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From A Valley Teacher: An Open Letter to Superintendent Deasy

August 21, 2011

This letter was sent to me by a fellow veteran educator who teaches in the San Fernando Valley

To:         Superintendent Deasy

   From:          Diogenes
   Re:            Your Recent Editorial in the Los Angeles Times
Dear Superintendent Deasy:
After reading your editorial in the Los Angeles Times, I did some research on your background, and was very impressed, but also very concerned. I was impressed because your career in education has been marked by rapid promotion and advancement. I was concerned because not everything you believe is necessarily right and best for students, and I’m not sure how you would respond to an experienced classroom teacher who tells you truthful things you may not wish to hear. My family depends on my income, and so I decided to call myself “Diogenes” and forward copies of this letter to the leadership of UTLA. They can pass it along to you (or not) as they see fit.
I noticed that you started teaching at the age of 23, and two years later, you became an administrator. Seven years after that, you became a high school principal (in 1993), and only three years after that you were elected a superintendent. If you were my son, I’d be very proud of you; however, since you are my new boss, I’m concerned. In statements to the press, you have referred to your unblemished record of past success. While your record is impressive, I cannot help but wonder: do you have the kind of wisdom that comes from falling down hard in life and picking oneself up again? Do you know what it’s like to spend years in the classroom, trying to help kids learn, and being exhausted, yet facing a constant stream of slander, contempt and prejudice from the media and much of popular culture (and politicians who cater to it)? Have you given much thought to the story of Rigoberto Ruelas (the math teacher who inspired a good number of low-income kids to stay in school and go to college, but was driven to desperation and suicide because he was publicly derided as a “bad” teacher by the LA Times “value-added” database)? You’ve made an impressive career as an administrator of teachers, and yet the two years you spent in the classroom probably would not even qualify you for tenure under the present rules, (which you yourself consider too short a period of time to earn tenure). 
I don’t want to seem mean-spirited, Mr. Deasy. You seem like a nice fellow; and you’re definitely a very bright and impressive individual. Some of your proposals are quite reasonable, such as including input from students and parents in teacher evaluations, and increasing the requirements and/or time period for tenure. But there are other aspects of the system which you have described as “ossified” which serve to protect good teachers who are more inclined to help kids learn, rather than to “watch their backs” due to fear of administrators. You state that your proposals would “put more power into the hands of teachers and administrators.” However, an honest look at many –if not most—of your proposals constitutes an empowerment of administrators at the expense of teachers.
Specifically, I am referring to your desires to eliminate or reduce seniority, and to enact “compensation reform.” Neither seniority, nor the present system of compensation are perfect, but they do guarantee two things: objectivity and fairness. Education is not a business manufacturing a “product;” it is a service to young people and their families. Teachers should be free to focus on helping students, not forced into using students to advance their careers, and having to “kiss up” to their administrators. If you succeed in shifting the focus to a nebulous concept such as “results” rather than clear and objective measures such as years of service in the classroom and the completion of further education and/or professional development, what you will create is a sort of “banana republic” culture, in which principals/administrators will bestow perks on teachers who patronize and flatter them, and marginalize and/or punish those who don’t. If you don’t realize how easy it is to place low-performing students in one teacher’s classroom, and high-performing students in another teacher’s classroom, (thereby ensuring that favored teachers are “getting results” and disfavored ones are not), your naiveté is astounding. That is: despite all your accomplishments and erudition, you seem to lack the “street smarts” to see what would really happen to schools if your wishes were completely fulfilled.
Another problem with the use of test scores (which were originally intended to measure the progress of students) as a “tool” to measure the performance of teachers is simply this: training a student to test is not the same as fully educating the student: which includes –among other things– inspiring the student to question, to think critically and to create. When teachers see that their survival depends on the standardized test performance of students, a different culture will be (and already is being) created. Education will become less and less student-centered, and more and more test-centered. Cheating will continue to increase phenomenally as the end will be seen to justify the means (“results” will become all-important, and how one gets them will matter less and less). And so your good intentions will enable the “gaming” of the system, and take the focus away from real education of real students with real needs. Will you see test scores going up? Probably. Will students really be getting a better education? That is rather unlikely. As you are perhaps aware, the recent CST data shows that the test scores of charter schools (where the “banana republic” culture is already established) are clearly below those of schools where seniority and academic advancement among teachers are valued and rewarded objectively. The rules in the contract were put there for a reason: they protect the integrity of education, and therefore serve the real needs of real students. 
Finally, I will tell you straight out: I don’t consider it my duty to “add value” to the education of my students. I have assisted students’ education and their success, and I have worked hard for many years to do that. But the students deserve the credit for their learning, not me. Perhaps teachers of kindergarten and first grade “add value” to their students’ learning. But for teachers of most students (those older than, say, seven, and more so each year thereafter), education becomes more and more the responsibility of the student. They can learn a great deal, even in a classroom where the teacher is not very competent, and they can do badly even in classroom where the teacher is outstanding. I’m a secondary teacher, (and I teach at a college in the evenings) and by the time students reach my level, they deserve the credit for their success –or blame for their failure—not me. That is the great fallacy of the currently popular notion that “value added” data is anything other than smoke and mirrors when it comes to measuring the performance of classroom teachers. In time, the public will come to realize the truth, because, as Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out: “No lie can live forever.” The only pertinent question here is: how many good teachers will be unjustly tarred and feathered and/or destroyed (like Rigoberto Ruelas) before the current fad finally passes away?  
You were recently described in the press as having an “independent streak.” I hope that means you will listen to accomplished and successful teachers –and their students– who really know what education is all about, even if it differs from the siren songs of “experts” who mistake the latest fads for improvement and “fixing” of education (which, as I hope you can see, is not as “broken” as “they” say). One thing we have here in Los Angeles is a good, strong teachers’ union, and a new president who really knows how to represent us (everything I have read from him confirms this). I hope you will be open to listening to what President Fletcher has to tell you, and that you will reconsider some of your proposals. One thing that any successful administrator needs to achieve is “buy in” from his teachers; hopefully a bright individual like you will realize that. And if you will not, I hope that UTLA will stand up to you and keep you from “rolling roughshod” over our hard-won rights.
Well, good luck to you in your new position. I hope you will succeed, even if it may mean reconsidering some of your views. For my part, it’s time to plan tomorrow’s lesson.
One of your teachers:
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 22, 2011 11:30 pm

    Yee-hah! I just hope Supt. Deasy is savvy to the real workings of LAUSD…. I cannot overstate the sheer pettiness of (several) administrators during my years as a teacher, including lemon principals who were not only incompetent, but singularly uncaring, and maliciously vindictive as a means of protecting their status: putting all the good kids in their “pets'” classroom and vice versa; berating and/or ignoring staff in meetings when they feel threatened; steering funds to their “pets” and refusing requests for reimbursement for even minor expenditures for needed supplies; I mean, the list is rather inexhaustible…. Me, I did my part by telling my own children that I would KILL THEM if they went into education, because it is a thankless, grossly underpaid occupation; they can do social services as volunteers, but for a career, they couldn’t do worse.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    August 23, 2011 12:07 am

    Hey! I’ve got a few suggestions for actually improving education!
    1) ALL administrators need to be returned to the classroom for 6 months every 3 years to keep them in touch with the reality of day-to-day teaching.
    2) Make the HIGHEST PAID position that of TEACHER. Let’s face it, lots of administrators leave the classroom for a higher paycheck…. If the highest paid position is teacher, THEN there is a way to attract and keep genuinely talented people in the classroom, with the kids, which is what education is supposed to be about.
    3) These highest paid positions would be available to administrators after 5 years as principals, or…they could continue in administration at a lower salary..The goal would be twofold: some people are better suited for administrative work, and some people are better suited to the classroom. Both jobs are hard, but the benefit should go to those who work directly with the kids.
    4) There MUST be substantial participation from parents. They should be MANDATED to spend 4 hours per month IN THE CLASSROOM and employers should allow time for same. Working parents would use 4 hours of sick leave/personal business; they could also work an additional 4 hours per month to compensate their employer, if feasible. Parents who aren’t willing to invest 4 hours per month, or a society that isn’t willing to do the same, is a pretty sick situation. Is there anybody out there who actually thinks the U.S. is adequately preparing our kids for global competition? Read my lips…OUR SOCIETY IS IN COLLAPSE! TEACHERS CAN’T DO ANY MORE! WE NEED PARENTS TO HELP US BECAUSE WAY TOO MANY STUDENTS ARE LETHARGIC, UNFOCUSED, AND DISRUPTIVE. WE LOSE COUNTLESS HOURS OF INSTRUCTIONAL TIME TO DISCIPLINE ISSUES.
    5) Parents of students who are behavioral problems need to attend MANDATORY parenting and family counseling classes. Again, read my lips…TOO MANY TEACHERS AND STUDENTS ARE VICTIMIZED BECAUSE OF (ahem) FAILURE TO PARENT!!! IF A PARENT CANNOT OR WILL NOT PROVIDE PROPER PARENTING, TEACH THEM HOW TO PARENT AND PROVIDE SANCTIONS FOR LACK OF PARENTING. Parents must provide “home training” so teachers can teach subject matter. Discipline issues prevent all students from receiving a quality instruction.

    Having written the great American novel, I hereby relinquish the topic to the next teacher, who’s probably busy buying materials with his/her own money, in anticipation of working a few days for FREE to prepare their classroom for September, hoping they won’t be furloughed and lose part of an already-pitiful salary. I bid you adieu….

  3. Ex-Fremont teacher permalink
    August 23, 2011 2:12 pm

    Wow that last comment really spoke to what is happening. Teachers can’t do any more on their own. I remember when I was at Fremont I had to come in over the weekend before I went back on track or I would be dead in the water. I spend at least 3,000 dollars my first year teaching and my last year at Fremont I spent about 500 dollars. This is typical. I remember when I was in my credential program and subbing in Compton Unified at Kelly Elementary, one of my favorite schools. I met a kindergarten teacher there who said his first year he spent 4,000 dollars but he had more say in teaching in those days (early 90,s). I was in my program when Open Court was in full swing or just starting in late 2002 or so. I’ll never forget that teacher telling me that.

    In addition, it burns me when I go to PD’s and see 28 year old out of classsroom teachers make A basis and congratulating each other on how awesome they are. It’s disgusting. Yet who bears the brunt of the criticism’ those who actually work with kids. I currently have three jobs. I am transferring positions and this AP who almost got bumped down was saying to me as I cleaned out my classroom, “Gosh, if I went back in the classroom it would be a huge paycut.” He is one who sits in his office all day. I thought, “Exactly,” But it shouldn’t be that way- those in the classroom should make the most money.

    Thank you so much for your comments.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    August 25, 2011 12:30 pm

    Thanks for your words. I think you represented me more eloquently than I could have.

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