School & District Management Opinion

Replacing L.A. Superintendent Would Raise Stability Issues

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 28, 2014 2 min read
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Speculation has begun about what would happen if Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy resigns or is pushed out.

The school board is to meet Tuesday in closed session, the teachers union is saber rattling, and Deasy has told the Los Angeles Times that the controversy over the district’s massive iPad purchase has made it difficult for him to lead.

But replacing Deasy, if it comes to that, will not be simple, and there are serious consequences to organizational instability.

Getting Good Requires Stability

As I wrote in a piece for Ed Source last year, organizational stability is one of the hallmarks of well-functioning education systems. It’s not that stability makes a school system good, but it is necessary to the process of getting good. As I said then:

Stability helps move toward continuous improvement," said Marshall "Mike" Smith, a policy scholar for four decades and a top federal education official in several administrations, including U.S. under secretary for education in the Clinton administration and a former adviser to current education secretary Arne Duncan. Smith points toward the countries that have done well on international comparison tests, as well as U.S. cities and states. Finland—the international poster child for well-run schooling—has built a system of governments supporting educator-run schools largely isolated from external politics. Massachusetts, which if it were a country would be near the top of the international rankings, has had governance, testing and curriculum stability for 20 years, through changes in governors and dominant political parties, and through sometimes contentious union and charter school battles. "There's no single rigorous evaluation that tells the story, but the anecdotal evidence (of benefits of stability) keeps piling up," Smith said. For example, most of the Broad Prize for Urban Education winners had made steady progress for more than a decade: Boston, Garden Grove and Long Beach in California, Houston and Aldine in Texas, Charlotte-Mecklenberg in North Carolina.

LAUSD has had 15 superintendents since 1937. The longest serving was the first on the list, Vierling Kersey, who spent 11 years in the office. The shortest serving lasted two years. But it’s not the length of an individual superintendency that makes the difference; it’s whether successive leaders built a strong system.

Stability Means Keeping the Same Guiding Ideas

As I wrote then, stability does not require keeping the same superintendent in the saddle; it requires keeping the same basic idea about education in place through several superintendents. This is what has happened in Long Beach Unified. Carl Cohn, the much-honored retired superintendent and now state board member, was replaced in 2002 by the equally respected Christopher Steinhauser. The administrative team largely stayed in place along with the instructional program.

In LAUSD, the reverse has been the case. Each recent search for a superintendent has been preceded by a declaration of crisis, and each superintendent comes to office with “a new broom sweeps clean” approach. Political processes are intended to interrupt stalemates and resolve crisis, but they haven’t worked that way in Los Angeles.

Instead, we’ve witnessed trench warfare between a coalition anchored by former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the United Way of Los Angeles, and financer Eli Broad. The opposing coalition is anchored by United Teachers Los Angeles. Almost any action by the superintendent or board is filtered through the political lens of advancing one side or the other. Superintendent Deasy was a product of this divided politics having entered the superintendency with the strong support of the Villaraigosa-supported board majority. But neither Deasy, nor any successor, can be successful as long as the basic direction of the district hangs in the balance of every school board election. The problem is not just that the board tends to squabble and micromanage; it’s that fundamental issues about the direction of the district’s operations and instructional program remain unresolved.

The politics of LAUSD has produced no stable regime and no permanent winners. Permanent crisis continues.

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