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Ramon Cortines

Profiles in Education: An Interview with Ramon Cortines: (Part II)

By Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

I was delighted to meet Ray at his home in Pasadena, CA recently. Against the background of classical music and a book-lined library, we discussed various issues and trends in education over the years. Cortines was the Chancellor of New York City schools from 1993 to 1995 followed by superintendencies in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and more recently consultant to several school districts in California.

The interview continues.

Education Update (EU): If you look back now and go to the sixties and through those decades up to today, what has changed?
Ray Cortines (RC): I think teacher training has had a major shift. I don’t think I was trained well. I think that part of the issues in K-12 education stemmed from not knowing how to improve.

EU: Well, are we better off today than when we were 14 years ago and in what ways?
RC: Yes. I think that colleges and universities are seeing that they don’t have a hold on teacher training. There are alternative teaching programs, both for teachers and administrators. I approve of those because I think it creates a competitive market and we don’t get lackadaisical. I don’t think that we have recognized the senior teachers that have given it their best; we often tell them that they’re failures. And yet we don’t provide them the support, the help and a system. We don’t deal with their dignity. In LA (and it was no secret), the Board was firing the superintendent and I said, I will not help you unless you dismiss him with dignity. Treat him as a professional. He has served 33 years in this district and maybe he is not right for the time or for what you want but he has made a contribution and I want that recognized and appreciated.

EU: And they did?
RC: Yes, they did. I think that we are doing a better job in America of educating more children whether it’s in rural America or whether it’s in urban America. Do I think that we can improve? The answer is yes. We see too many students on the street. Those are two things. The thing that I think is a negative is that we are really into the quick fix and I think we’ve been into the quick fix for the last decade.

EU: What are some of the quick fixes that you’ve seen that are really not working?
RC: You can just buy it off the shelf. Do you remember in New York when I said we need a curriculum framework? I meant the people, the teachers, the principals, the business community, the higher education community, we need to come together. If we talk about mathematics, we need mathematicians; we need secondary people working with elementary. If high school needs to be more child-centered, we need elementary and primary people working with them. One of the things that we lost sight of in education is a focus.

EU: Are we missing a focus today?
RC: Yes. No Child Left Behind is a focus but it does not respect the professional and it is not realistic. If you have a school that is not performing, like the one I was examining with a superintendent today, you need to have a program for your lowest achieving children after school. Just rote tutorial is not going to do it. You have to have a hook. What is the music program? Is there a dance program? Is there a sports program? I said, it’s got to be a combination.

EU: Where are the funds for art and music programs going to come from?
RC: The federal government gives you the funds for that. So many districts now are forgetting about the lowest achieving school because you know they can move that middle group over the hump just a little and it will make their scores look so good. I don’t know if you remember in New York at the time I gave $10,000 to a school if they would improve but you couldn’t get the $10,000 unless the lowest quartile improved, the middle quartile improved and the upper. I remember that we had a high degree of single parents, mainly African American mothers here in Pasadena. There were no men in those children’s lives and there were no older models so we did a reading program one day a week for an hour where fourth grade students would tutor third grade students because I wanted third graders to see them as models.

EU: Is the role of single mothers and grandmothers raising children still with us?
RC: Yes, it’s expanding. One of the reasons, and I was criticized in New York and I’ve done it at other places too, I encouraged the places of faith to get involved in the schools. I’ll give you an example. I had a continuation school that was a middle school here in Pasadena and they raised hell on the buses and they raised hell all the way to school. Well, I was out of space and where we had the school was in a church basement. The minute they went into that door, I mean they weren’t going to mess with God. I believe that places of faith, whether it’s after school or on the weekend, have a role. I don’t think that they should be involved in indoctrination.

EU: What do you think about the work of Debbie Meyer and Lorraine Monroe? They set up high-achieving public schools
in Harlem and, an expert in public education said to me recently, “that school is so successful because it is run like a parochial school. All the elements are there: the uniforms, the strictness, the codes. The only things missing are the cross and the nuns. Those kids can be wild outside but the minute they walk into this environment, they are respectful.” That sort of ties in with what you just said.
RC: I disagree with the statement a little but I have to say that one of the major issues that students will agree on is that we as adults are very inconsistent. And that’s true today.

EU: So we have to be more stringent?
RC: It’s tough love, its tough caring. As adults, as students that are becoming adults, we respond to the parameters we’re put in. I find myself running yellow lights and let me tell you that is not lawful and it creates wrecks because generally when I’m running it, it gets red before I get through it. I think nobody’s looking so I can make it. All I’m saying is that we need to have tough caring, we need to be consistent, we need to be fair, we need to be respectful. I remember the first student handbook that we did here and I got outside help, attorneys and they’re still here in the community. I said that I want a behavior handbook. I don’t want a disciplinary handbook but I want it to respect the civil rights of all of the people. One of the things that we’ve put more emphasis on, and you talk about what has changed, is the emphasis on student responsibility. I think we have curriculum standards for students but we don’t have standards for teachers, and standards for administrators.

EU: What do you think about having a greater certified teacher body by the National Board?
RC: LA has more board certified teachers than NYC and I feel that it’s very important. 

EU: If we look at San Francisco, Pasadena, LA, and New York, those are the districts that you know so very well, are they running more efficiently today?
RC: In LA, we got beyond a community was not interested, and I’m talking about LA, in regard to the infrastructure by the two bond issues that they passed. In Pasadena, I think that the city fathers and the board of directors understand that you can talk about a quality of life but if you don’t have a public school system that is viewed as improving, that the quality of life for the community  is not that good. In San Jose, I think that the stability of personnel was important. In San Francisco, which is the highest performing urban school district in the state, they were doing a lot of things right but there was a disconnect from the leadership. In New York, I remember in the second week, the words spread like wildfire: I was visiting a school, had gone in the back door and kindergartners were walking down the stairs. This kid was falling and I caught him and tied his shoe because he was tripping. There needs to be a modicum of humility in leadership, whether it’s teachers or the building principal. When someone says to me, well, it isn’t my job, I don’t understand that language in my profession. I didn’t ask for more money after school, I probably should. I just did the job that needed to be done. In New York, I’ve talked to Klein and I think that he’s made an effort to be out there more. I said that you’ve got to press the flesh but I said that you need to be genuine about it because if you’re not, they’ll know.

There is a better team now and they are all on the same page. I think that where it is working well, there is a team. For all of the places I’ve mentioned, the one issue is that you have to find a way for the union to be a team member. Unions are not second-rate people. They represent the same teachers that I work for as a chancellor, as a superintendent. I know that there are some difficult labor issues and monetary issues but you cannot make the kind of improvement that I believe is necessary through avoidance.

EU: Communication is still not up to par between the unions and the school systems. I was talking to John Ellwell, who runs a company called Replications. He used to be a superintendent. He looks at the best school programs and then replicates the entire culture of a school. He sends one person with leadership ability to stay in the school for one year and learn everything that goes on in that school. Then that individual, supported by grants,  goes off to found a new school, a public school. What do you think about doing something like that? Does it make sense?
RC: I’m not sure that you can replicate the culture of a school. I think you can learn things there. I don’t think that you can do the cookie-cutter approach. I understand, the cookie has some similarities, it has the same smell or taste but it is different. It may have a few different ingredients, it may even be a different shape. You are dealing with human beings.

EU: You mentioned previously that teachers should network with each other, learning from each other within the school. How do you accomplish that during the school day?
RC: I think that it’s dedicated time. I think that it’ll happen; legislatures are going to realize. I think that there have been some experiments of dedicated time for a school, where teachers had time to meet and understand that they were to compare and discuss student work. That is some of the best professional development that you can give. It’s not only just dedicated time for teachers to meet together. I want them to see best practices at other places.

EU: What are some of the things that you are proudest of in your own career, some of the things that you felt have truly made a difference, and some of the biggest challenges that you have had to deal with?
RC: I think that I can look at each place. In Pasadena, it was implementing as smooth as possible the desegregation order and then getting the district released from the court order. In San Jose, it was when we settled the bankruptcy, and settled a 14 year old desegregation suit and within a year had every school in that district adopted by a business. In San Francisco, it was the building of relationships and it was respectful of private and parochial school systems and how we could work together on many things. And it was helping building principals be responsible for the entire school community and that meant more than students and their parents but it meant the seniors as well. In New York City, I had a wonderful time. I think in New York, on an issue whether it was curriculum development, whether it was regents math or science, it was the coming together of the professionals. When I went to New York, I was told that people are not interested in education, in my first year, I had 30 community meetings and not less than 300 attended any one of those meeting because I went to their communities. I didn’t just talk to them, for the first 35 minutes I listened to them. One of the things that leadership has not done well is. . .we have not listened well. Good leaders do leadership from behind, at the side, and at the front. Whether I’ve been at the university level, on a foundation, or in schools, it has been exciting because I was a learner. I never did anything the same way. I looked prescriptively and diagnostically at every situation I was in.

EU: Who are some of the mentors in your life?
RC: Dr. Salmon. He used to be a superintendent in Covina, Pasadena, Sacramento, and head of AASA. He constantly added challenges to me that provided opportunities for growth and development. When I went awry, he didn’t just overlook it, he brought it to my attention. I was a teacher and then an assistant principal.

EU: How about the boards that you are currently on?  I know your wisdom is greatly respected and people call upon you for help and advice. Which ones are you on?
RC: Scholastic, Classroom Inc in New York, Natural History Museum. I used to have dinner every now and then with the president of Teacher’s College–Arthur Levine. I would say the people who had the most important impact on my life didn’t have titles. From the professional standpoint, they were the parents, they were the teachers, they were the administrators, they were the students that I came into contact with. I learned so much from them. I didn’t always like what they said to me, but I learned from them. I’ve always tried to create an environment where people—regardless of their position—could tell you what they thought. There’s a great story about Mr. Packard, a philanthropist. His wife, Mrs. Packard, came by my second week in San Jose and said, “I read about what you think about the arts and music in the school. How are you going to put the music back in the schools?” I said, “I don’t know, but we’re going to do it.”  The next day, she delivered a check for $100,000, which was a lot of money back then. She died and I applied to the Packard Foundation through Mr. Packard and he said, “Well, who is this Cortines?  You’ve come up here asking for a quarter of a million dollars!  We don’t give out a quarter of a million dollars!”  I laid out the plan and asked him if he had read it. He said, “Of course I’ve read it!”  So we talked about it, and at the end he said, “Okay, young man, you use it wisely.” I got in the car, I got back to the Board of Education, and I just couldn’t believe it.  We’d never had that kind of money in that district. So I wrote the Board and I said, “I have been to the mountain,” because we were up at his ranch on the Los Altos Hill. “I’ve been to the mountain, I’ve got the tablets, I didn’t drop them, and I have the check!” I’ve never had problems getting money out of the community, and that was an example of San Jose. In San Francisco, I would not take the money unless I could use it for what it was intended for, and twice, I returned money. This was mainly because, what they gave it to me for, we couldn’t use it, or we didn’t have the capacity to carry it out. The word spread like wildfire, that we were ethical. Every year after that, there was $20,000 donated anonymously, so that if I went to a school and they needed something, I could give it to them.

EU: At Education Update, we try to write about the arts every single month.
RC: If you don’t, the child’s education is neglected. And it’s not a field trip three or four times a year. The field trips are an integral part of that. It’s how you prepare to go on a field trip and what happens after that counts. I walk around looking at what the students are doing and writing and I talk to students.

EU: I want to share one last thought with you.  I started a program two years ago that honors outstanding teachers in New York City each month; they have to be recommended by their principals or assistant principals according to certain criteria. What a response we got from the New York City community! Every month we feature five or six teachers. We publish them with their photos and descriptions of why they’ve been named  outstanding teacher—there’s no money—it’s simply acknowledgement. And then in June, I had a breakfast for them at the Harvard Club, and the year after that (this past year), we had it at the Cornell Club. We ended up having a hundred and fifty people. Parents came from Hawaii to see their son get an award. And there was no money involved! We couldn’t afford that. So, I’m very proud of this endeavor.
RC:  See, everybody doesn’t want money. They want to be respected as a contributor to the community.#



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