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Interview With John Deasy

LAUSD’s controversial superintendent is betting he’ll make it past the two-year mark.

John Deasy is an East Coast educator with a buzz cut and a quick rate of speech. So when he relocated to sunny Southern California a couple of years ago, it might have seemed an odd fit. But he has learned how to slow down—a little—to make sure he’s bringing the L.A. Unified School District board members, and others, along with him.

He supports the “parent trigger” and district-authorized charter schools. He’s fought the union to make student achievement part of teacher evaluation. He talks about students’ rights almost like an advocate, rather than an administrator or an educator.

But he also shut charter schools out of the annual school turnaround/creation process instituted by his predecessor, Ramon Cortines, and after a 2012 state ballot measure to increase school funding passed, he moved to reinstate laid-off employees and restore furlough days.

It’s a delicate balance. He has a slim 4–3 board majority, and three of the seven members, including the board president, who supports him, are up for reelection in March. Halfway through February, Deasy told us that he’s pretty confident voters will want to continue the successes of the past two years. But if he’s wrong, a new board could let his contract expire or even try to push him out early.

Q How do you keep in contact with seven independently elected board members who don’t always get along with you or with one another, so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing?
A How much time do I spend talking to board members? A great deal. Not a day goes by that I don’t speak to a number of them. There are weekly staff briefings, one-on-one briefings by topic, and one-on-ones with individual members. I do most of that myself. I also write to the board once a week. The rule of thumb is that a significant other gets a phone call returned first, then a board member.

Q Why are the LAUSD and six other California school districts pushing so hard to get the NCLB waiver that the state hasn’t won from Washington?
A We want a waiver to do things, not a waiver “from” things. Specifically, we want to put in high-quality teacher evaluation and an accountability system that goes much further than NCLB. There is also money involved, roughly $80 million for the [SES] set-aside, that would help prepare students who are off track and help teachers prepare students for increased learning.

Q How would President Obama’s proposal to expand preschool and kindergarten access affect large, urban school districts like yours?
A Universal preschool is absolutely, positively necessary to make sure there’s a level playing field when children enter kindergarten. What’s happening right now is very uneven in terms of who is getting those supports. We do a large but not universal PreK program, more than 210,000, as well as full-day and transitional kindergarten.

Q The board recently voted to require that you get approval before submitting grant applications. Has this shift slowed or otherwise affected your efforts?
A It’s more cumbersome, and it does slow down the process. You don’t want to miss any deadlines. But it doesn’t change what I recommend. The board can always say they don’t want the money.

Q Teachers often see education technology as a threat to their jobs. How do you think and talk about technology without inflaming these concerns?
A The single most important factor in student learning is the teacher. So the highest-quality instruction—a highly effective teacher, every day for every year—that is where we focus. Technology is a tool, and I don’t see it as a supplement or a replacement for teachers. Technology is a tremendous enhancement, and it’s a rights issue for youth who live in poverty. I think children have the right to have access to technology with great teaching, not in place of great teaching.

Q While most school districts regard the so-called parent trigger with skepticism and dread, you and the board have so far supported the approach. Why is that?
A Our operating procedure was to treat parents with respect, to be collaborative, to work together to improve a school that needs improvement. The school [24th Street Elementary, where parents’ petition for an overhaul was approved by the board in a unanimous vote] was already in the middle of our own internal process, but the parents wanted to do what was available. Low drama and high results, that’s what I’m trying to do, and so far I think it’s going very well.

Q What’s the timeline for implementing the new teacher evaluation system that was recently agreed to after years of piloting and a lawsuit?
A The guidance was released in mid-February, and we’re beginning right away. We’ve been doing a pilot for the last year. I’m tired of pilots. Pilots are to learn from. Teachers are begging for a way to understand how to get better at this work. We’re transitioning this year, and next year we get down to business. It’s a groundbreaking plan for California, and it includes both individual and collective accountability. Student achievement is not the majority [principals have been told to make it 30 percent of the evaluation], and I agree with that.

Q Can you tell us about the “four-sided box” that protects students’ rights?
A Students’ rights are in a box with four sides. The sides are negotiation, regulation, legislation, and litigation. If one of those sides is missing, the rights leak away. It can’t be a one-sided box.

—Spring 2013—

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