In this final installment of excerpts from his thought-provoking September 14 speech at , LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy answers a variety of questions from the audience:
Deasy: I think models like the Harlem Children’s Zone are absolutely amazing. They’re just not scaleable and fiscally sustainable. The underlining premise is a family of schools with total sets of wrap-around services for everybody responsible for that area of geography. That makes sense. So while we can learn from that, we’re not likely to wholesale replicate that.
Promised Neighborhoods? Again, we’re waiting for a major and massive federal government grant decision. It would be great—in a couple of neighborhoods. Six, to be exact, in the whole country. So, we don’t often have these kinds of millions of dollars to do that [at LAUSD]. We’re going to have to learn to do that at scale.
With cuts in Medi-Cal and increases in the number of uninsured, which translates into enormous problems for students, which you referenced in your speech, shouldn’t that be included as part of the evaluation of students’ performance?
Deasy: The fact is I’m not the one who’s moved to weigh into that [issue]. I think the other part is that there’s also an obligation to do something about that. So on a completely self-serving piece of information, it’s why we have in the last five months been preparing to launch in October the L.A. Fund for Public Education, an organization where our goal is to raise $500 million so that we can both endow and perpetually support four very large buckets of work: Youth health—from sports to medical needs; the arts, which are so unbelievably forgotten; the development and support of teachers and leaders; and system transformation work.
How do you feel about the role of standardized testing in the evaluation of students’ achievement, allocation of funding, and the judging of teacher quality? The second part of [the question] is do you worry or do you think that the use of standardized testing in evaluation encourages teaching to the test?
Deasy: My experience has brought me to the following beliefs around this issue: And that is, the role of standardized testing has a place in making judgments around a system, a school, an individual. I believe that it does not have a place as the predominant indicator.
I think I tried to say that—let me try to say that even clearer if I can. It’s not ignored and it’s not given undue weight. So it’s considered—and it should be considered. If it’s considered for students, in their property rights, it’s considered for us, in ours. It’s the weight and balance of that against other multiple measures that, I think, makes the difference. And we’ve been having a conversation in L.A. about where is that appropriate weight, and we will eventually this year bring, in my opinion, a conclusion to that.
Many people are watching us in trying to do [just] that. [The challenge] is how do we figure out the factors that go into doing that. So, if you want to pin me down, I can say it shouldn’t be a majority. And I don’t think it should be nothing. And if I have to make a personal judgment at the end of the day, it should be less than 30 percent because the other chunk of that are the pieces we do really well with and we understand how to get our hands around them.
Do I think it encourages teaching to the test? If the test is good, I hope we’re teaching to it because students need to be able to demonstrate proficiency on that to succeed. It’s kind of like saying, ‘is it worth preparing for the LSAT?’ I think so, if we want to get into law school. Should we teach people how to do well on the MSAT? I think so—if we want to go into medical school.
Should we teach students how to do well on the driver’s license? I definitely think we should do that. Should we teach students how to do well on the state test for algebra? Ya, absolutely. We do it for AP. And in the university system in this country, students who get a very high score in AP are able to get credit for that class, which is an absolute, unbelievable blessing for families that can’t afford that course in college.
You talked briefly in your remarks about the funding of schools. Overturning Proposition 13 might be one way. What’s your thought?
Deasy: Let me rip Prop. 13 to shreds for a minute, and then I can go on to some other issues. People like to get crazy about Prop. 13. It’s like a third grail—you can’t touch it. Sure you can. In fact, right here, we should talk very much about it.
It’s had a whole generation of unintended consequences. Some of the consequences were very good—we were literally taxing out of a home elderly people. It’s insane. And in an attempt to bring some stability to that, what we suffered was a whole series of unintended consequences—and those came, like all laws, when we put something into place, we corrected one right, and then missed the mark on some of the pieces.
We’ve just never gone back to make those other adjustments. I’m one of those who believes that the tenets of Prop. 13 still hold. I don’t believe it should play a universal role—for those of us who get wonky about Prop. 13, split role is the language: Business and corporations get taxed at a different rate than a one-bedroom house in Reseda. Disneyland should not have the same taxation rate as a one-bedroom house in Reseda. But we’ve done that for so long, which means that we have grossly depressed commercial and business revenues in a disproportionately starved public school system as a result of that.
The second thing that is right for responsible transformation in this law—I call it a loophole, but it’s certainly within the law—is that when corporations sell, they don’t get reassessed. So, as many times as we want to sell Exxon, it’s still taxed as it was in 1981—and that just doesn’t make sense. If we did those two things—and this is all back-of-the-envelope, so don’t get crazy on me—some $9 billion could come to California coffers. And I think that with some reasonable conversation about corporate responsibility, we could do that. And the lion’s share of [those funds] needs to take care of public service, public safety and public education. So that’s one way to think about that.
If we’re not going to go down that road, then you leave us no alternative but to eventually provide a diminishing set of educational opportunities compared to all of our brothers and sisters in the rest of the United States, but particularly for our youngest and most at-risk. Or go the route of a flat tax—a parcel tax. It’s the only other revenue source to us. Very difficult, highly regressive—and very difficult to pass. Not a popular thing.
So I think there’s an opportunity in California—since we live and die by the ballot box and we govern by proposition—to quaff up a proposition that says, ‘okay, we’ll take up some of the ed reform stuff that we’re really struggled with. And if we’re willing to move ourselves as a state further down the field in some of the reform issues—extending tenure time to get tenure, meaningful evaluation, and a responsible service to students—fund us.’ It’s a grand bargain that I think is beyond gripe.
Given that literacy is a major educational objective, how can you possibly justify the closing of libraries in elementary and middle schools?
Deasy: A couple of points about that. One is that it’s not in the students’ interests [to close libraries]. If we had the funding that we had five years ago, we would have had the libraries like we had them five years ago. We’ve chosen to make the last possible cuts at the classroom level, which meant that the non-classroom level has gotten cut. And there are thousands of gardeners and custodians and clerks who’ve lost their jobs so that teachers could have jobs.
There are 49 percent fewer administrators in the district at Beaudry—if you consider everybody at Beaudry an administrator—so that teachers could have jobs. So when you are forced into a situation where you have to make Sophie-like choices around supporting schools, direct support in the classroom is the last to be touched. Wish it were otherwise.
Now, with that being said, I think that we have to begin to have a conversation that there’s no research evidence that says libraries have fundamentally changed the trajectory of literacy acquisition of youth. It’s what happens in early childhood education—K-1, K-2 and K-3—and through our language arts teachers. It [libraries] enhances it [literacy], it round it out and it supports it, but it doesn’t become the primary reason why students are literate. And in the world we’re at right now, in which text is being digitized at unbelievable speed, libraries are going to look vastly different in 20 years—I would say 10 years—than they do now. That’s not to justify [the cuts]—it’s just to explain that it’s part of the conversation we should have.
Statistics shows that in some Latino-majority districts, magnet schools do not serve the majority Latino population. How do we correct this—and are magnet schools an effective way of improving the quality of our education system?
Deasy: That’s absolutely right. Some magnet schools—I think we have about 170 in all—do not do a very good job and aren’t serving the local population because of the very nature of the laws that fund magnets. Students do not do well compared to their local magnet schools at all. Those magnets should not be kept open.
The vast majority of magnets do a spectacular job—and for me the dilemma is that we need to find a way so that we don’t have waiting lists [for magnets]. They serve two purposes, which you often don’t like to talk about. They’re attractive to people who’ve decided to walk away from LAUSD. So as you are able to open other high-performing magnets, people can come back—I think that’s a very good thing. If—capital I-F—if the youth who live in the area get the same opportunity to be in those types of schools.
Data shows that many charter schools perform less well than public schools. But at the same time, the school board has just given away this year thousands of seats to charter schools. How are we going to improve public education at the same time that it’s being dismantled?
Deasy: I don’t think its being dismantled. I think we’re well within the law, which, in the state of California, says parents have the right to choice. We can feel differently about that—it happens to be the law. And if we don’t like that law, write a proposition and change it. Until that point, that is the governing principle of California, and charter school are public schools that parents have a right [for their children] to attend.
How do I feel about the issue that so many charter schools don’t perform as well as a traditional public school? My point is very simple: That high-performing, out-performing charter schools should proliferate like there is no tomorrow. There should be no barrier to those schools. The lower-performing schools should be closed. It’s no different from how we’ve been responding for years to chronically underperforming non-charter schools.
Can you talk a little about the role of teacher training—and more specifically teacher support—in the context of the new evaluation system? How do you envision teacher training, teacher support in transforming LAUSD?
Deasy: Obviously, you don’t go lightly into changing the process by which you assess performance. A great deal of thought, a lot of committee work, a lot of very smart folks, teachers, administrators, researchers have helped us think about the new teacher evaluation system. Most people say, ‘oh, this is really about identifying bad performance.’ Well, of course it’s designed to identify low performance, identify what is good performance etc.
The overwhelming responsibility of the evaluation system is to do two things other than that. One is to say to folks, ‘this is where you’re struggling quite specifically, and here’s how we provide you support.’ Until this point, there really has not been the ability to do that—the ability to personalize and make highly specific and non-generalized professional development support is one of the byproducts of this system.
But the second piece—as we were looking at student achievement data—is that we now are able to identify astonishing performance in classrooms and in schools. So one of the things about our evaluation system is to point out our high performers so that we can learn from them. And those pieces I really welcome.
We’re not going to get tremendous professional development from outside experts. We’re going to learn the best ways of teaching leadership from within. We’re bigger than some states. There is vast talent—heretofore often hidden or at least not looked for very well—which becomes really apparent and becomes our learning lives.
The second point—about schools of education—is really probably a robust conversation at another time. But I think it’s a much larger issue in this country—I think we’re really struggling in this country around this.
I’ll give the 50,000-foot worries: We do not recruit from the top quartile of candidates who come into schools of education. We do not provide vastly—or nearly enough—practical experience for any other profession with such serious consequences to the act of instruction. We don’t do any follow up after we graduate. It is the structure of schools that are often cash-producing pieces to research parts in the university—and they themselves are tremendously underfunded, I think, in doing the right work.
We’re long overdue in this country for the "Flexner Report" version of education. When we decided as a country to issue the Flexner Report a little more than 100 years ago, we fundamentally changed the entire notion of medicine in the United States. We are overdue for that in education.