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Chicago Schools vs. LAUSD

Illustration by Ken Garduno

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.

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.

 

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.”

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