Home | Projects and Publications | Photo Gallery | About Me | Contact

How To Make the Next LAUSD Superintendent Successful

Posted on | January 30, 2018 | Comments Off on How To Make the Next LAUSD Superintendent Successful

The Los Angeles Unified School District is—once again—in search of a leader.  There have been nine superintendents in the last two decades, much more turnover and change in direction than a thriving organization can withstand.

The school board is rightly concerned with more instability.  In recent days, the notoriously fractious LAUSD board has been making nice, using words like “unanimous choice” and “partnership.”  There’s a strong instinct to rush toward naming a permanent superintendent who can keep a steady hand on the tiller.  But it’s the wrong instinct.

Before the nation’s second largest school district can create stability in its leadership ranks, the school board needs to create the conditions that will attract top talent and allow it to be successful.  Conciliatory words are not enough.

A Mediator Shouldn’t Be Necessary

The first prerequisite for making the next superintendent successful is to stop the trench warfare over charter schools.  The superintendent should not have to mediate between the rival factions as Michelle King was forced to do.

As long as the school board divides into pro and anti-charter school voting blocks, it will be unable to attract the talent it needs.  Only a fool or someone with a messiah complex would accept a superintendency in a district where the board majority is likely to change after each election.

The back and forth board divisions are a clear signal of dysfunctional and toxic politics.  School board races have become personal, petty, and very pricey: $114 a vote in one of last spring’s contests.  These bitter elections spill over into low trust day-to-day relationships among members.

Board members may think that continuing the fight is to their political benefit.  One might assume the interest groups that supported them will finance their next campaign.  Don’t be too sure.  LAUSD is not the federal government.  Here, continuing displays of dysfunction are likely to be punished in a “throw all the clowns out” election campaign.

I believe there is a way to end the fight and claim the huge peace dividend of a redesigned public school system.  Oddly enough, stopping the fight and claiming the peace dividend can be accomplished with the same three policies, all of which can be put in place by the board without the permission of state or national governments.

Start with Autonomous Schools

First,  start the peace offensive by organizing the district around autonomous schools.  Both charters and most LAUSD reform efforts in the last four decades have sought to move decision making closer to students, parents, teachers, and principals.  It’s one area in which both charters and the district are moving in the same direction.

In 2016-2017, there were 225 independent charter schools. There were also 54 affiliated charters, in which teachers and principals remain district employees and part of union bargaining units.  Together, they enrolled 154,000 students, the largest charter school enrollment in the country.

In addition, the district has three brands of semi-autonomous schools: 49 Pilot schools, 24 Extended School Based Management schools, and 21 Local School Initiative schools.  There are also 23 Magnet schools.

That’s a lot of movement toward autonomy.  Indeed, charter schools in Los Angeles would constitute the second largest school district in California and would be the 17th largest school district in the United States, about the same size as the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District.

Suppose this trend continues.  What would LAUSD become if most or all district schools gradually became affiliated charters?  LAUSD would still be the public school district for Los Angeles and the other municipalities where its schools are located, but it would operate more as a coordinating institution than a conventional school district.

Experience in Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, suggests a strong continuing need for “big tent” organization to create systemic coherence.  Even in New Orleans, where virtually all schools have charter status, the school district is rebuilding itself to carry out needed central functions such as accountability and enrollment management.

If the LAUSD school board could create autonomy for all schools, it could then tackle two additional initiatives that could create a truly modern, distinguished school system.

Good Neighborhood Schools  

Second, create good neighborhood schools.  Before opening any kind of specialty or magnet school, make sure that every neighborhood in Los Angeles had at least one good school.  Regardless of who runs it—charters, districts, partnerships—every student in the district should have a right to go to a top-flight school near his or her home.  Creating “first choice” neighborhood schools throughout LAUSD won’t happen without a district-coordinated effort.

Charter school rhetoric is built around choice—using competition to push back against the ZIP Code destiny that consigns poor kids to poor schools.  But charter operators get to pick when and where they open schools.  In Los Angeles, they have often picked out some tough neighborhoods and offered children from families capable of going through the enrollment process a degree of choice.  Not complete choice, of course, because students usually face lottery selections to gain admission to charters and magnet schools that have created good reputations.

The obvious flaw in this system lies in the fact that choice doesn’t replace the neighborhood school—the one that must take all students including the ones whose families don’t have the ability or will to exercise choice.  The LAUSD board has a “first duty” to designate good schools in every locale as the neighborhood school, and it has a duty to carefully examine charters and other partnership arrangements to see that they are supporting the notion of good schools close to home.

Creating Cutting Edge Learning

Third, LAUSD should reclaim the leadership role that urban school districts once had as an incubator of new schools and educational practices.  LAUSD isn’t a failed school system or an unchanging monolith.  But it is struggling to move beyond early 20th Century assumptions about how to organize teaching and learning.

The basic “production system” for schooling hasn’t changed much in a century.   If education were software, it would be Learning 1.0, a batch processing system creating age-graded schools, a scope-and-sequence curriculum, and the enduring Carnegie Unit system of counting credits toward high school graduation.  Most everything else followed: standards, tests, school rankings. 

But the batch processing system has severe design limitations.  Tough luck if you learn slower or faster than most students, or if the standard curriculum doesn’t excite you.

Given its location, talent, and fiscal capacity, Los Angeles’ public schools should create Learning 2.0 and become the world leader in personalization, adaptivity, and delivering powerful pedagogy directly to students.

Radical personalization brings “choice” down to the student level.  Instead of packing off to another school to get the tailored education he or she needs, students should have an array of challenging, well designed choices at their fingertips.

LAUSD needs a new superintendent, but before the school board appoints one, it needs to get its own house in order and stop the charter wars so that a new leader can help the district claim the peace dividend.



Comments are closed.


Charles Taylor Kerchner is an Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Claremont Graduate University. My daily musings appear in the blog. The archives of my EdWeek blog are available via link under the 'On California' head. Some of my photography can be seen by clicking on 'Gallery.' And numerous links to academic work and other research and commentary can be found by clicking on 'Projects.'


Subscribe to my Blog


Blogs I Read