Dropout Nation » John Deasy's Mixed Legacy
Deasy's ambitious effort to provide every student with an Apple iPad tablet, already bungled because of his failure to address the underlying information technology issues, came to a bitter end this summer amid revelations by public radio station KPCC that district officials surreptitiously met with officials from Apple Computer and Pearson Plc.'s education division about a deal a year before it formally went to bid. For traditionalists, that news gave them enough ammunition to call for Deasy's head once and for all. And for reformers in the City of Angels, who helped Deasy keep his job last year after board president Richard Vladovic and the AFT local tried to oust him, the revelations made it difficult for them to help him out.
Then Deasy lost reform support when it was revealed that the district would disobey California's Parent Trigger law and essentially deny families within the district the ability to either take over or negotiate with it to help their kids gain high-quality education. When Deasy went forward with the decision even though his justification for the move — that use of the Parent Trigger wasn't allowed by the No Child waiver given to it and six other districts — was refuted by the Obama Administration, Parent Power activists and other reformers pretty much decided it may not be such a bad thing for Deasy to go.
So even as Deasy took other important steps to help the district's children — including instituting a new school discipline policy that eschews the overuse of suspensions and referrals of kids to the juvenile justice system — he was a virtual dead man walking. So this week's announcement was greeted less with outrage from reformers than with praise for his successes and a lot of relief that it only ended with a whimper.
In many ways, Deasy's departure is a shame, both for him and for reformers. As Dropout Nation pointed out last year, the longtime school leader and L.A.'s reformers had a great opportunity to take even bolder steps on behalf of all children. After all, the failed effort by Vladovic and the AFT local, United Teachers Los Angeles, to oust Deasy was the latest in a string of bad decisions by traditionalists that put them on the defensive. Particularly for Vladovic, who had faced the possibility of censure for allegedly harassing current and former staffers, and for then-UTLA President Warren Fletcher, the poor handling of their effort to get Deasy out of the district's top job weakened them politically; for Fletcher, it led to his ouster by hardcore traditionalists dismayed by his tenure months later.
Deasy and reformers could have gone bolder in this environment. For Deasy, it meant pushing the envelope further on revamping how L.A. Unified recruited, trained, evaluated and compensated its teachers, further supporting the use of Parent Trigger by families of kids attending its schools, and reviving predecessor Ramon Cortines' earlier plan to spin off 200 of the district's schools into the hands of families, charter school operators, and even teacher-led groups. For reformers, it meant gaining additional seats on L.A. Unified's board (especially in December after the death of longtime board member Marguerite LaMotte) as well as building stronger support reform on the ground, especially in black and Latino communities in most need of systemic reform.
Yet neither Deasy nor reformers achieved much in a year's time. Sure, Deasy scored a victory in June when L.A. Unified's board adopted directed him to develop a so-called "equity-based index" — a version of the poverty indexes used by states such as Indiana — to direct $800 million in so-called supplemental funding coming from California state coffers to district's neediest children. This was a key step in his goal of embracing a weighted student funding approach to budgeting, handing more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets. But Deasy played it to cautious up to that point, which meant that he made little headway on any reform.
After the win on weighted student funding, Deasy spent most of his time playing defense as the failures of the iPad roll-out grabbed more headlines, leading to revelations that his staff may have rigged the bidding process in favor of Apple and Pearson despite concerns about implementation. His failure to fully apologize for either the roll-out or for the failure of leadership in coming clean about the bidding process merely aided his foes and their sympathizers, including Los Angeles Times editorialist Karin Klein, who continued to demand that the district and Deasy fully account for the matter.
Meanwhile reformers didn't win LaMotte's seat. Certainly they did their best on the money front, pouring $1.1 million into the campaign of Alex Johnson, a former New York City Department of Education staffer who worked for L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The Service Employees International Union and Johnson's boss, Ridley-Thomas (who is surpassing Congresswoman Maxine Waters as the leading black power-broker in Southern California) also supported Johnson's bid. But because reformers didn't do a good job over the past few years building grassroots support on the ground, Johnson ultimately lost to the AFT's favored candidate, former L.A. Unified bureaucrat George McKenna, by seven percentage points.
Reformers also failed to heed Dropout Nation's advise last year to hold Deasy's feet to the fire on advancing reform. The move by L.A. Unified to ignore the state's Parent Trigger law had been in the works since November. But reformers, most-notably Parent Revolution, failed to make anyone else aware of Deasy's decision until August (likely after former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the law, found out during a meeting with the district, took on the matter head-on). The impotence of reformers who should be acting boldly for kids when dealing with Deasy is absolutely shameful. They should have been demanding more and better of him.
The failures on the part of Deasy and reformers came just as UTLA, now under the leadership of the Karen Lewis-wannabe Alex Caputo-Pearl, began a renewed agitation for Deasy's firing. Capitalizing on the iPad fiasco and now in control of the district's board, the AFT local took aim at Deasy's bungling of the iPad rollout while hinting that it would go on strike if the district didn't agree to its demand for a 17-percent pay hike over the next two years. [Deasy offered just a two percent increase.] While it is unlikely that L.A. Unified will even agree to that deal, Deasy's departure all but ensures that the AFT will get a 10 percent raise, as well as weaken the district's existing efforts. Sure, the union will have to face Cortines, who returns to the top job in a caretaker role. But he doesn't have the strong backing of a reform-oriented board (or a change-oriented mayor) as he did during his last go-round three years ago.
This isn't to say that Deasy hasn't done a good job overall as head of the nation's second-largest traditional district. His willingness to side step traditionalists on L.A. Unified's board (with the implicit support of Monica Garcia, the former board president, and other reformers) has proven crucial to making the few advancements in reform possible in the Golden State. It was his backing of Vergara v. California that led to the ruling handed down in June striking down near-lifetime employment for teachers as well as teacher dismissal policies that do little more than keep laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.
Deasy's aggressiveness on removing laggard teachers and school leaders from schools also deserves praise. By 2011-2012, L.A. Unified removed 99 laggard and criminally abusive teachers, while another 122 resigned ; this is more than the 10 teachers dismissed two years earlier. Deasy's backing of Parent Trigger efforts in the district (before his reversal of course) has helped families of kids in several schools get the teaching and curricula they deserve. In the process, Deasy helped continue Cortines' efforts at ending L.A. Unified's penchant for ignoring the desires of families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, for better than the worst the district offers.
Meanwhile he continued improvements in curricula that began earlier in the last decade under another predecessor, Roy Romer. The percentage of fourth-graders reading Below-Basic, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined by five percentage points (from 55 percent to 50 percent) between 2011 and 2013, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by three percentage points (from 15 percent to 18 percent) in the same period. The average L.A. Unified fourth-grader scored four points (or nearly half a grade level) higher in 2013 than in 2011. These results aren't unqualified signs of success After all, L.A. Unified excluded 19 percent of fourth-graders in its special ed ghettos from the exam (tied for seventh among the 12 districts with exclusion rates greater than 15 percent). Even with that proviso, Deasy deserves credit for helping more kids escape illiteracy and reach proficiency in reading.
Yet Deasy has not nearly the strong reformer those in the movement, both in L.A. and nationwide, like to think him to be. After all, his tenure at the helm of L.A. Unified has been filled with has weak moves such as striking a deal with the AFT on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms.Given L.A. Unified's longstanding (and likely, never-reversible) dysfunction, some will say Deasy has done the best he could. There's some truth to this. As I noted three years ago, district turnarounds rarely succeed because toxic cultures will overcome any individual effort (or even group action) to put it asunder. This fact is one reason why the average big-city district chief executive stays in the job for a mere four years. A Brookings Institution report on school leadership released last month further raises the question as to whether superintendents alone can achieve change on their own. And Dropout Nation has consistently called for L.A. Unified's breakup into smaller school operators.
But as seen in the successes of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and onetime Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, school leadership does matter. More importantly, strong leaders figure out how to take bold steps even in tough political environments, using every tool (from political capital to leveraging media coverage and advocacy) to make things possible. Deasy clearly had the skills and tenacity to achieve success — and did so on occasion. But more often than not, he didn't push more boldly on reform. Even worse, he didn't even take advantage of the breathing space he gained this time last year (as well as the defensive position traditionalists were placed in) to go even further, especially on the teacher quality front.
Then there is the iPad roll out which ultimately brought Deasy down. This is one of the few areas in which Deasy acted boldly — and he shouldn't have. As in the case of another school leader, former Indiana superintendent and Florida commissioner Tony Bennett, Deasy should have proceeded more-slowly amid concerns early on about the technology challenges in providing the tablets. Given the tech market's judgement (in the form of stalled sales) that tablets are not suited for the kind of productivity activities that children and adults undertake, it may have made more sense to just not bother. But Deasy moved forward without regard for L.A. Unified's technology or operaional shortcomings — and it (along with the lack of candor about the revelations of behind-the-scenes dealings with Apple and Pearson) came back to haunt the last days of his tenure.
Meanwhile Deasy's tenure also included some backsliding on helping kids gain college-preparatory learning. The percentage of L.A. Unified middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 declined from 34 percent to 28 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile the percentage of high schoolers taking trigonometry, statistics, and other advanced math also declined in that period, from 12 percent to nine percent. While it is possible that those declines could have been reversed by the time of Deasy's departure, the dramatic declines in kids taking college-preparatory math cannot be ignored in any assessment of his tenure.
What becomes clear is that while Deasy hasn't been the failure traditionalists want to say he was, the former superintendent also wasn't the strong reformer kids in Los Angeles needed him to be. This isn't the assessment many within the movement may want to accept. But it is the conclusion that needs to be admitted.
Your editor hopes that Deasy learns from his tenure and does better in his future endeavors. As for reformers in L.A. (as well as their allies in the rest of the country)? It's time to regroup on advancing systemic reform — and that starts with looking at Deasy's tenure for the missed opportunity it was.