Victor Rivero's

Interview: Data-driven Ray Cortines

In Interviews on December 2, 2009 at 2:44 am

by Victor Rivero

RAY CORTINES, 77, IS CURRENTLY THE SUPERINTENDENT of Los Angeles Unified School District and has been in education for more than 50 years. He’s presided over five different districts around the country, including San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena. He was also former Chancellor of New York City Schools just as Rudy Giuliani came into power in the mid 90s. He has been senior advisor to (former) US Secretary of Education Richard Riley. He was briefly (in 2000) the interim LAUSD superintendent; he’s also served as LA’s Deputy Mayor for Education, Youth and Families where he worked closely with LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In this interview he discusses school improvement, elements of leadership, knowing the data about a school, and inspecting schools first-hand to really confront the challenges of improving education. After half a century as an educator, he’s showing no signs of slowing down and with each question he only seems to be energized further.     

ETT: Your advice for school leaders in approaching the area of school improvement?  

CORTINES: The first thing that I feel I need to do is to make people aware of the situation through the use of data. And I can tell you in LA, when I came over a year ago, that there were some 33 program improvement schools–and that means five years and some of them plus one two or three additional years–but nobody had sat with the school people and gone over the data. 

I visited personally all of those schools with the data–whether it was dropout, attendance, gifted programs, advanced placement, intervention, parent involvement–every kind of data imaginable–and I asked for a plan of what they were going to do. 

Then I asked for a mid-year follow up and I am waiting for the API data [Academic Performance Index – cornerstone of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 measuring academic performance and growth of schools in a variety of areas] which I will receive some time in August. 

I have to tell you, all but two of them as it related to the increase in graduation and the exit exam–did improve. But what I am really interested in is the API. And if there is not double digit improvement, I will reorganize those schools. 

What I look at is “reengineer” — because there needs to be some structural changes to those particular schools. My focus is going to be on middle school and high school because several were so bad after I visited them, I removed the administration and put in a new administration. 

But administration alone cannot do the job. 

Teachers need to understand that they are a part of the solution. Parents need to understand that they are part of the solution, and I also believe that the bargaining units need to be brought into the mix. 

When I did go and visit the school, I made sure that the principal, assistant principal, that the union rep was there; department chairs were there; people that had responsibility for English Language Learners and Reclassification; people that have responsibility for behavior, discipline, etc. 

I tried to look at the total school and help people understand that it is everybody’s responsibility–not just the principal. 

Secondly, I had people from the local district–either the superintendent or the directors there, because I believe that they have major responsibility for improvement. 

ETT: Biggest challenge? 

CORTINES: The issue for me not only in this district but in other districts that I’ve served is the leadership issue: finding the right leadership, supporting that leadership–not with a one-time “instant-cream-of-wheat” inservice, but an ongoing professional development program needs to happen. Also, pairing that leadership with leadership in a similar school demographically, in many ways–so that they have somebody that they can talk to, discuss things with, debate, etc. 

But for me, [the biggest challenge] is the leadership. There are a lot of good people–but the schools (and I can only speak of the schools here) have been allowed to languish for so long that it needs more than a good person. People have gotten used to, “But we’ve always done it this way” – or, “It’s those kids,” or “It’s that neighborhood.” It’s all of the straw men. And that’s just not acceptable to me. 

ETT: Elements of good leadership and talent? 


1. The ability to take risks. 

2. The ability to question whether it’s state law, federal law or district law. And I’m not one that flaunts the law. But the situation that we find some of these schools in is very unique. Some policies and laws are written in a generic form and not necessarily prescriptive. For example, we were at the state board of education last week seeking a waiver as it related to several things. 

When people say to me, “Well, that’s the law,” or, “That’s the policy,” — and I say, “Hey, if it doesn’t work for your particular school, your children or the people you are serving, then you need to challenge that.” 

I remember years ago when people said that Title 1 could not be used for the arts. And I said, “Arts are essential for disadvantaged youth and poor children — sometimes it is the hook that grabs them.” They said, “Oh, well you can’t use it.” And I said, “Show me where it says that.” Of course, they couldn’t. You have to challenge some of the myths on how we operate. 

3. Leadership has to be a learner. They have to constantly be engaged in learning, looking at practices, reviewing information and material. 

4. A good leader needs to know who they are and like themselves. 

5. A good leader has to know when they screw up and they recognize it and discuss it with all of the stakeholders and move on from there. 

ETT: LAUSD has spent 20 billion on 131 new schools, with hundreds of upgrades, 167,00 new seats, averaging one school a month for the past 7 years and will continue at that rate into 2012. It’s been billed by some as the largest public works project in US history. How much does it cost to turn around a low-performing, already-existing school–and where do you get that money? 

CORTINES: Number one, I don’t think that money is the issue. It’s using the money that we have in a very different way; challenging how it is that we use that particular money. Do I believe that an investment in maybe an additional 100,000 dollars for a short period of time–may be needed or important? I may say, “additional personnel” or “professional development” — things like that. But these schools are our children–and they bring with them a great deal of money, whether it’s state QEIA funds [Quality Education Investment Act – SB 1133; $2.9 billion in extra resources] which was a settlement between the CTA [California Teachers Association] and the state of California; whether it is Title 1 funds; whether it is all of the other categories of funds that we have. It’s using that money differently–rather than just employing the same old people who have not been successful. 

ETT: How do you improve a school and who’s job is it? Any examples?

CORTINES: The improvement of school, or reengineering it, is the responsibility of everybody. Not just the new administration or teachers or whatever. I can tell you, one school that I removed the administration, since I’ve been superintendent, I’ve visited that school five times with a team of people–not a team of people that I needed surrounding me–but with a team of people based on data and information that I felt they needed. It wasn’t what I felt they needed, it was providing them the opportunity to identify [problems] in the areas of math, language arts and health services and bringing people to them. Not just a “one-stop” — but, “How are you going to work with them for the rest of the school year?” — was the question that I had. Not telling them how, but asking them to develop a relationship. 

ETT: So on those five visits it was more about you asking questions to them and seeing what they’re going to do about it… 

CORTINES: Exactly. I feel I have a responsibility to help them build capacity, to ask What if, Why not, How come? But then also–when they do identify issues, to bring the right people to them. And you don’t always find them in the system. I might find [them] at a college or university, I might find [them] with a nonprofit, a community organization; I might find [them] with people of faith, I might find [them] with local affected officials. 

ETT: Do you mean the talent or professional leadership that comes in to help? 

CORTINES: Well, the support that they need. For example, a joint use between the city, whether it’s the recreation department or whether it’s the libraries in some cases might be the answer. With the cultural organizations of the community might be another one. 

ETT: Are you willing to follow [US Education Secretary] Duncan’s example of firing most or all of a low-performing school staff in order to create a culture of excellence? 

CORTINES: Remember, I haven’t faced that. I told you I was going to face that when the API scores come back in August. I will probably not use “fire” but I would certainly see that the staff is different. When the Secretary said he “fired” the individuals, they went someplace else. Let’s not kid ourselves. You have to be careful where you’re moving the people that were allegedly not successful. Are you creating a greater situation some place else? You have to be very careful of that because then–it truly does become the dance of the lemons. 

ETT: Better to split them up and put them into various other schools or get them out entirely… 

CORTINES: Exactly. What is the support? See, we should be in the business of helping people be successful. And when they are not, whether it’s in the present place they are, or whether it’s in the new place, then we need to take the action to remove them from the educational scene. People didn’t get where they are overnight. They got there by neglect, abdication of responsibility, “Well, you know, they’re not so bad” — quote. If I hear that once more–ehh! 

ETT: So it’s an inverse equation where, if you turn each of those points around, then you’ll be headed in a better direction? 


ETT: What effect do you think turning around the lowest performing schools may have on the entire system? 

CORTINES: It will challenge the culture. The status quo of people saying, “Well…”  — of using the pat excuses of “Well, those kids …”  “That community…” etc.  Let me tell you, we have some of our highest performing schools are schools that are in communities that are very disadvantaged. I look at a Jefferson High School that made 50 points in growth last year, or a Dorsey High School that did 40 some odd points. And it’s not the API. I’ve got to look at the dropout rate, at the attendance rate. You cannot focus on one data point. All of these things are connected. We need to help people who have responsibility for our schools connect all of those data points. 

For example, I have a school that had great API growth, but has one of the highest dropouts among African-American students. Now, it’s had that for over three years. You know what people said to me? “Well, it’s had that for over three years.” Well that’s not acceptable–when it has a high dropout rate among African Americans while their API goes up. What it says to me is that You don’t care about those kids that drop out. Because if you cared about them, it would put some strain upon what you are doing to improve the API and it would be a safety net for a much larger group of kids.

ETT: What is it about “that kid” or “those schools” that seems to get to you? 

CORTINES: I’ve been a teacher and an administrator probably longer than anybody in America, and I am still struck by the challenge. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Of course it can be done! It’s not about the kids. The kids will learn what they are taught. Kids will respond to how they are treated. For example, the school where I removed the administration: the kids are not running pell mell over that campus. And when I ask them, “Hey, how come you’re not like you were three months ago?” [They say:] “They know my name now. They don’t call me ‘Hey!’  They don’t call me kid. They call me by my name. They’re respectful. They care about me. They’re interested in me.” 

ETT: Your thoughts on the future of school improvement? 

CORTINES: I don’t want to just look at low performing schools. Yes we need to improve those and we need to raise the bar. But we need to raise the bar for all schools. If we can improve low-performing schools, then that does not mean that those that are in the middle or those that are at the top can’t have goals that they can attain, also. We’ve got to look at all of the children in all of the schools and that they are challenged. We’ve got to make sure that the administration doesn’t say, “Well, my API is at 800-plus,” or, “I have X number of kids in the gifted program.” What I’ve talked about is really secondary because I believe that’s where the greatest need is. Do I believe that the remedy for the secondary schools begins at secondary? No. It begins in preschool. You have to pay attention to early education and primary and elementary. But let me tell you, the most difficult–the most difficult–are our middle schools and senior high schools. Because the train is already on the track and it’s going someplace. And you just can’t start over. The train is moving. How do we jump on board and alter the track so it is one of improvement?  [ETT]


Victor Rivero is the Editor of EDTECH TOOLS. Write to:

© 2009 Victor Rivero. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. For permission to share or reproduce selections from this blog, email:

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by edtechtoolsblog: WHAT DRIVES Ray Cortines?

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