A Watchdog Reflects on the Failures of Former Superintendent Deasy and Other Grown Ups in the Los Angeles Public Schools

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During a recent visit to Los Angeles, I sat down with Stuart Magruder, a local architect and controversial watchdog of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to talk about public education in L.A., the iPad debacle, and the recent resignation of Superintendent John Deasy.

Reflecting on Deasy’s tenure, as well as the role of the local teachers’ union in another recent technology disaster, Magruder declared a pox on both their houses.

At the crux of the mess in Los Angeles, are “adults who don’t know how to play together,” explained Magruder, over lunch at a downtown Los Angeles eatery.

Magruder was on the front lines of a key, and contentious, Deasy initiative–an effort to put an Apple iPad in the hands of every teacher and child in the Los Angeles public schools. The strategy, which was devised despite the objections of many educators who believe the iPad is not “the right” device for schools, came to exemplify the top-down decision-making and lack of transparency that would, eventually, derail Deasy’s tenure in L.A.

There were also questions about the $1.3 billion cost of the iPad strategy and its funding, which is where Magruder comes in.  Deasy planned to pay for the iPads with school construction bonds. And Magruder, who serves as a member of the School Construction Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee,  which was established to offer community stakeholders oversight of bond expenditures, didn’t think construction bonds should be used to pay for the iPads.

While others also have raised questions about the iPad strategy, Magruder was the most outspoken. For his efforts, he was briefly ousted by the school board from his committee seat.

Given the LAUSD’s grave fiscal problems—and the deteriorating condition of its schools–Magruder says he gave voice to local concerns about the wisdom of diverting scarce resources from school repair to purchasing technology devices that would last just three to five years. The LAUSD master plan calls for $40 billion to keep the schools up-to-date. Facilities maintenance will cost an additional $12.9 billion.

Another problem was what Magruder calls Deasy’s “technological determinism.” Magruder, who describes himself as a tech-savvy Luddite, says he was aghast to hear Deasy “denigrate” Shakespeare during a bond oversight committee meeting. Deasy suggested that preparing students for the realities of today’s world and teaching them, say, to read a newspaper is more relevant than reading Hamlet, Magruder recalls.

Magruder is convinced that Deasy saw iPads as a way to solve the “teacher problem”—an all-too-familiar refrain of ed-reformers. The plan was for Pearson, the education technology and text book giant, to load the iPad’s with curriculum materials and lessons that, Magruder says, “were aimed at making teacher’s “less pro-active and engaged” in the lesson-planning process.

Deasy was also responding to pressure from federal and state officials to “roll out a technology program” that would support the Common Core State Standards and related online tests, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Yet, pedagogically, the iPad is flawed. It’s essentially a “closed” device designed to make you a “passive consumer,” argues Magruder who uses a range of computer technology in his architectural practice.  Magruder also questions whether kids in grades K-5 need any technology at all, noting that parents of young children struggle to negotiate basic rules around their use of devices such as cell phone. And, he points out, there is little research on what if any benefits technology holds for K-12 learning.

Maybe, says Magruder wrily, that’s why the late Steve Jobs had a no-iPad policy for his own kids. “They haven’t used it,” Steve Jobs once told a reporter when he was asked about how his kids like the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Other tech moguls also embrace a tech-free education for their own children. Execs from Google, Yahoo, Ebay and HP send their children to the Waldorf School which is famous for banishing all electronic technology from its classrooms. Waldorf, which has campuses around the country, promotes an approach to education that emphasizes hands-on experiential learning and physical activity designed to promote creating thinking, focus and collaborative problem solving.

As an architect, Magruder has a bias for hands-on work. Give kids a computer they can take apart. Teach them coding, which Magruder says should be a “core class” for every LAUSD student. Offer robotics classes.

LAUSD is now pursuing a new technology pilot project that allows each school to select its own technological solutions. An investigation is also underway into the fairness of the iPad bidding process, and close ties, and possible conflicts of interest, among Deasy, district officials and both Apple and Pearson, which was to supply the curriculum for the iPads. John Rogers, a UCLA education professor told the LA Times: “We view this moment as an opportunity to establish the sort of reflective and inclusive policy process that would have been helpful to have at the start…The rush and lack of meaningful public dialogue did not serve the district well.”

Deasy’s downfall, according to Magruder, was not the iPad fiasco, but a more recent debacle involving a new electronic student information system. The system was part of a response to a law suit, and subsequent consent decree, which found that the rights of special education students were being violated because the LAUSD routinely lost track of their records, which describe each students needs.

But the new information system, known as MiSiS, overloaded the LAUSD’s servers so that weeks after the start of school, kids still didn’t have workable schedules and many couldn’t attend class. (The head of the district’s technology division, Ron Chandler, abruptly resigned yesterday, the second official  to leave in the wake of the technology crisis.)

Magruder recently instructed his own son, a high school student at a district magnet school (he also has a daughter in middle school), to camp out in front of the school counselor’s office until the problem was resolved.

This brings us to Magruder’s scathing indictment of the teachers’ union. He thinks it’s no accident that in the midst of the information-systems crisis, this fall, his son’s counselor left the school every day at 3 p.m. sharp, even though his son’s school day didn’t end until 4. “The teacher’s union is a joke—a stone wall to progress,” says Magruder whose wife is a union representative for the California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“You’ve got a crisis, and you’re a counselor, and you don’t log some extra time?” says Magruder. “I first get angry, then depressed.”

Magruder is convinced that the union deliberately chose not to do the extra work needed to help resolve the problem. “When adults decide to use kids as a pawns,” he says. “That’s unacceptable.”

Maybe so. But if you want kids–or grown ups–to play nicely together, it helps for one of them to be a leader. For all of Deasy’s zeal, his hostility toward the union–on full display during his star turn as a prosecution witness in the Vergara v. California trial–undermined any hope of building the kind of collaboration necessary for long-term improvement of the district. (The Vergara ruling, which is being appealed, marked a victory for those who wish to overturn the state’s tenure rules and teacher protections.)

“You take something that needs a scalpel and careful instrumentation and instead you take out the sledgehammer,” said Steve Zimmer, a member of the LAUSD school board who supported many of Deasy’s efforts, but criticized his handling of the Vergara case. “Deasy wasn’t careful enough to avoid the perception that he enjoyed using the sledgehammer.”

In Los Angeles, Deasy has been lauded for increasing graduation rates and test scores. But he failed as a leader, and admitted as much shortly after his resignation. While defending his tenure,  Deasy said: “I wish I could have found a better balance between my feeling of urgency in my observation of overwhelming peril and poverty for kids and the ability to have built a more unified will to move quickly to do that.”

As Magruder spoke of Deasy defeat and the union’s intransigence, I was struck by an irony: My principle purpose in traveling to Los Angeles was to attend the annual conference of the Deming Institute, which was founded in order to continue to work of W. Edwards Deming, the management guru whose ideas about systems thinking and collaborative improvement–informed by statistical theory–helped turn around struggling American industries in the 1980s.

The unraveling in Los Angeles is just the latest example of education reformers who have yet to absorb the most valuable management lessons of the last half century–achieving lasting institutional change and improvement involves teamwork, collaboration among all the constituencies in an organization, and systems thinking. None of which have been on display in Los Angeles.

More on Deming in a future blog post.

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6 Responses to A Watchdog Reflects on the Failures of Former Superintendent Deasy and Other Grown Ups in the Los Angeles Public Schools

  1. pobladora says:

    A big part of the problem with schools today is that they are still organized around an “industrial” model through which students are moved in groups and taught ever more packaged curriculum. We need to move schools in the direction of responding to the students as humans in pursuit of developing their humanity to its fullest–not developing “a product” for businesses to exploit. Business and technology should serve humans, not the other way around.

  2. As a former teacher at LAUSD , I canassure you that your perceptions of the union and the district are fare too generous . I am not convinced Deasy has a lot of hostility for the union, which we know has been colluding with Deasy since before his installation as superintendent . His hatred for teachers is the real issue. Deasy has gotten to abuse them with impunity because the union allows it. Indeed UTLA canceled a standard legal insurance policy in time for the witch hunts Deasy lead ,mcosting more than 9000 veteran teacherstheir careers and / or livilhoods and most of their retirement benefits . The counselor at Magruder’s son’s school most likely left because she could . In LAISDschools administrators rately police these things. Teachers make their own choices, and I know not every teachers is a dedicated as he or she should be. Most, however, do go beyond tencall of duty .
    Few of these teachers are enamored with the union, which has allowed them to be ruthlessly abused, their paychecks plundered for phony overpayments, their classes to full to seat every student ( HS teachers report going from a burden of 200 students to 300 this yearwithout a single word of protest from UTLA , whic is hell bent on instigating a strike over raises that we recognize as a ploy that will further damage teachers’ public image. Talk to teachers , who hav not had a raise in 7-8 years, who have made finanicial sacrafices in the form of furloughs and whose checks are constatly being drained by garnishments for alleged overpayments the district will not substansiate . They will tell you that coass size and the return of RiFed colleagues are their priorities but neither concern os being addressed by UTLA. On the contrary , their colleagues have ben replaced by TFA interns while class sizes swells to nearly twice the legal caps in secondary schools and well above what is sane in primary schools.
    Like involved LAUSD parents, teachers admire Mr. Magruder a great deal for his stalwart integrity and earnest intelligence. But there is no way he can fathom the horrors that exist in LAUSD hood schoools or what grave white chalk crimes have compromised theirability to properly serve their students . The district is not likly to improve just becaus Deasy the dictator defected . He did so forreasons that ho beyond what seems obvious. If you read Dr. Lois Weiner’s work ( which is great but like Diane Ravitch’s lavks insight into the unions role in ed reform — which Dr. Mercedes Schnieder has a better grasp of) you will comprehend how plutocratic puppetmasters ( particularly philanthropists Eli Broadened Bill Gates ) are financially bleeding districts dry with edtech, common core , charter school impositions, high cost educRATS, a culture of corruption and what Broad boasts as an innovation in management called “creative disruption”. Make no mistake. LAUSD is purging its certificated staff just and undermining it as Magruder suggests , but it is being done with UTLA’s ( thus AFT, NEA ad CTA) eager and essential complicity .
    For years now,LAUSD has been recruiting thousands of TFA interns . The district just finished the first of 3 apartment complexes that were built to house them despite claims of financial shortfalls that cost thousands of tenured teachers ,nurses, librarians, PSW,and counselors their jobs. Moreover, students are further deprived of art classes after losing college centers, fulltime nurses , libraries , feild trips, vocational options, aids, and clean, safe campuses. Creative disruption has usurped continuity, quality and creativity. Critical thinking is discouraged . Teachers that dare to question the top down, test drilled, data driven lunacy are frequently targeted for dismissals, which come by way of illegal RiFs and poor evaluations created by administrators who get promoted for purging veteran teachers and will ignore decades of stellar, unstained service to rise up the ranks . Others are sent to Deasy’s dungeons . 93% of the housed teachers are over 40 and about 80% pear to be absolutely innocent besides. Now the dungeon is house arrest but teacher jail is not a place , it is a process.
    Presently the district is violating NCLB mandates about the quota of certoficated teachers . This has been cunningly concealed by the hiring of subs , who are literally disposble on call credentials and we have heard through fraud in which interns are identiffied as certificated. This law was designed to keep districts from compromising quality for the sake of control, convenience and cash , which is a viable concern as LAUSD has illustrated. The district and the unions share skewed priorities that have nothing to do with what is best for students . Profits, politics and power motivates them. All the talk of rigor, student safety, high tech civil rights issues and “lifting schools out of poverty” is complete BULL shitake.
    Students are “assets” like livestock which is how many are treated. Teachers are “human capital” which is shuffled around with little concern for their humanity. Politicians , whose role is local, state and federally condoned , operate under the influence of these plutocrats who have am unseemly strangle hokd on Democracy. Public education is the benchmark of Democracy so this should be no shock to you : Class War has broken out on campuses all over the world and for obvious reasons LA isthe apparently the focus as we find direction that John Deasy predicts will lead the way to reform. It is one of the few things I seem to agree with him on, except I see the out come playing out much differently than he does.
    By bankrupting LAUSD corporate education reformers , who have already taken over to a large extent , reforners assume it will be that much easier for them to convince us to privatize. Privatization is essentially the public giving up its assets to plutocrats who have already commandeered too much of the world’s wealth as it is. A look back at the history of LAUSD for the last 20 years reflects the meddling and malfeasance of busy body, bully, and billionaire Eli Broad , whose lack of bidd on Belmont Learning Center became a bond boondoggle that has left thousands of students stranded on a toxic school site perched atop an earthquake fault in a new school that replaced Belmont, the most expense school ever built at that time, which never opened.
    Roybals is a pretty grandiose member of the trio of taj Mahal schools that Broad built with a 5 ile radius, including the former Ambassador Hotel , now RFK LC and the Architecturally Excessive #9 , as kids dcall Ramon Cortines Arts High School, where millions can be squandered on a concrete robot overlooking the freeway , but these kids don’t even have an arts program .
    There was some outcry about the excessive costs of these schools as well as the horrors that lurk on the Belmont site , which scientists said was literally uninhabitable because of methane gas leaks . Little could we know that the plan was for Broad to double his ample fortune, which he boasted about a few years ago IN forbes and WSJ ; the billions added are just around what taxpayers invested in that bond measure fiasco, which included other buildings like Beaudry, an angular beast that seems fitting for business as usual at LAUSD .
    If Mr. Magruder and Sl Gabor are serious about our childrens’ right to a better future than the one we will doom them to if we continue to defer to the will of plutocrats, I urge them to resist privatization and embrace meaningful local reform that has only one sane solution : Decentralize LAUSD. Give schools back to the 37 cities it is doing a disservice. This will require buy in from teachers, parents and civic leaders, but it is doable ans it has to be done now as far as I am concerned because students are losing so much so fast we cannnot afford further procrastinating. As for UTLA ,it is facing a few huge law suits , which are being filed by members . It is likely that there will be an audit and investigation in the wake of their legal nightmares , but it is not unlikely decertification will follow . Teachers are ready to reinvent a union which they can share with parents . Many union activists have developed compelling treaties to address this alliance just as scholars abd economists have considered decentralizing LAUSD at great length. These matters seem to dovetail together well and I am at your service when you are ready to tackle the problems at LAUSD schools. You are leaders .It is a great responsibility , one that requires a lot of those who have been called to it, but it is one we cannot afford to delay any longer . Remember , we can legally opt out of tests– which effects property values! –, lose the unnecessary fat in the bloated top heavy administration and count on most earnest educators to make more sacrafices if they know it will reaize their dreams of a campus culture that serves students by being safe,sane, vital and personalized.

  3. Teaching2 says:

    Magruder takes the actions of one councilor and draws conclusions about the union? I can tell you that the councilors at my school worked countless extra hours, including most of the weekend before school started, to try to compensate for the fouled up MISIS system. However, it is pretty difficult to keep morale up when the leadership keeps designing systems to fail and then blaming underlings for the failure.

    • I think somehow his point is miscommunicated or misunderstood. Teachers and counselors do stay late , and certainly they did while trying to make MISiS work. Apparently , the counselor his kid is assigned to doesn’t . I do not think this makes her inadequate nor is she violating her contract. She may have a child she has to care for and comes in at 6 am to sort out a mess she didnt create . What Magruder said, however, is consistent with what many think about teachers’ as well as their unions. People simply don’t get that we take home hours worth of works at night and on weekends. They have no idea that we spend hundreds of dollars on supplies each term because LAUSD won’t provide white board markers, tissue, paper, cleaning supplies, art supplies , dictionaries , incentives , or much else. When I was teaching I often spent money for sundries, snacks, books, games, videos, thumb drives, pizza, prizes and bottled water because the pipes were tainted at my school.
      One of the reasons I was pro iPad was the access it gives students to text books , notes, research, supplemntal resources, games, art apps, calculators, cameras, photo.shop, musical instruments, videos , audio recording , agenda, assignments and class itself. Of course , LAUSD has no intention of ending their lucrative relationships with text book publishers and other vendors even though it would save a fortune and iPad woukd pay for itself. There’s no way Magruder and the BOC can full understand the complexity and corruption that the district operates in nor can most folks fathom just how perverse operations are in this system. Hell, I sometimes wonder if I am losing my mind when I read the latest outrage . I wish that were so. Better my mind than 600, 000 kids gettimg the shaft.
      But the truth is , Magruder is right about UTLA even if for the wrong reasons. The union had an oppurtinity to expose Deasy and the machinations of the legal teams, officials, philanthropists and so on. The officers chose not to. UTLA , AFT, UfT , CTA, &NEA have done little to enlighten parents, teachers or the community about the lawless agenda of corporate education reform. Instead they are aligned to TURN and operating in behalf of their leaders’ and plutocrats’ peronal interests. They do not represent teachers, labor, public education, community or anything except themselves. Simply put, teachers’ unions suck.
      We have to learn how to communicate and defend ourselves beyond the districts and unions which are part of a hopelessly broken system .

  4. Pingback: Ed News, Tuesday, November 11, 2014, Edition | tigersteach

  5. Irma,A yes vote is not to save jobs . It’s a vote to cut more than 1/3 of Adult Ed (37%). The LAUSD Board has already given gornud due to the student struggle, which is really just in its early stages, and it’s quickly gaining steam! So now teachers, mis-led by their union, are going to undermine that struggle by deciding that 37% of students really didn’t need their human right to education after all!? Shooting down this devil’s bargain (TA) is not the end of the road. We need to send a powerful message to the union that they need to negotiate for 100%. To accept any cuts is to acquiesce in the LIE that LAUSD doesn’t have money for our programs. They have until July 1st to get back and fight for ALL OF US! If not, what are we paying them for?Sincerely,Dan Kaufman

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