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LAUSD’s Deasy sparks debate over tough graduation requirements

LAUSD superintendent John Deasy.
LAUSD superintendent John Deasy.
Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images

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For years, high school students in L.A.'s poor communities and kids of color often lacked access to college-prep classes.

In 2005, education advocates and community groups fought hard to change that and won a major victory. They got L.A. Unified to approve a plan to provide district-wide access to classes that would make all kids eligible for college, beginning in 2006-2007. That curriculum policy was called A-G. In 2008, 9th graders were supposed to be required to enroll in the A-G curriculum. And starting with this year’s freshman class, passing the A-G classes would become a requirement for graduation. Now, Superintendent John Deasy, a supporter of A-G, has offered a plan to implement this final part of the policy.

To make it easier for students to meet the standards, Deasy wants to reduce the overall number of credits required to graduate from 230 to 180, the minimum set by the California Department of Education. The idea is that students struggling with the core classes could take fewer electives, thereby freeing them up to get extra help with core classes or to re-take any they failed. Critics say Deasy’s lowering the academic bar. But in some ways, he’s actually raising it. The original policy included waivers for English-learners and students wanting to pursue a vocation, rather than college – something Deasy wants to get rid of. He also wants to require students to get C's instead of D's in these classes, something colleges require anyway.

That’s a harrowing prospect though, considering that only 15 percent of the kids now taking the A-G classes actually passed them with a C or better. LAUSD Board member Steve Zimmer says he supports the 2005 policy and the elimination of D's. But according to Zimmer, the strategy of reducing credits is a cop-out. LAUSD Board member Tamar Galatzan says she wants to assure every high school student has access to A-G classes, presumably because implementation has been spotty. She’s also calling for professional development for teachers and intervention for struggling students before A-G is fully rolled out. The L.A. school board is set to vote today on the new graduation requirements.

We've transcribed part of the conversation with Deasy and former LAUSD board member Yolie Flores below:

Deasy on why he proposed these two amendments:
"First of all, the issue of the default curriculum for every single student, being the A-G curriculum – I have no idea why there's a controversy. It's absolutely their civil right to have the opportunity, with nobody saying that they cannot, to graduate from LAUSD college [and] workforce ready. We believe in students, and we absolutely believe that they can do this. In many ways, this is a mandate on belief, as opposed to a curriculum issue."

"What we are going to provide students is that every single student will take the A-G curriculum, so that they can be college/workforce ready when they graduate. Not that they must go to college, but that we have provided them with the choice to go to college."

"In order to be UC eligible, their thresh hold is that you have to have those courses with a C or better."

Deasy on the credit minimum lowering:
"I don't have students coming up to me saying, 'You know, Dr. D, I actually wish you made standards less rigorous for us. Lower the thresh hold. Just the opposite ... they want to be competitive in the job market; they want to be competitive getting into college."
"If you are on track to graduate, you should be taking as many courses – and we will provide them – as possible. And we have many students who take far more than the minimum. But we're saying that for those students who are not on track, 'We want to provide you immediate support to be able to take those courses and graduate on time.'"

"That's five classes. It's a slot a year. People think it's a large number. It is five courses."

Deasy on quality of teaching:
"I do not watch students drop out because something is too hard. I watch students drop out because they're bored out of their minds, I watch students drop out because we push them out through discipline, but we do not watch students walk away because it's too difficult. We want to work on engaging course instruction."

"We have put a huge emphasis on finally putting money in backup professional development, to help teachers improve skills. This is the ability to help teachers teach the new common core curriculum and to have engaging, responsive, effective instruction. Effective teaching is, by in large, as, if not more important, than the core curriculum."

"I am confident in our students, that they will rise to the challenge. I am supremely confident in our leadership and our teachers ... that they continue to grow in the strength to be able to support students in doing this."

Deasy on implementation timeline if board delays vote:
"I hope that doesn't happen. I don't believe that we should be a system that gives some students orange juice and other kids orange drink. We want to provide a rigorous, college-ready curriculum for every single student. I intend to present with as much vigor and conviction as possible, so that the board can be united around our students."

"Today, college- and workforce-ready are the same thing. I can assure you that I certainly.... I don't know any other person who's going to be able to go to the downtown Mercedes Benz service center in L.A. and get an entry level technician's job without an A-G curriculum. Those days don't exist any longer."

"We're not competing inside L.A., we're competing with the world. This isn't being debated in North Korea or South Korea or Japan and Finland."

Deasy on successful implementation of the proposal:
"Let's take a look at the data for a second. Since 2005, more students are graduating from LAUSD, more students are graduating from LAUSD who are of color and in the circumstance of poverty with an A-G than ever before. When we ask it to be done, it can be done. What I'm trying to say now is not just some, but all. And that is going to require an absolute laser-like focus on the improvement of teaching and learning and the support to go with that."

"It is necessary. It's our obligation. It's a civil right. Second of all, it's not just about high school; the same kind of intensity of learning is taking place in middle schools and in elementary schools."

Yolie Flores critiques Deasy's plan:
"I think he's really kind of managed a poorly implemented policy before his time. It was the right policy, I think he believes in it, but systemically and structurally, there were so many missing pieces along the way that led up to where we are today in this crisis where we know that only 15 percent of students are graduating with A-G with a C or better."

"The issue is really one of instruction. That has to be bolstered at the time that kids enter kindergarten through the time that they finish high school ... And many of the students, even when they are modestly prepared, if they are not from families that have gone to college and know about these requirements and know what to take ... they fall through the cracks. Kids are going to drop out. You have to have something that energizes them."

"Reducing the credits for me is a big concern, because you're then limiting the additional courses that you can provide students that do inspire them, whether it's the arts, whether it's other vocational, whether it's music, those are the things that for some students inspire them and help them learn and sort of choose a different track in their lives, and in fact there's nothing wrong with that. We want to provide that kind of comprehensive curriculum at school for the students that may take a different track."

"Can we have great teachers for all students, and the answer is unequivocally yes we can. ... A student with a high quality teacher three years in a row will soar. Our problem, Larry, is that we don't invest in teachers early or often enough. We don't provide them with feedback, we don't provide them with helpful information so that they can grow and learn and get better at their craft, and we have very low expectations and don't hold each other accountable. I would say we should focus on nothing less than an effective, inspiring teacher for students."


Why hasn’t A-G been implemented more effectively? Has LAUSD let students down during the last 7 years? Is the real problem what’s happening in our classrooms? If kids can barely pass Algebra I with a D, how are they going to get through Algebra II with a C? Are the teachers doing everything they should be doing? Is it even possible to answer – much less address – that question, without a meaningful teacher evaluation process?


John Deasy, Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)

Yolie Flores, CEO of Communities for Teaching Excellence and former member of the board of education at the Los Angeles Unified School District