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School Superintendents Walk a Tightrope

It's customary for superintendents to address principals before teachers return to classes for the start of the fall semester. Determining how much of the content is merely rhetoric is hard to tell. After all, superintendents want to be seen as inspirational leaders.

A case in point is John Deasy, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. In his first formal speech to administrators, Deasy promised to help principals do their jobs better by dismantling an "ossified" bureaucracy that stands in the way ("LAUSD's John Deasy stresses administrator responsibility, promises aid," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 25).

How Deasy intends to achieve this goal remains unclear. I say that because I heard similar promises when I was a teacher in the LAUSD for 28 years. But the Puzzle Palace, which is what the headquarters of the district is sometimes called, never underwent a metamorphosis. Yes, there were many superficial changes, but they did not amount to much.

The closest that Deasy has come so far to making public the specifics is an op-ed that he wrote for the Los Angeles Times on Jul. 31 ("The contract L.A. Unified needs"). He acknowledged that "we are currently negotiating the most important labor contract in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District." He then went on to list five contract components that he deemed essential to improve schools: mutual consent in hiring, a robust and meaningful evaluation system, a better process for granting tenure, compensation reform, and no cap or limits on teacher-led reforms and innovations.

Deasy said that the current contract restricts the district from implementing these changes. He ended the op-ed by writing: "The provisions outlined above would honor the great teaching and leadership that go on in this district every day. They would be good for students. And they would be good for teachers."

Putting aside the merit of these five points until another time, I'd like to know what Deasy plans to do about the administrative bloat in the district. To date, he has been mute about the subject, except for admitting ossification. If the district is as hidebound as he claims, then it behooves him to address the matter as quickly as possible.

But I remain skeptical about his ability in this particular domain. As Larry Cuban wrote in a Commentary in Education Week on Aug. 27, 2008 ("The Turnstile Superintendency"), there are limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban districts. "Here are social institutions strongly affected by a city's demography, history, and economy - and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Here are institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of neglect and discrimination among poor and minority families."

I wish Dealy well. But I think he will be like an acrobat in the spotlight high above the crowd in the circus, where one misstep can be fatal. Los Angeles is a city with huge disparities in wealth and vast differences in culture. His performance amid these conditions will be closely watched.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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