LAUSD superintendent Dr. John Deasy does not believe in wasting time. He talks fast, sleeps little–-four hours a night-–and is in the news often for rolling out a series of ambitious new initiatives for LAUSD. Deasy was promoted to superintendent in February, after previously working for The Gates Foundation (as in Bill and Melinda) as well as overseeing the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Prince George's County Schools in Maryland. Last week he sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about the district's year-round calendar, the new (and controversial) teacher evaluation system and lunch in the school cafeteria.
Huffington Post: It’s two weeks into the school year and you seem to be hard at work. I’m curious what your day-to-day is like. Do you visit a school every day? Every week?
John Deasy: Every day. I have a pretty set schedule. Every morning I get up at 2:45am and I have a series of things I do; work out a little bit, do some correspondence. I’m at the office between 4:30am and 5:00am and then I start appointments at 6:00am and then the week is fairly ritualized. So Tuesdays are completely in the office—they’re board days. Thursdays are in office—they’re committee work and meetings. Wednesdays are entirely out of the office; Mondays and Fridays are half day at sites. The whole team does that as well. We are at sites as often as we are in the office.
HP: What do you do when you go to a site?
JD: I have the same routine. Never announce when I’m going. And I am taking a look at the quality of teaching and leadership. And I do that by doing classroom visitations, talking with youth, talking with adults, and then unless there’s a very specific issue I’m going to look at – maybe a school that’s been under reconstruction, then I’m looking at how those things are going. I’m always writing a note back, we come back here to the office, we trade notes. Our goal is to be at every school in this district.
HP: How many are there?
JD: There are over 1,014. But I’m struck by how many times parents and adults and especially students say they have never seen a superintendent. That’s important. Then you come back at the end of the day and you have your evening meetings. I do three evening meetings a night. Meanwhile I manage the district and manage everything electronically. Saturdays and Sundays.
HP: When you were back east in Prince George’s County, how different was it? How different was that job for you?
JD: Both of them are in pretty impacted places, I mean really impacted places. The scope is much larger here. And I did have some weekends to myself there. But the hours are pretty much the same. You have to do it to do this job. I love it though. But it’s exhausting. But when you have a good team you’re lucky.
HP: And when was the last time you ate in a school cafeteria?
JD: Tuesday or Wednesday. Always check the food out, always.
HP: No more celebrity chefs?
JD: We changed our whole menu and launched it this year. It’s incredible. Every time we do an administrative function we serve the cafeteria food. I mean I like food, it’s one of my passions. And I like eating this food. It’s that good. The kids helped design the menu. For all of last year thousands of kids worked on the menu and tasted it. There’s a vegan menu, there are fresh salads, fresh vegetables. Some of my favorites are the vegan ravioli, the quinoa salad, and the farmer’s market salad. I’m really proud of it. [Jamie] Oliver was helpful in agitating on some of the issues. Alice Waters has been very helpful to us.
HP: That’s great. Now most kids have been back in school for about two weeks – but many LAUSD schools are still on a year-round system, is that correct?
JD: Yes, we are year-round still.
HP: What’s the plan there?
JD: Next year there will only be two schools in LAUSD that are year-round and the year after that, there will be none. For 30 years we’ve had schools on year-round.
HP: How could you make that change so fast? What were other people not doing?
JD: We built 111 schools—that was it. This has been a ten-year project. Three generations have never gone to school on a regular calendar. All of LAUSD was year-round.
HP: And you think that’s just because of the nature of this city and how many people and the lack of schools?
JD: There was a huge lack of schools. And we just didn’t do anything about it. And then we did. It’s huge.
HP: So a lot has been said about the new teacher evaluation system – clearly many feel what’s been happening isn’t effective, and yet you are under a lot of heat for your new plan. It’s a complicated issue. Tell me about your new system.
JD: [Laughs] It took you this long to get into the most controversial subject! It’s fabulous, it’s great. For a year and half, teams of teachers and administrators have worked on developing it and we are rolling it out. And it’s started.
HP: What is it, how does it work?
JD: Oh it’s a long story – that is something to cover over a long period of time. We have court cases against us; the union has taken out complaints against us…
HP: What is the main controversy in your eyes?
JD: I don’t seem to know. They want to stop it from moving forward. Why you would want to stop anybody from getting better…? You’ve got me. But so far we’ve won each of the cases and we keep moving on.
It’s a massive endeavor that’s taking place right now and it’s a multiple-measure approach. The current one is just awful. It’s useless, it’s offensive, it’s ridiculous. It does nothing. So here what we’ve developed is a good strong rubric that says this is what the behaviors of great teaching are: we describe what masterful teaching is, what acceptable teaching is, what beginning teaching is, what unacceptable teaching is - on all these different pieces - and then we go in and we observe you several times and we evaluate. It’s similar to what has happened before, only the instrument that we use now is far more helpful. You can get better if you know exactly what it is you’re struggling with. So let’s say we can help identify that you have a problem helping students decode, or you have a problem helping students understand number sense. That’s better than saying ‘students in math are struggling.’ I don’t know what that means about my teaching. Traditionally that’s all we’ve done, poorly. Now we are doing that well.
And then there are three other multiple measures we use too. Student achievement over time, or value-added. Obviously the most controversial. Not for me. What we’ve done is we’ve created a value-added model, an academic growth over time model, and the fact is that in an organization where we want to evaluate the effectiveness of how schools and people are doing their jobs, I wouldn’t consider not taking a look at how students are actually doing. Contributions to the school and the community are another piece we have evidence on. The fourth piece is parent-and-student teacher surveys. So those are the four buckets of multiple measures. We have 109 schools piloting it this year across the system.
HP: And the others are sticking with the old plan. So this is a test?
JD: Yes, exactly. The training is going extremely well. Teachers and principals have been amazing. We want to learn how to do this well. We have gotten remarkably positive feedback from the field.
HP: Okay we are running out of time, you have people waiting for you out there I see. Let me ask you one last question.
JD: I’ll just talk faster!
HP: You already talk fast; you don’t have to talk faster. What excites you most about this city? What do you love about LA?
JD: The youth of this city. They’re amazing. They have so much in front of them that could be theirs and we intend to make sure they get it. And they’re not getting it all right now. This entire administration should be about their rights. And we will not brook anything that’s going to violate a kid’s right to graduate college. And there will be pushback for that. So buckle up. I love this city, I’m not obviously from here, it’s just missing cold weather and snow and then it’d be perfect.
For Part 2 of The Huffington Post's interview with Dr. John Deasy, click here.