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Chicago Schools vs. LAUSD 

Their supe is Obama's new education man. Our supe is nice, but ...

Wednesday, Jan 21 2009
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It’s been a rocky start for Ramon Cortines. The genial 76-year-old bureaucrat — who was never on anyone’s list of tough-minded academic reformers — was thrust into the top job at the woefully problem-plagued Los Angeles Unified School District because he seemed the steadiest hand after Superintendent David L. Brewer was booted out the door.

Almost immediately, critics questioned whether Cortines has the chops to helm wholesale changes in the city’s failing middle and high schools. He was seen as a good-intentioned man who paled in comparison to change agents like Chicago Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan, chosen to be Barack Obama’s secretary of education, and Washington, D.C.’s Michelle Rhee, a young freethinker lauded by Time for her “battle against bad teachers” in the abysmal schools of the nation’s capital.

While nobody’s ready to put Cortines in the dunce corner, many see him merely as a competent stand-in until a true savior arrives. To counteract the inevitable whisper campaign against him, Cortines unleashed two salvos last week: an eight-page mission statement detailing goals for his first 100 days, and districtwide school “report cards” mailed to homes to provide parents with data about how each campus is doing.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KEN GARDUNO
  • Illustration by Ken Garduno

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Both salvos were, by many accounts, duds. The mission statement was vague while breaking no new ground. It cited the usual ideals, like “growth” and “progress” — part of any academic program for time immemorial. In the words of one high school–level educator on the city’s Eastside, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, “It’s mumbo jumbo.”

Sounding pugnacious, Cortines defends himself to L.A. Weekly by saying, “People will be critical — and I will accept that criticism — but you can either do something or not do anything at all. And I choose to do something. It’s a step in the right direction.”

His 100-day plan may appear vague to some, he concedes, but he disagrees with that view, saying, “I don’t think it’s vague. I think it makes it very clear what we intend to do and when we intend to do it. Nothing like this has ever been done before. It’s not an intellectual document. It’s not a strategic plan — this district doesn’t have a strategic plan. What I’m trying to do is model what we’re trying to do and let the people know if you’ve met those benchmarks.”

But in fact, his 100-day plan states some pretty obvious, well-worn points as goal No. 1: “Guide, train and equip teachers, administrators, staff and those providing support services to achieve consistently high-quality levels of instruction and learning through a coherent three-tiered instructional framework that aligns evidence-based pedagogy, behavioral supports and differentiated interventions to ensure every student by name receives equitable access to instruction and supports that result in high levels of proficiency.”

And that prompts the doubting Eastside educator to respond, “Is that perhaps the worst grammar-syntax education piece you’ve read in your life?”

Cortines’ second salvo, his school report cards, were grandly unveiled at a press conference that featured Cortines and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. While the 100-day goals struck many as uninspiring, the report cards were even worse, perhaps — an act of political grandstanding to many. The report cards include percentage scores in a multitude of academic subjects that provide little context, if any, for comparing similar schools against each other, and provide no way for parents to determine if their child has an effective teacher, or a teacher whose students are known to chronically fall behind.

Savvy cynics suggest that the report cards could be useful later on, once Cortines has been in charge for long enough to issue a new round of equally vague, but more glowing, scores.

While acknowledging that the report cards do not yet show all the information he hopes they will, Cortines says parents with whom he’s talked appreciate receiving the feedback. Sending out the reports “is not for the purpose of comparing schools one with another,” he says. “It’s to give you facts about your school. Yes, all of the data is not there, but it will be forthcoming each year when we get that kind of data.”

Yet activist Scott Folsom, vice-chairman of LAUSD’s Bond Oversight Committee, expressed his frustration on his blog, 4lakids.blogspot.com, saying, “I don’t believe most parents have an understanding of what they’ve been handed. The district was in a hurry to roll this puppy out — in a hurry, I think, because of the change in regimes.”

Folsom is bothered by the persistent impression that nearly all of what happens at LAUSD headquarters, and on its highly politicized elected school board, is a product of clashing adult political agendas, with a continual failure to focus on ways to improve teaching and classroom achievement. “I don’t see a lot of evidence that children are being placed first,” he says.

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