When it comes to school leaders, stop waiting for Superman

Over the last week, a full Hollywood-style drama rolled out in Los Angeles with a familiar cast of characters. There was school superintendent John Deasy, the polarizing 52-year-old leader portrayed by some as a hero or a villain.

John Deasy

There were critical school-board members and angry teacher-union officials who dislike some of Deasy’s policies, playing the role of rogue dissenter.

As usual, parents and children in the nation’s second-largest school system are the ones left behind in a battle that focused too much on school-board intrigue and one man, blurring the already all-too-fuzzy line between politics and education.

The final act is yet to come, but on Tuesday night Deasy—who had reportedly told some board members he was frustrated and leaving—thanked the board for a “good and robust evaluation” after five hours behind closed doors.

Deasy’s “satisfactory” board rating immediately extends his contract—$330,000 per year—through June 2016. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union, called the board’s evaluation of Deasy and the extension of his contract “not satisfactory.”

Once again, the intense focus and mobilizing that took place in advance of—and even after—the vote diverts attention from the needs of a poor and sprawling district—one beset by a litany of seemingly intractable urban problems that find their way into classrooms everywhere.

Plenty of parents tried to get their voices heard on Tuesday, a day of rallies, marching and chanting, largely in support of Deasy—but ultimately their voices didn’t, and don’t, matter much.

“Children before politics,’’ read one irony-rich sign with a message that simply didn’t jibe with the closed five-hour session between Deasy and the divided board.

Amy Baker, of the group Parent Partnership for Public Education, lamented about “total board dysfunction” and said board members don’t seem to grasp that “we’re starting to see results under [Deasy’s] leadership,’’ according to the L.A. Weekly.

She added: “We can’t wait for Superman. There is no one Superman.”

Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary by that name would have us all believe otherwise, as would the history of large urban school districts and their frequent disenchantment with whoever is at the helm.

In the many years I covered the enormous New York City public school system, I watched one venerated leader after another fall, often due to board politics. At one point, there had been eight leaders in a span of 24 years.

Waiting for SupermanRamon Cortines, a former schools chief in New York City, frequently threatened to quit before he finally resigned in 1995, leaving us with his oft-quoted observation that even Jesus Christ couldn’t run the city’s public-school system.

We’ve yet to discover the man or woman who can, despite the plethora of educators, activists and others who proclaim they believe in “children first.”

Often, teacher-union politics enter the fray, although the union also tries to paint the issue in terms of what children need.

“It’s a sad day when political maneuvering trumps the needs of students and schools, but UTLA will continue to unapologetically advocate for our children,” UTLA president Warren Fletcher said in a statement released after news broke that Deasy will stay.

Leadership matters greatly in an era of rock-star superintendents; I agree with my colleague Justin Snider’s assessment that they “must be savvy politicians and managers. They must be obsessed with constant improvement. They’ll be under the bright lights of the media, so the camera-shy need not apply.”

I just wish their comings-and-goings would not command so much attention and time. It would be a shame if all of the drama continues to take the focus off children who need stability and motivation to learn, no matter who’s in charge.

This is a good time to put aside ideologies and labels, to put all of the energy spent both supporting and bemoaning Deasy back into classrooms.


Liz Willen

Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for… See Archive

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