School & District Management

L.A. Superintendent to Focus on Teaching, Use of Data

By Dakarai I. Aarons — January 27, 2009 4 min read
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New Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines has launched a series of initiatives aimed at increasing parent and community engagement and giving teachers more data about their students to help improve instruction.

Mr. Cortines took the helm of the nation’s second-largest school district earlier this month after the school board voted to oust previous leader David L. Brewer for what members called ineffective management. (“L.A. District Changes Management,” Jan. 7, 2009.)

A former superintendent in New York City and San Francisco, Mr. Cortines, 76, had been serving as Mr. Brewer’s second-in-command. He was also the district’s interim superintendent in 2000.

His 100-day plan focuses on five big goals: consistent teaching and learning; streamlining the 700,000-student district’s administration; creating safe, modern and orderly schools; accountability; and transparency and input.

The plan includes $500 million in proposed modernization projects in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. It also calls for working with community leaders to create an education compact similar to that which exists in Boston, and experimenting with a funding plan that would give principals more authority at several schools next fall.

The plan is a working document that is subject to change as school officials work with the community to set the direction for the district.

Another factor will be California’s budget crisis, with a state deficit projected at more than $40 billion in the next 18 months. Funding will determine how quickly the school district can move on its goals, said Matthew Hill, the district’s new administrative officer.

But Mr. Hill said the plan “is setting the tone for the direction of the district—putting a lot of public accountability out there to get stuff done, but to also start conversation,” Mr . Hill said. “We want to be scrutinized. We want people to come to the table.”

Change in the Works

Ramon C. Cortines, who took over Jan. 1 as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has unveiled a work plan for his first 100 days at the helm of the nation’s second-largest district.

The plan calls for action in five key areas:

• Achieve consistently high-quality levels of instruction and learning;

• Streamline the district;

• Provide safe, modern, and orderly schools;

• Implement an accountability and support system for schools; and

• Provide transparency and gather input from district workers and the community.

To get started on the plan, the district is working on integrating student-support services to help reduce the dropout rate, giving principals more control over school budgets, creating a data system that will give teachers more access to student information, restructuring to meet budget cuts, and working with local community leaders on an “L.A. Compact” to be completed this spring.

SOURCE: Los Angeles Unified School District

Mr. Hill is especially excited about the funding pilot. He joined the Los Angeles district this month from Oakland, where weighted student funding has been in use for several years. The method bases a school’s allocation on the needs of its students, rather than the number of them.

“What we found in Oakland is once you break down the budgets in a way that is understandable, you can see where you have challenges,” he said. “What is very challenging for us unfortunately is the state budget crisis. We don’t want to give budget authority to schools if there is not enough money for schools.”

As a first step in communicating more with parents, the district recently mailed a report card to every parent about the performance of their child’s school in an attempt to provide detailed and user-friendly information.

The idea came from Mr. Cortines, who had already begun work on a report card for the 10 schools that are run by the city’s mayor. He decided it would be useful information for all parents, Mr. Hill said.

The report cards were designed by the Boston Consulting Group and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the California Community Foundation.

Michael Lovelady, the district’s project director for the report cards, said the goal was to give parents something more accessible to help them understand what their child’s school is—and isn’t—doing well.

‘Starting Conversations’

While much of the information on the report cards is available elsewhere, such as on the district and state education department Web sites, the school district is sharing some internal data that school officials say they hope will help spur conversation and action from parents.

Report cards for high schoolers, for example, list the percentage on track to qualify for admission to a University of California or California State University campus.

“We really want parents to become involved. I think giving them this much information about the school is starting conversations,” Mr. Lovelady said.

The high school report cards also feature the tougher graduation rate created by the National Governors Association, rather than the one used by the state.

“We are trying to be transparent and share the data we do have on our students,” he said. “Even though this graduation rate doesn’t look as good as the state’s rate, we want to tell our parents how our schools are really doing.”

One thing the report cards don’t show is a letter grade for schools. That feature, which has been a source of controversy when used in places like New York City, is still a year or two away from appearing on report cards in Los Angeles. Future report cards, which will be released each January, will also include data on parent and student satisfaction and the percentage of students, faculty members, and staff who feel safe at the school.

The report cards are the first step in a new data plan called MyData. Alongside the report cards, the district is developing a “data dashboard” system, being piloted in 34 schools, that gives teachers information on their desktops.

Not only will teachers be able to look at up to 10 years of data on their students, the data system will also eventually have warnings built in that will sound an alarm when students are falling behind.

“We are giving this wealth of data to teachers for the first time,” said Mr. Lovelady, who is also leading the MyData effort. “We believe this will empower them to make changes to instruction.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as L.A. Superintendent to Focus on Teaching, Use of Data

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