board election last year replaced the majority that hired Romer with one that enjoys the backing of the city’s powerful teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Plus, a state budget crisis has forced the superintendent to scale back some key parts of his improvement agenda.

His fans say he’s up to the task. Now 76, he still astounds with his vitality and political savvy. He works 13-hour days, often calling staff members to working dinners on short notice. Despite the board of education’s new makeup, he continues to win support for ambitious plans, like the recent decision to create “small learning communities” of no more than 500 students at all secondary schools.

“He has more energy than an 18-year-old,” says Ronni Ephraim, the district’s chief instructional officer. “The more he’s challenged, the more energized he is.”

Roy Romer is the epitome of a lifelong learner. He reads a book a week. He recently quoted Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to a group of assistant principals in describing the ever-present problems posed by the district’s budget. He can point to virtually any detail in a new school building and explain why it’s there.

To work for him is to be constantly pressed for information and analysis. Every several weeks, he calls in each of the superintendents in charge of the regional district offices to go over thick binders full of new student-performance data. The one-on-one meetings last all day.

“You can feel like he’s sucked your brain out, because he asks such deep, probing questions,” says James Morris, the assistant superintendent in charge of elementary education.

Romer says that kind of inquiry led him to his core belief about the job at hand: Student performance in Los Angeles won’t improve without a systemwide approach toward raising the level of instruction. In a district that serves more students than do 28 individual states, he reasons, the task of figuring out how to improve teaching and learning cannot be left entirely to individual schools.

Roy Romer is the epitome of a lifelong learner. He reads a book a week. He can point to virtually any detail in a new school building and explain why it’s there.

His thinking differs from the main strategy, called LEARN, that the district pursued before Romer. Named for the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, a coalition of local education groups, the LEARN approach shifts decisionmaking authority over such things as hiring to the school level.

After seven years of LEARN, test scores remained so flat that there was talk of a state takeover of the district just before Romer was hired. LEARN continues, but under Romer only the highest-performing schools are allowed to deviate from the system’s instructional programs.

“The theory of change that says all you need to do is empower local schools, give them their freedom, and let them go—that doesn’t work,” he says. “That’s what got us here.”

Instead, the superintendent has sought to instill a common language across the sprawling district. Impressed by the systemwide use of Open Court—the highly scripted elementary reading program selected by district leaders just before he arrived—he has instituted standard teaching guides for mathematics, English-as-a-second language instruction, and now science.

For his training efforts, Romer has tapped the work of Lauren B. Resnick, the founder of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Teachers, principals, and others throughout Los Angeles now are well versed in the institute’s “principles of learning,” which stress the need to give students clear expectations, to press them for evidence, and to encourage problem-solving.

Kyla Hinson, the principal at Saticoy Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, says the use of common approaches gives her the guidance she needs to act as an instructional leader. Instead of devoting energy to choosing programs, she’s able to focus on improving classroom practice. She’s also more likely to swap ideas with other school leaders.

“I can talk to principals in other districts in L.A. Unified, and we’re talking the same,” says Hinson, now in her fourth year leading the school. “We can go out and hash it out.”

But, she adds: “I’m not saying every principal sees it that way.”

Romer’s loudest critic is John Perez, the president of the 42,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles. He accuses Romer of building up a bloated bureaucracy while refusing to collaborate with union leaders. Perez has argued, unsuccessfully so far, that union members should have more say in picking the educators who coach teachers on their instruction.

Perez says many of the new management techniques come across as exercises in fault-finding. Such complaints recently led Romer to scale back the use of “learning walks,” in which administrators and others visit classrooms to get a clearer picture of the instruction in a school. Romer has said, however, that the general practice of classroom observations will continue.

“I believe that Roy is sincere about wanting to improve student achievement,” says Perez, whose union is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “But he tends to only talk to the administrators downtown, and really doesn’t listen to the practitioners in the schools.”

Although he credits Romer’s success in building new schools, Perez attributes any test-score gains in recent years to other factors, such as California’s statewide class-size-reduction policies. He notes that the first big jump in student performance took place just before the superintendent took over.

Romer’s loudest critic is John Perez, the president of the 42,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles.

Romer’s defenders say he does listen to classroom educators. “There hasn’t been an area of the curriculum where something’s been written without teachers involved in it, and without the union reviewing what’s moving forward,” says Ott, the deputy superintendent.

But Romer can’t shrug off the union’s complaints, especially after the last board election. The seven-member panel that hired him four years ago was led by members elected with heavy backing from then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad. In March of 2003, a win by two UTLA-supported candidates formed a new, union-friendly majority.

The new power balance was evident this past spring. Faced with a $500 million shortfall in the district’s $5.7 billion budget, the UTLA-backed board members set their sights on the 11 “local district” offices. Each functions as a mini central office, with a superintendent, school supervisors, and subject-matter directors.

Created under former interim Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, the regional offices have grown substantially under Romer. They are the conduit through which he has managed instruction. The district’s 800 instructional coaches, for instance, get their training through the local offices, although they’re based in the schools.

Angry at earlier cuts that increased teachers’ student loads and reduced money for classroom supplies, the union held protests to demand the elimination of the local offices. Romer wanted to keep all 11, but in June gave in to pressure from the board and agreed to trim them to eight. Meanwhile, the staffing level in each office—which is responsible for about 100,000 students under the consolidation—was cut from more than 100 to around 60.

Relations with the board then appeared to improve. In July, the board voted 6-0, with one abstention, to extend the superintendent’s contract—which had been set to expire in summer 2005—through June 2007. Still, Romer agrees that pushing his agenda takes more work with the new majority.

“It’s tougher work than being governor,” he says. “As governor, I’m elected, I’m there for four years. I have a power base. I govern. Here, I come to work every Monday and see whether I’ve got four votes out of seven.”

More vexing is the challenge posed by students’ latest test scores. The earlier impressive trajectory of gains in the elementary schools began to level out over the past year. High school gains, although steady, have never been steep in Los Angeles. And most distressing, a mere 8 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above in algebra.

Proponents of greater site-based management say the results show the limits of the superintendent’s approach. William G. Ouchi, the author of the popular 2003 book Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need, calls Los Angeles Unified “arguably the worst school district in the country.”

Romer meets with students.
Romer meets with students Jose Sanchez, 16, left, and Jonathan George, 16, right, during the dedication event for HighTechHigh-LosAngeles.
—Ringo H.W. Chiu

“It’s unbelievably centralized, top-down, and heavy-handed,” says Ouchi.

District administrators counter that statewide results show a similar pattern for 2004, and that over the long haul, Los Angeles has narrowed the gap in performance between itself and California as a whole.

Still, Romer concedes he has his work cut out for him. He has been pressing his staff members harder than ever to explain what happened, and what can be done about it. Administrators think they can get still higher performance out of such programs as Open Court through better professional development for teachers, but that could be tough after the recent budget cuts.

Romer wants to stay to work through the problem. By the end of his contract, which he has every intention of fulfilling, he’ll be 78. “You live longer and you’re more active and proactive the harder you push,” he says. “And I wanted to be pushed very hard.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at

PHOTO: Romer stays at his post during a break in a meeting this month with Los Angeles' district superintendents. Above, he considers a point during the same gathering.
PHOTO: Romer attends a dedication ceremony on Nov. 17 for HighTechHigh-Los Angeles in the Lake Balboa community.
—Photographs by Ringo H.W. Chiu

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Pages 35-37

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as The Education of Roy Romer
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