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Review Of “The Takeover Artist”

Hillel Aron | September 6, 2012

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I finally got around to reading the newish, longish LA Magazine profile on Superintendent John Deasy, The Takeover Artist, by Ed Leibowitz, and it’s a good read I’d recommend everyone check out.

Leibowitz is a fantastic writer, comparing LAUSD’s structure to “the work of a madman,” getting Deasy critics to make juicy remarks, and dishing up some news about initial tenure approval rates that I hadn’t seen reported elsewhere.

Read inside for my take on the most interesting tidbits in the feature, some questions that go unanswered despite the feature’s length, and bit of a comparison to previous profiles Deasy has received.

Of course, this new LA Magazine piece is reminiscent of Howard Blume and Teresa Watanabe’s April LA Times profile, emphasizing similar elements such as Deasy’s long hours, early morning runs, impatience, and blitzkrieg classroom visits. (As you may recall, the Times piece had a wonderfully memorable passage in which Deasy visited a class at Washington Prep High School only to get into a confrontation with the substitute teacher who was fired the next day.)

For his part, Leibowitz does a great job capturing Deasy’s irritability, his habit for sharpness in those who don’t take his cause seriously. The article suggests that the main critique of Deasy is that he wants too much too soon. I and others sometimes wonder if he couldn’t get more accomplished by simply being less prickly – or if, on the other hand, it’s that prickliness that has allowed him to have the success he’s had, to get others to take him so seriously, to convince people that his ideas are the right ones.

Perhaps the most shocking passage has UTLA President Warren Fletcher comparing Deasy to, of all people, Joseph Stalin:

You know, in the ’20s and ’30s in the Soviet Union, millions of people died of starvation… and essentially what happened was, ‘This is how we will proceed.’ People who had been agronomists since the days of the czar said, ‘But that’s not how wheat grows,’ and they were told, ‘This is the new era.’ I am very concerned that in the current environment in the LAUSD there’s a mind-set that’s very similar– a belief structure that’s hermetically sealed. Anyone who agrees, loves kids, and anyone who disagrees, doesn’t.

These are actually two critiques here. The first is an effective political attack– it feels right, even though it leaves out the fact that reformers have actually done a lot of research and have some good results to show. The second– that reformers use the “we’re doing this for the kids, you’re doing it for yourself” line as a bludgeon, is absolutely true and irritates me when I hear it.

Another great scene: Deasy bitterly denouncing the media’s fascination with the transportation of LACMA’s giant rock:

Deasy can hardly cloak his disgust at the largesse demonstrated by wealthy Angelenos for the artwork, largesse that has been in short supply for the LAUSD.

One interesting tidbit I didn’t know: “When Deasy arrived, about 98 percent of eligible teachers were granted tenure. Now the approval rate is less than 50 percent.” It’s a startling fact that doesn’t get much coverage.

The article also includes a section on the Miramonte scandal, and has Deasy decrying the school’s “culture of silence.” But the alleged sex scandal involving his predecessor, Ramon Cortines, goes unmentioned. Does LAUSD’s “culture of silence” extend that far, or was this one of the preconditions of the story? We don’t know.

A couple of quibbles:

The article suggests that board members make only $24,000 a year. That’s not quite true– board members have a choice of working part-time and making $24,000, or working full time and making about twice that. Board member Tamar Galtatzan, whom the piece quotes about this, has chosen to work part time.

Also, Leibowitz says that Deasy plans on keeping his job for eight to ten years– that is, if the school board doesn’t fire him first. That would be a very long time for an LAUSD superintendent. His predecessor, Ramon Cortines, held the post for two years, as did Cortines’ predecessor, David Brewer. Before that, Roy Romer served for six years.

Lastly, why is it called The Takeover Artist? Because Deasy takes over school districts? Because he supports Public School Choice, which can result in changing a school’s management structure (though not so much since last year)?

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