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If Ramon “Ray” Cortines ever hesitated to say what he thinks, he seems, at age 78, to have lost any fear.
Friday, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District spoke in Denver about lessons learned in a career in education that spans 50 years – from his first job in 1956 teaching 44 sixth-graders in a California classroom to heading five urban school systems, including New York City.
Cortines is no stranger to Colorado, having advised, in various ways, three Denver Public Schools superintendents – Jerry Wartgow, Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg. He also preceded, and then succeeded, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer in LA’s top schools job.
He has taught and been a principal at every level – elementary, middle and high school – but he described himself in an interview Friday with Education News Colorado as “more non-traditional than any non-traditional superintendent.”
“I was a very entrepreneurial school teacher and I did things a different way if it wasn’t working for my students. I remember a principal saying to me, ‘I’m not sure what you’re doing, Cortines,’ ” he said. “And I remember my evaluation at the end of the year – ‘If you trust Cortines and just be patient, he will create miracles for kids.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do with our teachers and administrators.
“See this school district that I took over has been about compliance. And that’s part of the problem in America. It’s about compliance, it’s not about encouraging schools to do different things, it’s not providing the space to stub their toe, to fail, to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. No, what we do is continue the same old, same old, even though it’s failed.”
Cortines is tough to pigeonhole. He describes the Los Angeles teachers’ union as putting up “roadblocks” but acknowledges that his former boss and LA’s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, sees him as moving too slow.
And his opinion of the platform favored by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, such as charter schools and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations?
“I don’t think it’s been balanced,” Cortines said. “Nobody is more competitive than I am, mainly with myself. But I think when somebody says, what we need is more charters, it’s a silver bullet. You’re never going to have the majority of students educated by charters and you need to be kicking in the butt the regular school.”
Today, Cortines plans to release test scores for LA’s nearly 700,000 students, results that he said will show continued academic improvement despite cutting $1.5 billion from the district’s budget over two years.
“One of the things I attribute the success to is, we’ve not been about the silver bullet in the two and a half years that I’ve been there,” he said. “It’s been about stability of the school system, it’s been about continuity of instruction, it’s been about accountability.”
It’s doubtful Cortines’ critics would agree on stability in a system that has undergone major changes during his tenure, including the loss of thousands of jobs.
But, “It’s not all money, it’s how we use our money,” Cortines said. “Because money is about jobs and let me tell you when I started cutting, I had over 5,000 teachers out of the classroom that were union members. And I said that to UTLA (LA’s teachers union), don’t rag on me about all of these administrators, we have 5,000 people out of the classroom that are your members and we are not going to do it anymore.”
At the same time, he said, “I think principals need to step up. One of the things that helped us this year is I mandated in-service for all principals on how to review teachers … and I’m not proud of the fact but the releases of teachers went up 23 present.
“And I feel better next year that there are 1,000 teachers less in that school system that do not need to be there.”
Here are video excerpts of Friday’s talk:
On the LA Times’ rating of teachers – “I want to be respectful, and respected, as a teacher. But I also know that there has to be a bottom line.”
On what kids deserve – “My best training to be a superintendent of schools was my first sixth-grade class of 44 kids.”
On helping teachers improve – “I don’t think that we as administrators have been a partner. It’s ‘we’ve done it to them,’ rather than support and help with them.”
On elected school boards – “I believe there should be a place for debate. I think there should be a place for discourse and different points of view and coming to some common reasoning.”
On charter schools – “I don’t believe anybody has a corner on the market on what is best.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.