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Though not a rah-rah leader, Cortines has solid credentials, having worked in education — and having dealt with the political squabbles — in New York City, San Francisco, Pasadena and San Jose in addition to Los Angeles. Folsom, who knows Cortines, says he is seen by many as a straight shooter who may have what it takes to rescue the city’s many bad high schools and middle schools.
“I want to give Ramon Cortines every chance in the world to succeed at what he’s doing now,” Folsom says. “But the school district is a huge bureaucracy. We churn through superintendents. . . . We have a history of starting on the road to reform and not following through.”
Cortines may be hamstrung at the outset due to the district’s $400 million deficit. However, one of his staunchest supporters is LAUSD’s former Chief of Instruction Ronni Ephraim, whose departure during Brewer’s bungled reign was seen as a big blow to LAUSD’s one success story: the steady, sizable gains in reading, math and other subjects among poor and minority Los Angeles grade-school kids — achieved in large part through improvement of classroom teaching.
Ephraim led those instruction reforms under former Superintendent Roy Romer, moving steadily ahead despite intense opposition from longtime political factions which, even now, hope to dumb down what is being taught in grade schools so that more students will seem to be succeeding.
Ephraim, who is training future teachers at USC these days, believes that Cortines is capable of hacking the flab out of the budget while improving student and teacher performance. She adds that Cortines’ 100-day mission statement may have been deliberately nebulous to give him the flexibility to tackle what many see as an all-but-impossible task.
“The man is totally focused on improving instruction for students,” she says. “If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He has integrity. He has a work ethic beyond most human beings. ... He will hold people accountable for doing their jobs.”
Both his 100-day game plan and the school-report-card gambit were dreamed up in part by a hired gun — Boston Consulting Group, a global idea factory with offices in Moscow, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Dubai and other cities, including L.A. Using grants from the Gates Foundation, Dell Foundation and other sources, Boston Consulting has gone just a bit overboard, according to critics, in putting a glossy sheen on what the district is doing, at the expense of transparency.
Cortines says he played a direct role in developing the report cards along with Boston Consulting, and that the content and format were vetted by 700 people before the cards were mailed to parents. He downplays the firm’s role in shaping the 100-day plan, saying much of the work was also done by the district’s own personnel.
Nobody from the firm responded to L.A. Weekly’s requests for an interview. The company’s Web site explains, “The Los Angeles office has developed numerous innovative concepts, including a blueprint for how media companies can thrive in a world of consumer control, groundbreaking work on offshoring biopharma research and development, and a new way of capturing value through IT outsourcing.”
No mention of any expertise in public education. “The word ‘children’ doesn’t appear there” either, says Folsom, the academic blogger. “They’re about profit, about producing widgets. They’re bean counters with stopwatches who are trying to do time and motion studies. Education is a completely different creature.”
More disturbing is the idea that such political razzmatazz may mask what Cortines is really about — one of the problems that plagued the departed David Brewer and led to his demise. Or maybe, as longtime LAUSD observer Joe Hicks says, the masking is necessary because Cortines is not a take-charge reformer like Chicago’s Washington-bound Duncan or Washington’s charismatic and controversial Rhee.
The schools in Los Angeles are not nearly as bad, by test-score measures or any other yardstick, as the infamously inept schools in Washington, D.C., which spend $13,000 per student — to no effect. Washington is now undergoing “Rhee-form,” and several other cities, including Chicago and New York, have made bold moves to focus on why and how some teachers continually fail while other teachers, given the same set of circumstances and the same mix of student backgrounds and student income levels, continually succeed.
So far, in his short time as superintendent, Cortines has not addressed that fundamental reform issue in public statements, nor in his report cards or his 100-day goals.
“We need someone like that who’s willing to come in and clear the decks,” says Hicks, vice-president of Community Advocates Inc., a local think tank. “Someone who says, ‘We’re going to fire teachers, fire principals. We’re going to arm-wrestle with the [teachers] union.’
“I know Ramon Cortines. He’s a very nice man. He certainly will be more efficient and effective than David Brewer was. Brewer was just an abysmal failure. But Cortines is just not the kind of kick-butt [superintendent] the district requires. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not what this city needs.”