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Los Angeles needs a superintendent who puts students first

William E.B. Siart and Myrna Castrejón | February 25, 2018

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This is part of a new commentary series where local and national education leaders share their thoughts on a fundamental question: As Los Angeles Unified seeks its next superintendent, what should leadership look like at the top? Read and share the first four pieces and follow our superintendent series for more voices and updates.

One of the most important decisions that any school board makes is choosing a superintendent, a process the LAUSD Board of Education is undertaking now. The board will examine this choice through many different lenses: experience, leadership style, personality, and a skillset matched to the most urgent challenges facing the second-largest district in the nation.

However, one lens that we believe the board should not use is whether a candidate is “pro” charter school or “pro” district school. Dividing candidates into “pro” or “con” regarding charter schools is simplistic, misleading, and ignores what everyone agrees should be the goal of any superintendent: providing students the best education possible.

When we debate which form of public school an educator may or may not favor, we are implicitly valuing what’s good for bureaucracy more than what’s good for students. Board member George McKenna said it best at a recent school board meeting debating this issue: “Our biggest split is on the issue of charter schools, that is the elephant. Is it the belief that our role as board members is to primarily protect and monitor this district, or are we elected to serve all students no matter where they are and it’s OK that they go to the charter schools?”

We couldn’t agree more.

In the past year, we have heard directly from thousands of parents across Los Angeles through focus groups, polls, and five town halls. From the San Fernando Valley to South Los Angeles, we only heard a handful of parents talk about the difference between charter and traditional district schools.

When we conducted a poll of 800 registered Los Angeles voters last summer, nearly 80 percent said that “any parent with a child in an underperforming school should have the option of choosing a high-quality charter public school in their neighborhood.” Parents have a very clear north star: an excellent education that gives their children the chance at a bright future.

The two most critical issues a new superintendent must navigate with clear vision and urgency are the fiscal crisis, primarily driven by spiraling health and pension costs, and a clear plan to address chronic underperformance.

To be sure, LAUSD is not the only district navigating fiscal challenges, but the challenges here are greater, not only in terms of scale but proportionally. LAUSD is well above the average, in part because unlike other districts in the state, it has not adjusted to shifting realities in a timely manner.

To address the challenge of underperformance, the new superintendent should approach the job with the same urgency and focus on solving challenges that will benefit students the quickest, and address improvements with a clear and transparent strategy that helps focus efforts at the school-site level, with interventions that are rooted in a clear understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities within each neighborhood and matching resources to solutions. 

If clear and easy-to-understand performance data show that students are falling behind, take immediate steps to determine why and what needs to change, regardless of school type, and set clear targets and timelines for improvement. If a charter school is not serving its students, close it. If a district school misses the mark for improvement year after year, scale interventions that will help those students first. If there is space in a traditional school and a nearby charter needs room to expand, give the charter space.

If a district school is doing great, replicate it and give it more autonomy. If a campus needs more high-quality teachers, find a way to get the best candidates, whether it’s offering incentives like extra training, recruiting educators in new and creative ways, or partnering with colleges and universities to ensure a steady stream of talented teachers that share the backgrounds and experiences of the students they serve. Help low-performing schools learn from high-performing schools, like the “Promising Practices” forum that Michelle King sponsored when she first became superintendent.

Making these tough and strategic decisions cannot happen in a vacuum, especially in a city as diverse as Los Angeles. Which means the new superintendent will need a team of partners, both formal and informal, to provide guidance on how education will affect the entire city.

Creating such a network isn’t easy, so we believe the right candidate must be familiar with Los Angeles and have a track record of helping Latino students succeed. This doesn’t mean that the next superintendent should be an “insider” instead of an “outsider,” but that they must know enough about LA to hit the ground running and energetic enough to know that they will have to continue seeking partners and building consensus while they’re in the job.

Will these qualities be difficult to find in one person? Undoubtedly. However, there’s one quality that should be easy to determine: a passion for putting students first. If a candidate for superintendent is asked their view on charter schools, we believe the answer should be, “I don’t care what kind of school it is as long as kids are getting a quality education there.” Any other answer is putting the system, or money, or bureaucracy first.

We believe that someone who is pragmatic yet urgent, passionate yet analytical, who respects the good bureaucracy can do but always puts students first, is the educational leader the students of Los Angeles deserve.

William E.B. Siart is chairman of the board of Great Public Schools Now, a nonprofit education organization, and founder of ExEd, an educational nonprofit. Myrna Castrejón is executive director of Great Public Schools Now.

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