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Chiefs for Change’s Mike Magee: LAUSD is missing a leader today and a pipeline for tomorrow

Mike Magee | February 19, 2018

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The leadership of our nation’s major school systems matters a lot in the education of millions of kids. Yet each transition sets off a deeply counterproductive scramble. It doesn’t need to be that way.

The news that Michelle King is stepping aside as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified due to a serious illness is deeply saddening. During her brief tenure as superintendent, she pushed for access to high-quality schools for all and higher attendance and graduation rates. Moreover, in a nation where only 8 percent of public schools chiefs are nonwhite, and three-quarters of them are men, she brought urgently needed diversity to the ranks of major-district leadership. She will be missed.

But as the wheels turn to find her replacement, here we are again. Los Angeles Unified has had five superintendent turnovers since 2006, when Roy Romer retired after six years on the job. The district needs bold and sustained leadership to address some of the tough challenges the community faces. Sustained leadership by highly effective superintendents who are focused intently on the needs of children greatly improves student outcomes. America’s state and district education systems must get away from haphazard replacement searches each time a superintendent or state chief steps down. Instead, education agencies need to develop pipelines of well-prepared and diverse leaders who can carry a vision forward.

So much is at stake in Los Angeles. While students in the district have made academic gains in recent years, far less than half are proficient in math, reading, and writing. Students of color and low-income students continue to lag behind their peers, as measured by California’s end-of-year assessments. More than 17,000 students are homeless, and the school system faces declining enrollment. And, as King tried to address, for too long adults have pitted charter and district public schools against one another instead of trying to see how they can learn from each other. Los Angeles needs a leader who will engage deeply on these issues and put students’ needs at the center of decision-making — someone who can lead a community-wide conversation about equitable access to quality schools and learning opportunities, and provide equitable funding to support them.

Parents know their child’s education is the foundation on which a successful future is built. Yet today, there are many policies and practices in education that are holding schools back. This is particularly a problem for students of color and low-income children, who make up the vast majority of LA Unified schools. Superintendent turnover doesn’t help, and in urban districts, that happens on average about every three years.

At Chiefs for Change, we bring together district leaders and state superintendents who are committed to making bold changes aimed at giving all children a great education. Our members collaborate and mentor emerging leaders, and they exemplify the type of leader LA Unified needs.

This approach is well understood in sports. When the Rams needed a new coach, they looked to the coaching trees of Super Bowl winners Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan to find Sean McVay, who quickly turned around the team’s fortunes. Leading businesses have learned the same lesson, whether at Starbucks or Apple.   

But this isn’t how it works in education. While states and districts, including LA Unified, are doing important work putting in place leadership pathways for teachers and aspiring principals, system leadership is largely left to chance. But at Chiefs for Change, the Future Chiefs program pairs emerging leaders with those on the job for coaching and hands-on experience so that they are prepared to take on district- and state-level roles.

This has helped prepare leaders to hit the ground running, from New Orleans to the rustbelt community of Lorain, Ohio, where Future Chief Cohort 2 member David Hardy Jr. recently stepped into a superintendent’s job. Chiefs for Change member Desmond Blackburn, superintendent in Brevard County, Fla., helped provide on-the-ground support for Hardy in his first weeks in the new role, and both leaders say they gained so much from the experience. These are the types of leaders LA Unified should look to as examples in the search for its next chief.

Three-fourths of Future Chiefs are people of color and 50 percent are women. That’s not an accident. America’s schools must explicitly build diverse leadership pipelines. Diversity is proven to strengthen organizations, and lifting the inexcusably small numbers of leaders who are women and people of color matters enormously in a nation where more than half of students in public schools are non-white. Students benefit when adults working in and running their schools also are people of color, as evident in higher achievement levels and greater expectations placed on the students.

During recent discussions in Massachusetts over who would lead that state’s education system, state Board of Education member Amanda Fernandez said this after seeing her young daughter watch candidate and Future Chief Cohort 1 member Angélica Infante-Green, a Hispanic woman, on television: “I could see that she related to and understood the importance of the lived experience of Angelica.” Fernandez added that for her daughter, who wants to go into education someday, and other minority children, it is so important to see people of color in leadership roles.

LA Unified now has an opportunity to bring in a school district leader who can be a role model for students, much like King was, and who can create strong and sustained leadership to a system that is very much in need of both.

Michael Magee is the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that supports school district superintendents and state chiefs of education dedicated to enacting education reforms that put students’ needs at the forefront of decision making.

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