Of all the issues in public life, education is probably the most difficult to define and discuss. So imagine how it feels to listen to someone whose clarity, candor and conviction leave you with little doubt about the extreme urgency of reforming the nation’s second-largest school district—the LAUSD.
On the night of Wednesday, September 14, LAUSD’s new superintendent, John Deasy, who has been in the job for less than six months, delivered a public talk at . Titled "Education Reform: The Full Contact Sport of Transforming Schools," the talk offered a refreshing glimpse into Deasy’s philosophy of education and student achievement.
It’s a curious and intriguing happenstance that Deasy’s name bears an uncanny resemblance to that of John Dewey, his pedagogical hero and one of America’s foremost philosophers and theorists of education. But what’s equally curious is that Deasy shares his first name with another great American educationist—John Holt, author of the 1964 book, “How Children Fail.” Like Deasy, Holt believed that kids don’t fail despite schools; rather, they tend to fail because of them.
Formerly with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Deasy, a one-time chemistry and math teacher, combines hands-on teaching experience with an intelligent, engaging and finely tuned sense of leadership that appears to be at once humanitarian and goal-oriented.
A charismatic person by any measure, Deasy reminds us that more than any other place in the nation, the City of Angels is a microcosm of America—and that the LAUSD is its mirror image.
Just about every one of the 100-plus languages spoken in L.A. is also spoken within the LAUSD, an organization that happens to be larger than some states and whose name deserves to be at least as much of an international brand name as, say, UCLA.
When a lifelong educator and administrator warns that without a systemic reform of the education system, “Los Angeles might be coming to a town near you,” it’s potentially a wake-up call for every school district in the nation.
Chronically underfunded education—originating in Prop. 13, which squeezed public funding for education in 1978 by capping property taxes—is only half the reason for the LAUSD’s problems, reflected so starkly in the crisis in minority education. The other half of the story, says Deasy, is about how we actually teach kids—and that cuts to the heart of every child’s right to gain an education and go to college.
Here, then, are excerpts from Deasy’s inspiring and eye-opening speech at Oxy’s Johnson Hall in which he outlined his vision for LAUSD—and society at large:
The Right to Graduate From College And Find Work
"Every single youth in this city has a right to graduate from college and be workforce-ready. Not most, not some, not nearly all—not those who come from unearned privilege, and not those whom we look at and say, ‘yeah, you’re going to make it, you’re paying attention.’ No, actually, it’s every single one of them.
"Coming to this work is an unbelievable responsibility and privilege. To be on our team and to have the right to be in front of our youth—I shape this by talking about what we’re about.
What’s Not Negotiable—And The Issue of Belief
"So much of how we get things done is a discourse and a dialogue and a set of negotiations. And sometimes it’s stress—my team wants to do it this away, while another group wants to approach it this way. I get that most of how we do our work is through give and take. What I try to be really clear about is what’s not going to be negotiable. We’re very upfront about that—and that comes from this issue around belief.
"So, how do we do it? There’s a lot of different ways, some of which I know a lot about and some of which I get taught a lot about. What we’re not going to have a conversation at LAUSD is the belief around youth: I actually believe that no other issue—circumstances of poverty, one parent, no parent, race, language proficiency, special need—none of that has a greater affect on the achievement gap than our belief about the ability of youth.
"And so, coming at this work, we’re really clear that if you want to work in LAUSD, then we have an unshakeable belief that every single student can, will and must graduate college workforce-ready and achieve at high levels.
Why Students ‘Check You Out’
"And that is the same for the student who shows up in kindergarten, brand new sneaks on, new jacket, knows his alphabet, actually is able to tell you his address—and tells you that in maybe two languages. It’s also the same as the student who bounds on to the playground in middle school, hoodie pulled up over his head—he doesn’t want you to see him and is very unsure about whether you believe in him or not, and has really struggled about even showing up that day and to stay there.
"What I tell people is that if you want to believe that that is some kids’ agenda, that is completely your right—and I will respect that. You just can’t work with our kids, however—that is not acceptable.
"When kids show up at school—no matter how they’re dressed—they are not checking out our rules. They’re not checking out what we’re wearing and they’re not checking out our discipline code.
"The first thing that they do is that they stare you down. They look right through you. And what they’re checking out is whether you fundamentally believe that I can be as successful as you.
"No matter what my brother did, or what my sister did, or whoever’s at home, or whatever money’s on the kitchen table—do I have the chance to have the same part of the American Dream that you do? And that core piece around the unshakeable belief in all youth is not negotiable. The rest of it is.
A snapshot of LAUSD in L.A.
"We are a district of around 745 square miles, we have around a thousand campuses, more than 64,000 employees, we serve most of our youth two meals a day. Most of our youth live in circumstances of poverty.
"We speak 109 different languages and we translate everything into five on a regular basis inside the system. The majority of our students are Latino, Latina and the smallest minority of our students is white. It’s a very rich, diverse place, and it’s an astonishing place of incredible stories when you go from school to school.
Los Angeles—Nation’s Bellwether
"What happens in Los Angeles is hugely important and consequential. Not just for the citizens of this enormous county in America but also for California and the nation. Los Angeles is America—only sooner.
"We need to figure out how to do this very well because L.A. is coming to a town near you somewhere in America pretty darned quickly. You know we’re the second-largest school system in the United States, and we plan to be the dead center of public school transformation. And that really should signal something more than merely improvement or reform.
A Tale of Two School Systems
"In so many ways, LAUSD is a tale of two school systems: One that’s emerging, exciting and ground-breaking and hugely successful. And one that is slowly receding and that is bureaucratic and inefficient and ossified and stuck in sometimes very arcane rules and labor stalemates.
"We get stunning glimpses of both. Far too many of the latter for my taste—but stunning glimpses nonetheless of both. If L.A. intends to be—which is exactly what we want to be—best in the West and first in the nation, and if we plan to honor every single solitary youth’s right, then we need to be prepared for some very deliberate work, and we need to go about that work quickly. I talk about this because it is both an education and a civil rights issue.
"At the moment we are vastly better than we used to be and nowhere near where we want to be. To give you the snapshot as you think about all those hundreds of thousands of youth, about 56 percent of our students graduate four years after they enter high school. The rest do not—it’s approximately one out of two. And about 23 percent graduate and are on track to graduate, so that they can competitively enter post-secondary education.
"About a third of our students can read at grade level at third grade. About half of that—less than one-third—are able to complete algebra at a level of proficiency at the end of ninth grade. And about 14 percent of students who speak a second language first get reclassified. In California, reclassification for youth of a second language other than English is essential if you’re going to graduate from school.
"We have about 23 percent of our youth who drop out completely from school. I don’t really think that’s an accurate statistic because we don’t have a dropout rate in LAUSD—we have a push-out rate.
L.A.—And California—At a Crossroads
"So that’s a photograph—not the movie—about where we are. And we have no intention of it being anywhere it is at the moment in about three years. L.A.—and more importantly California—is at a really critical crossroads. We can continue to freefall to the bottom of every single national indicator and render ourselves and our students irrelevant. Or we can chart a very bold course—a transformation.
"And once again, we gain our place at the forefront of the national education and international education of prominence. L.A. is going to have to lead the way in California to do that. And the amazing staff who work with our students are going to show us how to do that.
"But I do not believe we are going to do that by regulating our way to the top, or stipulating our way to the top, or legislating our way to the top. We are only going to get there by educating and innovating our way to the top.
"So simply put, what we are about is, how does a system that is this large and serves so many who live in so much struggle provide a vastly different future than what we have seen before, not only because we are compelled to do it but because others need us to show them the way around this.
Three Big Bets
"In short, we think about this work with three big bets. The first one is a very big bet—what we call human capital and leadership. The second is around the style of the system in terms of performance management. And the third is about a diverse portfolio of high-quality choice for everybody in the system.
"We operate from a set of core beliefs. We start with children. Diversity is our strength, families are our partners, success is in the classroom, and high quality teaching and leadership are the keys to that success. We try to operate from that every day and I try to anchor every one of my decisions and policy recommendations in that every day.
"It’s a challenge because we are a system that is of service to students through adults inside the system. And there is often a tension between those—how do we serve both, especially when the needs might be conflicting. There aren’t easy answers—but there are no answers if we don’t want to discuss it.
Importance of Human Capital
"So let me start for a second on this issue of human capital. Bar none the single-most important decision I make is who I hire—or who I empower to hire others. Who has the right to be in front of the children of Los Angeles?
"The reason I think that is such an important decision is that every day I take money off of people’s kitchen tables in the form tax dollars—almost all of whom in L.A. can’t afford to give it to me. I convert 90 percent of that into the salaries and benefits of those who have the right to be in front of students every single day, lead the schools, support the schools, clean the schools, construct in schools, help keep our schools orderly and safe.
Grand Bargain With Students—And Who Teaches Them
"And the kind of grand bargain—or the quid pro quo—for that is that we promise students that you will leave here and participate in what we call the American Dream. That you will leave college workforce-ready, be able to have meaningful employment at minimum wage, health care and a roof over your head. That we promise you in this bargain that you won’t end up on Los Angeles Avenue as a young person.
"The notion about who is in front of students and how we make that decision and how we support them and how we think about issues of how we hire, how we fire, how we promote, how we compensate, how we place, how we retain—are very, very, very important, arguably the most important decisions we make. And we’ve been thinking a lot about those issues and have been moving quickly on those issues.
Deplorable Focus on Negatives
"The issues revolve around what is often categorized in this country around a very negative and poisonous rhetoric: No low performers; we have to get rid of people who are not doing a good job. We have an obligation to do that if we spend other people’s money.
"But lost in that entire rhetoric is a very dead-serious set of other pieces—and that is, how do we celebrate remarkable performance, how do we adults learn and get better at this unbelievably difficult task of teaching. How do we help others constantly get better—because we don’t ask anything less of students every single day.
Teaching is Rocket Science
"So when we think about this notion of teaching, we see that there is really a troubled pattern in America that anybody can teach. Just take a few courses, know your math or your science—and you, too, can teach. My goodness—it’s easy: You go in there and you tell people what you know and they should get it.
"The problem with that unbelievably flawed mentality is that teaching is remarkably complex, deeply nuanced, highly technical, skilled work. Not everyone can do it—and not everyone should be doing it.
"It is actual rocket science to teach—to have a third-grader master the skill of being able to understand print decoded into cognitive and coherent meaning is deeply difficult work. It’s not natural.
"But somewhere, we’ve lost the notion that anyone can do that. It’s an iconic profession in this country, and I will argue till the day I finish working with students that it should be treated as thus, celebrated as thus, respected as thus and honored as thus.
"The work of being a teacher and a leader—and I hold them as being in the exact same piece—is not for everyone. Just because I had a root canal does not mean I can do a root canal. Just because we went to school does not mean we have any business leading a school or teaching in a school. We don’t think the same way about a pilot and we don’t think the same way about a surgeon."
To be continued—stay tuned.