John Deasy on His Years as LAUSD Superintendent, Where He Made Mistakes,...

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John Deasy on His Years as LAUSD Superintendent, Where He Made Mistakes, and Where He’s Going

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Sep 6, 2016

John Deasy on His Years as LAUSD Superintendent, Where He Made Mistakes, and Where He’s Going

Thirty-two. That’s how many years John Deasy has spent in education as a teacher, high school principal, and superintendent in four different districts across three states.

Of all these roles, his stint at the Los Angeles Unified School District may be the most memorable—and controversial. As superintendent, he led one of the largest and most highly-critiqued 1:1 device deployments in the country—one that that led to a frenzy of media reporting, and a number of columnists from L.A.-based and national publications alike asking, “Where did it all go so wrong?”

After leaving LAUSD in October 2014, Deasy joined the Broad Center as a Superintendent-in-Residence, where he’s been working to develop school district leaders from across the country. But now, he’s gearing up for the next chapter: creating an organization to address juvenile incarceration and, eventually, reduce juvenile recidivism by 50 percent.

EdSurge caught up with Deasy to chat about the up’s and down’s of superintendencies, where he made mistakes, and whether technology is adding to issues of inequity.

EdSurge: John, you’ve played several roles in the education industry, but now, you’re hinting that there’s something you’re developing to release in October. What is that organization?

Deasy: That organization is called “New Day, New Year.” I will be designing, building, and standing up this organization which will be a series of alternative juvenile prisons. I will spend the next ten years working through the very, very difficult problem of juvenile corrections.

This is taking you into a bit of a different space from what you were working on before, given this isn’t a superintendency or a role in a K-12 institution.

We’re trying to do very different work. Recidivism is pretty horrific; juvenile corrections is very broken. We’re going to create a very different experience for students. We intend to cut recidivism by 50 percent. Our students will graduate from New Day, New Year after their residential experience, and they serve their time with us, free and substance-free. They will be resilient, employed, and on track for graduation or already enrolled in community college.

When I was superintendent, I spent some time with young people in prison, and have wanted to return to this work—providing a set of proof points that are radically different results for kids.

Before we get more into that organization, let’s look back on what you’ve learned about leadership, and what it means to be in a position of power in a district. You get asked a lot about your experiences in Los Angeles Unified or other districts, but looking back, what advice do you have specifically for other superintendents?

Oh, wow. A couple of things: Be absolutely true to yourself. Don’t, for a moment, forget that your ultimate responsibility is the youth of your city, most of whom hope to be you one day and come from incredibly impacted situations. You do whatever you can and must to make sure that those students have a right to the American Dream.

Not everything can be done at once, even though I repeatedly made mistakes around trying to do as much as possible in as short a time as possible. You have to think about the work in phases.

The next thing I would say is, you’re absolutely nothing without a great team. The deliberate investment in building a great executive team is so important. Also, do your absolute best to work with your board—realize that sometimes you won’t agree, and you have to go back to that first spot of “be true to yourself.” But compromising is a wise and good lesson; very little is black and white, most is grey.

Share successes. Be responsible for failures. Spend as much time as possible with and among students. Regularly see students outside of classrooms. You’ll get unbelievably nourishment and dividends from doing that. And the last thing I would say is that this job is unrelenting and incredibly demanding. Be really ready and clear for that. Try to keep yourself healthy.

And considering that technology was something you focused on while at LAUSD, which yielded criticism down the road, what sorts of advice would you give to administrators about going 1:1 or purchasing technology?

From the beginning, technology is a support. It doesn’t replace instruction, and it doesn’t replace people—we know that. But it is a critical and essential component to how we function, and how young people are going to function in school and out of school. While you’ll get lots of criticism, it’s really important that youth, especially those in poverty and peril, have access to technology.

Nothing is going to be perfect, and nothing is forever. In the old days of purchasing chalk and workbooks—those things are consumable, because they have a certain amount of life. Otherwise, we tend to think of things as very longstanding. Technology, too, becomes obsolete quickly. Be prepared for that. It isn’t like building a building or buying a desk. It’s going to need updating, with new and relevant software.

The last thing I would say is that overwhelmingly, students are more advanced and skills than the adults at usage and application of this technology. There’s a great opportunity there because it’s also coupled with the fact that the adults are much more skilled and advanced in knowledge.

In looking back at your years at LAUSD and in other districts, you’ve worked a fair amount with bringing technology into the classroom. But now, it looks like your changing paths, away from technology.

Oh yeah, the role I’m going into is about the work, not the technology. The technology will play a role in it, especially since so much of the education in residential treatment facilities has to be customized. That will present an interesting opportunity. But this is really about juvenile corrections and juvenile justice.

Recently, on, you published an article entitled “Bridging the Chasm Between the World and Me — My Promise to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Coates is a well-known black writer who has written about education and race relations, to name a couple of topics he addresses. What were you trying to get across with this article?

I think the article was relatively self-evident. The language is not obscure; it’s actually very direct and very personal. What I was saying to him—and the larger public—is that we’re in a very, very troubled place in this country right now, at all kind of levels. I make the case that we’re in an uncivil war. Secondly, I try to tackle the actual issue of, “Where is the place for white leadership right now in education?” I answer that question for myself pretty clearly.

And then thirdly, Coates has some very tough language in his writing for all of us, but particularly for white leaders. I respond by saying, “You can expect us to be part of this work with you.” In doing that, I make a series of promises, and one of them is the next piece of work, which is directly from his devastating article published in the Atlantic: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. I’m trying to very specifically respond to that for young people.

And in this new role that you’re taking, what about the concern that technology furthers inequities? I’ve heard people talk about how edtech can be “the great equalizer,” but there are many that question that statement. What are your thoughts about the truth behind that statement? Is technology actually creating greater inequities?

I can only answer from my experience—I’m not an expert. I don’t think it’s creating more inequity, because that inequity already exists. I think it’s absolutely trying to bridge the digital gap and the digital divide, and I say that knowing that it doesn’t solve everything. But I think that access is critical for young people. We know this—you write about this all the time. It is a fundamental platform for socialization, for acquisition of knowledge. Just try getting a driver’s license if you don’t have technology! In California, if you get caught speeding, you can’t work with the system unless you have technology.

It’s not right. It’s totally crazy if the world is facilitating that divide. I think that edtech is actually helping to bridge it. But I’m saying that with full cognition that it is by no means the only way to solve that problem.

Did you see some of that bridging while working as a superintendent?

I did, very much so. We always had a very clear equity agenda. Those who historically had the least got the first and most attention. Even in the distribution of devices, we had tiered all the schools from greatest impact to least impact, and began to work very rapidly with the schools of greatest impact. I think that’s how we do it.

Well, for those educators going back to school, do you have any last thoughts for them?

I think everyone who is watching media or reading print is seeing a time in this country of pretty unimaginable uncivil discourse—hateful and confusing language. So, my piece of advice would be, let’s use our schools to do the opposite. Let’s think about language of acceptance and understanding and debate, as opposed to hate.

Check out the rest of the interview below in this EdSurge On Air Extra.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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