This is the third installment of excerpts from a speech that LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy delivered at on September 14:
We expect 70 percent of students to graduate. So, we’ve got to figure out, how are you graduating? Well, failure to pass a course is the number one least reason why students graduate. I didn’t say that grammatically correct, but I wanted you to understand that when I ranked the top reason for not graduating, failing is not it. It’s the inability to have the courses and be successful in the courses. So I want to really dig this apart so you can understand this profound issue of access and how it plays out against race.
Race and Failure
In LAUSD, like every place in California, we want students to take the ‘A through G’ curriculum—and I don’t know that I have to explain that here, but at the 50,000-foot level, it’s a series of courses that, if you take those courses and you get a ‘B’ or ‘Better,’ you are UC-eligible. So it is the threshold of college-ready work.
Twenty-three percent of the students in LAUSD today are on track to graduate with the A-G curriculum. Twenty-three percent. Okay, that’s one out of four. And the overwhelming majority of those who are not on track are youth who live in circumstances of poverty and are not white and do not speak English as a first language.
So I’m trying to say to myself, ‘how is that possible?’ And, like all good teams, you look at what’s happening, and what is happening is that tens of thousands of students are systematically sorted out of courses. They simply are not allowed to take the course because of prerequisites, because of ‘we don’t believe you’re ready yet,’ because we allow you to take courses that carry no credit. So you can take a math course as a ninth grader, which is—in past years—‘Preparation for Algebra.’ Or you can take a math course, which is ‘Everyday Math.’ Or you can take a math course, which is ‘New Thinking About Algebra.’
I mean, I was a math teacher. Algebra is algebra—there’s not a whole lot that’s not algebra. And what was happening to students is that there were dozens of courses for which we allowed kids to sign up for [for which there was] no credit. So they couldn’t possibly graduate, but they were taking math courses around this issue.
And so the notion of making sure that youth know—and their parents know—their right to access the A-G curriculum has become a very potent issue. And in some ways this is a really difficult thing to talk about. But it is one—like most things—we have to surface on the table. And that is, a student can only do as well in my classroom—or if anybody in this room has the honor of being a teacher, in your classroom—as the assignment we give them to show us that they know the work. They can’t do it any other way. Either they orally tell us something because you posed a question. Or they manually tell us something because you give an assignment. That’s how we make the judgment of your knowledge.
And so one of the things we’ve become pretty obsessed with—because we’ve become pretty concerned about—is what does the work look like in the schools. And my next set of comments is going to be difficult, but they’re honest.
So in my office—and in every local district superintendent’s office—are assignments we collect every week. And what we try to do is that we randomly go into a school and we take five classrooms and see the work we’re doing today. These are only high school visits. Last week, I collected the following assignments: In 11th grade AP Lit—I think everybody knows ‘Advance Placement Literature’—the assignment was a word search. And the word search was words associated with Jane Eyre. Like ‘Jane.’ ‘Eyre.’ ‘Drama.’ I kid you not. It was horrifying.
A word search—not only is it demeaning, and not only is it disrespectful, but we don’t teach kids to read on a diagonal or backwards. Okay? It doesn’t even make cognitive sense. And I said to myself, ‘well, that’s just ridiculous—that must be a one-off.
Two geometry classes—word searches. I mean, I don’t know how you could possibly do a word search in geometry: Angle, ray, line—to sophomores. In freshmen algebra classes the assignment was a series of 50 fractions where you had to add and subtract fractions, and on the second page was that you had to multiply and divide fractions.
And each fraction was two-thirds plus four-fifths equals—and you had two answers under each one of the boxes, and one answer was correct and one answer was not. And you chose which answer. And next to each answer was a set of eyebrows, a set of ears, or a set of noses or a set of chins—and you took the eyebrow or the nose or the chin from your answer and you went to the second page, which was a blank face, and you began to create a face.
And there was a coloring guide. If you chose this answer, you colored the hair brown; if you chose this answer, say, you colored the lips red. I couldn’t tell you how demeaning I felt [that to be] for students. In algebra, in 2011, that’s what we’re asking students to be able to do? It is not okay. We will learn to do much better. And we will only learn to do better when we know what we ask our students to do.
This is Stress
You hear a lot of stress around public school choice. You want stress? Stress is students who graduate with a diploma that has no meaning. That’s stress. I’ve heard a lot of stress around the issue of our evaluation system—that it’s disrespectful. You want stress? It’s 14 kids in a two-bedroom apartment in Pacoima—that is stress—and only one is going to school. I’ve heard a lot of stress that we’re moving too fast—that the pace is ridiculous. We want stress? There are homeless kids who live under the 10 [freeway] on a regular basis—kids in LAUSD. That is stress.
Adults—we will be able to move through this issue. I know people in L.A. are concerned about the rate with which we’re moving—and pace. I understand that. But I need people to understand where this administration and I are anchored around this issue and why we have no intention of going any slower.
And if you permit me to read you a small passage, I want to talk about this afterward. I’m going to read it verbatim, and the language is rough—of course it is. But it’s actual, and so I think many of you may have read in its entirety King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that justice too long delayed is justice denied.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that ‘Funtown’ is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobody-ness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
No More Foot-Dragging
The wait in LAUSD is not the cup of coffee at the lunch counter. It is a diploma that is college work-force ready. It is an A-G course. It is an AP course with assignments that the college board would be proud of. It is students taking classes—not service credit by running notes from nurses’ offices to classrooms. It is being able to read at third grade.
That is what compels us at LAUSD—and we have no intention of being slow about that. We have every intention of being responsible, but none about being slow about that. That is what compels us. That is what allows students to be able to move to a university and not be a one-off.
There is consequence and struggle for doing this work at this pace. Frederick Douglass got it—he understood it completely. When he was talking about the issues, he would be often quoted around the fact that progress never happens without struggle, that men who crave freedom but deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground—they want the rain without the thunder, and they want the ocean without its terrible roar.
And yes, there is likely to be appropriate struggle. And I am convinced that one of the things about L.A.’s past was the inability at times—oftentimes—for union labor and management to find groundbreaking paths forward. I have every complete belief that that is happening and that it will continue to happen. We will find a third way. America has been stuck in a very polarized conversation. It is unhealthy. It will have no place in LAUSD. But neither will no progress.
And this city—and this state—has go to come to grips very quickly with the fact that if you want the very things that we just spoke about, then you have to fund our schools fundamentally better than our prisons. In California, it’s about $6,700 to put a kid through kindergarten—that’s what we get. It’s $87,000 a year for a prisoner. You don’t have to be proficient on the CST to understand the morally reprehensible argument of that math equation.
When a third-grader runs up to me every time I go to a school, with complete trust and belief that he or she is going to be like me, it’s a very weighty proposition every day when I sit with my team. And we don’t intend to let them down. And everybody is going to play a role in that. And I really thank people for being willing to play a role in that.
There are mentors needed. There is medical care needed. There are thousands of students who do not have access to health care. There are thousands of students who don’t have access to OBGYN. We have thousands of students who do not have eyeglasses. That is correctible in a city where I personally cannot afford a ticket to one of the plays downtown. That’s correctible.
When we can build pavilions onto our greatest museums—and rightfully so—I’m just not so sure how we’re able to do that with kids across the street who can’t see the damn pavilion because we don’t have eyeglasses for them. That is part of the work as well. And that is part of why I am blessed to have the opportunity to lead this—and it’s also why I am a professional alongside a stunning workforce.
We’ve had punishing cuts in the state of California. Never has so much been done for so many by so few in unbelievably difficult times. Our achievement scores aren’t accidents—and the fact that we are now the Number One improving urban district in California—Number One. Not Number Two or Three or Four. That’s no accident. That’s awesome adults killing themselves for this work. That’s why we’re not afraid to have the conversation I just had because I know we can get better.
That’s a little bit about what we’re about at LAUSD at the moment. And I thank you for listening and for—I’m making a presumption—considering being part of this work across this city. No need to get your degree and go somewhere else. Everybody who could possibly need you is waiting for you here. Thanks.