The View From District Headquarters 

A conversation with Superintendent Roy Romer

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

It's been five months since former Colorado governor Roy Romer became superintendent of the troubled L.A. Unified School District, time enough, we figured, for him to have grasped the scope of his task. So we invited him to sit down with a group of Weekly editors and writers to talk about his biggest challenges. We found his answers both thoughtful and provocative. But the conversation caused us to wonder: If this is how things look from district headquarters, how do they look from the classroom? So we brought in a panel of teachers of different grade levels from around the district whom we'd invited to read and respond to a transcript of Romer's remarks. Then, for a final word on the education picture in LAUSD, we turned to Samantha Trumbo Campbell, whose journal of her first year of teaching provides a window into the chaos awaiting inexperienced and untrained teachers -- who are joining the district in unprecedented numbers.

L.A. WEEKLY: You walked into a strange situation. An interim superintendent had already made key decisions, completely restructuring the district, hiring new area superintendents and even mandating a districtwide reading program. Did you come in with your hands tied? Were you asked to reform a district already pledged to someone else's vision?

ROY ROMER: I came in with a great number of decisions made. Symbolically, it was kind of like getting on a tanker after it's left the dock. But I knew that coming in. [Interim Superintendent] Ray Cortines made the restructuring and hiring decisions, although he let me sit in on an interview or two.


And has it been restrictive? Or was it nice to have some structure in place, even if you want to modify it one day?

I believe they were wise to try to distribute authority instead of having it all centralized. I would like to have made the hiring decisions, but that just wasn't possible. I'm not criticizing Cortines. He couldn't have done anything but what he did. For me to have come in and made those decisions within the first week would not have been healthy either. I needed to take what his decisions were and move from there. The school board brought Ray in for an interim period of time to accomplish certain things: first, to break the district down into subdistricts, and, second, to initiate a reading program. That was his mandate. Now we have a whole lot more work to do in terms of changing the rest of this system.


And what about the system needs changing?

My two most important objectives are to increase the ability of teachers to teach and to increase the ability of principals to manage instruction. In the end, it is instruction, instruction, instruction that will lead to our objective. For 50 or 100 years, educators have added program after program, shifting from the flavor of the day to the flavor of the month. But we've not been really thoughtful about how teachers learn to teach. And we're not thoughtful enough about how good professional development occurs. The old pattern would be to take the teachers out and give them a four-day seminar. Or take them to hear a motivational speaker. There is no real follow-up. And teachers have had the attitude of "What I do in my classroom is my business; the door's closed." We need to get beyond that. I'd like to do something similar to what they do in District 2 in New York. A teacher would get some instruction from outside, but primarily that teacher would learn from association with colleagues within the school. Let's say you have a master teacher of the third grade and you have a beginning teacher. You'd have the beginning teacher observe in the master teacher's class for three weeks. Then the master teacher would go to the beginning teacher's class for one week to observe that. And there would be an ongoing dialogue among all third-grade teachers every week or two. They would share their experience. This is a cultural change; it is a way of opening up the doors of the classroom, making it a community of learners.

And principals?

We judge principals in a variety of ways: how well they handle discipline, how well they handle the community's complaints, how well they manage the budget and the physical plant. Instruction is not central to the job description of principal. It should be. Ideally, a principal is in there managing better instruction. That's the primary reason for the principal to be there. A principal ought to be the principal teacher. I think the principal ought to spend 50 percent of his time in the classroom doing three things. First, recognizing when good instruction occurs. Second, helping teachers acquire the skill of good instruction. And third, doing a proper evaluation of it. Now the problem is, many of them are not skilled in this area. We have a shortage of principals in this country. And you really need to respect that principal who's got 4,000 middle school kids. I tell you, that is a tremendous hero. So what do you do? You've got to get some of the paperwork and stuff off his desk and reassign it or cut it out. You need to give him more time to devote to instruction. And you need to provide him with additional skills. We all have things to learn; not just the students. The teacher does, the principal does, the superintendent does.

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