LA’s Cortines speaks his mind


LA Superintendent Ramon Cortines

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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.

Learn more
Cortines spoke in Denver as part of the Hot Lunch series sponsored by the Donnell-Kay and Piton foundations. Click here to see EdNews’ coverage of other speakers, such as Diane Ravitch.

“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

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”