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