Superintendent's Effort To Do Right By His Kids

The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of the largest school systems in the country. As its superintendent, John Deasy knows the challenges facing educators, parents and children. Host Michel Martin speaks with Deasy about the things that keep him up at night, and what he enjoys most about his job.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are joining you from Aspen, Colorado as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival. And while we're here, we decided we wanted to focus on the big ideas about education and, more broadly, learning. And if you missed your flight or lost your all-access pass, do not worry, because over the next two days we'll be joined by many other people who are shaking things up in education - or trying to. You can also join us online. Head to Twitter and use the #NPRAspen. We'll be reading your tweets and sharing as many as we can over the next few days. Why are we talking about education?

Well, one reason is that education has been critical to America's status as the land of opportunity, where anybody can rise and improve his or her circumstances through hard work, but also education. Later this hour, we want to ask a group of people who are all involved in education in one way or another whether that is still true. Is the U.S. still the land of opportunity for all, with education as the key? But we want to start with a newsmaker interview. John Deasy is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. That's the nation's second largest school system.

He took the job there in April of 2011, and he's faced a number of the challenges that are seen in school systems across the country - budget cuts, fraught relationships between administrators, teachers and parents, and, oh yes, the big one: teaching students effectively. And Superintendent John Deasy is with us now from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN DEASY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me just start with a simple question. What keeps you up at night?

DEASY: Where do you want to begin? A great deal...

MARTIN: ...But the truth, that always helps.

DEASY: Definitely. So I think one of the things that absolutely keeps me up at night is how quickly I can make good on the promise that we made to the hundreds of thousands of youth in Los Angeles, that their rights would be honored, and that they would all graduate, college and workforce ready. We are a very large school system, and the overwhelming majority of the youth who I get the privilege of leading live in circumstances of peril and poverty.

Many do not speak English at home, many do not speak English as their first language, many do not have access to health care. And every single one of those students wants to be you and I, and they want to graduate and enter post-secondary without remediation, or enter the workforce and earn a living wage. And that is our promise, and we work at that at a very rapid pace. And I know that that causes stress for some of us.

MARTIN: We talked about fraught relationships between teachers, parents and kids and balancing, you know, the needs, the interests and the desires of all the various stakeholders, to use a word that we hear a lot in education. When you're honest with yourself, what's the hardest relationship to maintain in a positive way?

DEASY: At the moment, I think the hardest relationship to maintain in a positive way is the teachers' union leadership and the administration. Membership are remarkable folks. I mean, I've seen the best teaching I've ever seen in my life in Los Angeles.

I've seen people work in punishing economic circumstances, giving opportunity to students who otherwise would just not have that. But trying to move the system much quicker on a youth rights agenda has certainly been, at times, very prickly. And quite frankly, at times I just don't understand the opposition.

MARTIN: What do you mean, you just don't understand it? Well, I mean, just to your point, back in April, 91 percent of the 17,000, almost 18,000 ballots cast by LA's teachers' union expressed a vote of no confidence in your leadership. Back in April of 2012, there was a profile of you in the Los Angeles Times and it described you as, quote, some see Deasy as a dynamic leader driven by a moral urgency to give all students a quality education, others view him as a relentless taskmaster intolerant of dissent.

And it's interesting to me that a number of school leaders have been described in very similar terms. Like Michelle Rhee, for example, is a name that many people know, who was a leader, for a time, of the Washington, D.C. public school system. So why do you think that is?

DEASY: So when the union orchestrated the vote, so about half of the membership voted and that was their vote. During those days leading up to it, there were cartoons that were produced every day. You know, the fact that we were feeding students in the classroom was a major reason why we should have no confidence.

MARTIN: Feeding breakfast to the students?

DEASY: Correct. So let's be really clear, we're not confused about our mission. And our mission is to serve students. And part of that mission is to ensure that students have a highly-effective teacher in front of them every single day of the year in a school led by a highly-effective principal. So we are very much driven by the issues of high instructional quality by individuals who have the right to be in front of students, and we take that seriously.

And the fact is that if folks are doing a phenomenal job, we should be doing everything to ensure that they stay there. That goes way beyond their seniority number. And if folks are not doing a phenomenal job, we should be intervening and trying to help them. And if they cannot get better, they do not have the right to be in front of students. So I get the stress around that. I get the fact that we've put in a new evaluation system. I understand the fact that we are moving technology as fast as any district I know around that.

We are implementing the common core. But I have to be quite frank with you, if those things cause stress in adults, and I understand they do, then you need to come with me and visit the families who live in cars behind Huntington Park High School. You need to visit the young ladies who are having children - and we provide schools just for gals who are having babies, 'cause you don't drop out of school anymore - who see an OBGYN for the first time the day they have their child. There's no access to healthcare. If we want to talk about stress, it's families with no parents. That's stress. I am convinced that we can get over adult stress to serve youth. You know, LA is a fascinating place. I say this all the time, LA is America, only sooner, and we are coming to a hometown near you.

MARTIN: Or as we like to say, the way we live now.

DEASY: Right, I mean, who we look like, our successes, our struggles - I mean, the economic viability of LA in California is intrinsically linked to the ability for this country to move forward. And that is going to depend on whether I can live up to the promise of getting every single student college and career ready.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with John Deasy. He's the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. That's the nation's second largest school district. You can join our conversation using the #NPRAspen. You know, I've been reviewing some of the comments and questions coming in via Twitter before you came today, and a lot of the questions, though, are about how you keep teachers inspired.

I mean, a lot of the questions are about equity, and I think we're going to get to those on our next segment, like, how do you make it more fair so that students, the quality of the education that a student receives is not dependent on his or her ZIP code. But a lot of the questions are, how do you keep interested, well-educated, exciting teachers in the classroom?

DEASY: So there are thousands of those teachers in Los Angeles, and most days I am humbled when I visit schools. We visit schools every single day of the year. That's part of our team's commitment. And I think the way that you keep amazing teachers is that you give them as much autonomy as possible, and that they have the ability to run their school as they see the most important way of doing that.

So we have rapidly given schools the ability to lead themselves, so that you have the notion of charter schools, and we're the largest charter authorizer in the United States. Regular, traditional public schools should have the same degrees of freedom as charter schools, provided that they are getting the results.

That has been a source of, also, stress inside of the labor unions, as well. And remember, I have 11 labor unions. I'm just focusing on one of them at the moment. But the idea that teachers should - positions in school should not be governed by seniority, but should be governed by how well they're doing their job there. Teachers want this. Teachers want to have autonomy over instruction. They want to have autonomy about who's teaching next to them. And we believe they should have that.

MARTIN: Talk, if you would, for a couple of minutes, about a decision, not just by you but also the school board also had to agree to this and state legislatures, as well, which is to get every child in the LA Unified School District an iPad.

DEASY: We worked for a year, and when I began the most recent school year that just ended, I began the year by saying to students that we just simply won't have a digital divide any longer. As you pointed out, you know, ZIP code, and the overwhelming majority of our youth do live in circumstances of poverty.

That will not be a reason why you cannot have the same educational experience in Los Angeles as in Palo Alto or any other wealthier community. So we worked for a year and went through the process that we would, and we have made that decision that every student will have, in this case, it will be an iPad and full digital content for the common core. And we're beginning just an extraordinary process of professional development in rethinking teaching and learning for students. And they will have all of that within the next two years.

MARTIN: I just - I got a tweet here from Jason Thomas (ph) that I'd like to put to you. And he says the government tries, but not every school fits the same mold. Communities must support, must invest. How do you assure that each school can meet the needs of the kids who are in that school?

DEASY: That's a great question. For the last two years, I and many superintendents have been side-by-side with the governor as we have tried to rethink how you fund public education in California. And I would argue that the most historic change in public education has just taken place. So in the last forty years, maybe since the Serrano court ruling, the greatest thing has just occurred, and that is how we are going to fund schools. And we're funding schools on a local control funding formula, through a weighted student funding formula.

Students with the greatest need will get the greatest amount of support. So it used to be an equality-based funding formula. Everybody got the same equal amount. It's an equity-based funding formula. Those who have the least will continue to get greater support. And Los Angeles is a huge player in that, so that funding will come to schools now based on a base amount, and then there will be additional funding on concentration factors for groups of students who live in circumstances of poverty, don't speak English yet, are in foster care. And every other student who has that background will get even additional funding. It's a huge change.

MARTIN: So we're almost out of time. If you and I were to get together five years from now, hopefully in this beautiful place, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having?

DEASY: I think it'd be better if we got together five years from now in LA and you came to a high school graduation where every ninth-grader who entered graduates, and that they are graduating and entering post-secondary, who are able to afford that, where they are not going bankrupt in student loans issues, and that we've had profound, robust immigration reform, so most of my parents are not living in shadows. That would be where we should be celebrating in five years.

MARTIN: Sign me up.

DEASY: I'll look forward to it. Thank you.

MARTIN: John Deasy is the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. That's the nation's second largest school district. We spoke with him from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Superintendent Deasy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEASY: My honor.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming.

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