01/17/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hail to the Incoming Superintendent

In New York City, where I grew up, the superintendent was the guy who fixed the plumbing or the boiler and twisted his face when you told him there was a dead rat inside your radiator. In my building, it was a surly guy named Eddie who had six children and sometimes argued with the oldest ones in the lobby or stood by himself in front of the rusty iron front door of the building puffing a cigar and drinking out of a brown paper bag.

In L.A. where I now live, the superintendent runs the school district. Those of us who teach the students of this city don't see very much of our super in person. We see his name on all the letters and memos and fax cover sheets and emails he may or may not actually write himself. He has a television show on the LAUSD channel that not many people watch (a colleague of mine used to make students watch it while they served detention--until some parents complained that it was unreasonably harsh punishment).

When I joined LAUSD back in the last century, the super was a guy named Sid Thompson. The only thing I remember about him was the 10% pay cut he instituted to supposedly keep the district from going bankrupt. That 10% was restored a few years later as promised. Otherwise, I never heard much from Sid. Like Eddie the Super on a Sunday morning sleeping it off.

He was replaced by Ruben Zacarias, who declared that he would make schools accountable for student progress. I'm sure he accomplished a lot of great things, but none of them were noticeable to me or to the students in any of my classes--though two of my students did get to meet Ruben, sort of. Our government teacher assigned them to attend a city council or school board meeting and write a report about it. These two guys chose the school board meeting during which a newly elected majority ousted Superintendant Zacarias. The meeting was contentious and rowdy and afterward Zacarias fled reporters. Our two students--who hadn't understood any of the wild shouting in the meeting--chased after Zacarias trying to ask him questions for their report. Zacarias, perhaps thinking that they were 16-year-old newspaper reporters, pushed past them. They chased him down a flight of stairs. In the garage, as they tried again to approach him, the outgoing super tried to run them over. I never heard anything about him again until a few years ago when he was arrested for impersonating a police officer--using an old school police badge--and pulling over a young woman on the Pomona Freeway.

Zacarias was the last of the career LAUSD guys to ascend to super. His replacement was the former governor of Colorado. Roy Romer declared the end of the massive impersonal high school and announced the era of the small learning community, then presided over the construction of a dozen new high schools that resembled airplane hangers and post modern warehouses. He, along with the school board, enacted a great many reforms, I'm sure--as, I'm sure, did Admiral Brewer, who replaced him. I just wish I could remember any that impacted the students I teach. The admiral is most remembered for the new payroll system that left hundreds of employees without paychecks, in some cases for months, and docked others for alleged overpayments no one could quite figure out. Most of those problems were rectified in time to cut the six figure check for Brewer's own contract buyout.

Over the years there has surely been a lot of important progress emanating from the office of the super. Mini-districts named after the digits between 1 and 10 decentralized the bureaucracy. Then they were renamed with letters of the alphabet, then redrawn and renamed with digits again. Somewhere along the way, our leadership formulated district standards for us to follow then quickly abandoned them in favor of state standards. I still remember being told by some overzealous non-teacher that possession of the old standards poster constituted a dereliction of duty. Sometime later we were treated to "learning walks" in which herds of adults would disturb someone's class to observe what was no longer going on in the room now that the class had been disturbed. There have probably been countless other mandates, all of them enormously important and completely forgotten.

Our current super, Ray Cortines, has led us through the new austerity of California's economic collapse. He forfeited his salary as a show of solidarity and then, after the local papers mentioned a possible conflict of interest, resigned from his $150,000-a-year board of directorship for Scholastic Books, one of the district's largest vendors.

He promised to protect classrooms as much as possible from necessary budget cuts and certainly didn't cut anything from my classroom--which has never received all that much to begin with. One really positive development I attribute to Ray the Super was the elimination of a lot of the intrusive instructional requirements from the downtown and local district offices. He made a lot of the people who had jobs doing that kind of stuff go back and teach children again. It reminded everyone just how many district educators had been involved in such folly, how many of our tax dollars are spent on teacher-not-teaching positions that somehow result from the gigantic gravitational pull away from classrooms and students--a force that I can only assume is the result of so many people with education degrees and/or teaching credentials who don't want to teach children but don't want to find another line of work.

The new super, John Deasy, used to be the super of the much smaller Santa Monica/Malibu School District--and is currently one of Cortines's deputies. He also worked for the Gates Foundation. He calls himself a reformer, which these days means he wants to re-form student test scores into teacher evaluation scores. It's called value added, which sounds like something really good. Kind of like "opportunity transfer," the really upbeat way we describe sending a student to another school because he did something really bad, or "program Improvement," which is what we call a school stricken with chronic failure. Last year, the Los Angeles Times published the "value added" scores of elementary school teachers to show how useful those scores were. When one of the teachers with an unfavorable rating killed himself, United Teachers of Los Angeles blamed it on the release of the scores and a bunch of teachers picketed the newspaper.

The Times was so intimidated by all those protesting teachers that they decided to release the middle school and high school scores this spring. They might have been worried that all the teachers in the city would stop buying their newspaper--until they remembered that they give away thousands of copies each week to schools across the district and realized that most of us are reading their newspaper for free.

I think I'll retain my value after my value added scores are released. I hope so. If not--if I am taken in disgrace from my classroom--then I suppose I'll still have time, before John the super takes over, to find a new line of work. Or maybe by then the economy will improve and the district won't have to be quite so efficient and I can just hustle up one of those teacher-not-teaching jobs.