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Zacarias Faces a Huge Job in Reforming the LAUSD

Incoming leader should quickly confront low performance

May 04, 1997

Ruben Zacarias, the next superintendent of Los Angeles schools, will soon get his chance to prove he can wrest change from a system whose test scores fall frighteningly below the national average in reading and math and which has a dropout rate more than double the statewide average. He promises to move quickly to boost dissipating public confidence in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which clearly needs radical restructuring that improves student achievement.

The new superintendent can expect no honeymoon when he assumes the top job in July. We expressed doubt during the selection process over whether Zacarias, who is currently deputy superintendent and has spent 31 years in the LAUSD, could lead the fundamental overhaul and rigorous reform required to reverse the district's failures. After all, he helped foster the system that even he now admits is not working for most of its students. Our choice was Daniel Domenech, a bold leader, forceful administrator and progressive educator. He increased test scores in the lowest-performing school district in the state of New York. The energetic Domenech could have been just what this lethargic district needed, but he's staying in New York. He chose to withdraw his name from consideration when it became clear that the school board majority had settled on insider Zacarias.

The Los Angeles Board of Education made it official on Friday; Zacarias will become the district's second Latino superintendent and the fifth schools chief hired since 1987.

He will need the best minds available inside and outside the district to tackle a laundry list of challenges. As he assembles his top management team, any evidence of deal-making at the expense of education will chip away at the district's dwindling credibility. Promotions should be based on who is needed to get the job done, not on whose "turn" it is to hold a top job. This is the nation's second-largest school district, which exists for the benefit of educating all children--not a public queue by which good jobs are doled out to whoever stands in line the longest.

The new superintendent's most urgent academic priorities should include significantly raising reading and math scores. LAUSD students taking standardized tests last year in the fourth, seventh and ninth grades averaged below the nationwide midpoint in reading and math, collectively scoring from the 25th to the 48th percentile. Zacarias should also press to reduce the high school dropout rate from 44% to about 20%, the state average, and halve the six years, on average, that non-English-speaking students spend in bilingual classes. Improving bilingual education is critical because the majority of children who start school in the predominantly Latino LAUSD speak little or no English.

As he pushes his prescription for the public schools, Zacarias should adopt some of Domenech's ideas, starting with providing every parent with easy-to-read school report cards. Each of the 661 campuses should be graded on test scores, attendance, dropout rates, disciplinary transfers, graduation rates and, if relevant, bilingual transfer rates, to allow comparisons within the district, state and the nation. This approach, already used by Domenech, would increase accountability and give parents vital information they currently do not have.

Starting Monday, Zacarias will seek to identify the district's worst 100 schools and require those principals, with input from teachers, other staff members and parents, to figure out what is wrong and develop corrective measures. This plan would be bolstered by new district intervention teams composed of exemplary principals and teachers sent to troubled campuses to analyze what is wrong and work to improve learning. This approach, recently agreed to by retiring Supt. Sid Thompson and the powerful unions representing teachers and administrators, has proved effective in other big-city school districts. And so it will in Los Angeles if it leads to the rooting out of bad principals and teachers who too often are protected by arcane union rules. Under the Zacarias plan, principals of low-performing schools would get a year, two at most, to show measurable progress, such as a 10% increase in test scores. If no significant improvement is made within the deadline, he promises consequences including the removal of staff, a rarity in the LAUSD.

No superintendent can achieve major change in the school district without the cooperation of his seven bosses--the elected members of the school board. The board works extraordinarily long hours, but some members need to spend less time micro-managing decisions best left at the campus level and put what's best for all children ahead of ideology, as well as ethnic, racial and regional politics.

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