Cortines at home in Pasadena with an
1903 photo of
the Flat Iron building behind him
Profiles in Education:
An Interview With Ramon
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
Education Update (EU):
I want to begin by talking about your earliest experiences
as a classroom teacher. You said you had standards, but they
Ramon Cortines (RC): My parents tell me that I came home from the fourth
grade and said that I was going to be a teacher, and they
said, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?
You can go to college and you can make money.’ And
I said no, that I wanted to be a teacher. And they were very
supportive. I’m an adopted child. Education was very
important to my parents. They were not well educated. My
mother finished community college when she was 57. They always
believed that education was the basis of a quality of life.
It wasn’t just schooling though. Growing up in San
Francisco, they saw that we went to the museums, to the youth
symphony on Saturdays, all sorts of things that I did not
necessarily like at the time. But they felt that was an important
part of an education for an individual. When I finished college,
I told my parents, ‘I’m going to teach’,
and they thought I would teach here in Pasadena. We maintained
a home both in San Francisco and Pasadena. And I’ve
been superintendent of both. I said, ‘I’m going
to teach at Aptos. That’s on Monterrey Bay. I had 44
children in my first sixth grade class—not ethnically
diverse, but educationally diverse. And that’s when
I began to understand diversity. I never understood—I
guess I was protected in growing up—that there are
all types of people with different needs and that we all
aren’t at the same level. I began to individualize
the instructional program for the students. And I found
a way to help the slow and reluctant learners make a contribution
to their peers in the classroom.
EU: How did you do it?
RC: I would try to
find what they were very good in and when they were making
reports, I would have them share with the others. Then I
would call on some of the very brightest in the class to
make sure that they understood, and to respond. I tried to
show the students that they were important to each other
in the learning process. I was not a teacher who screwed
off kids’ heads, poured in the information and then
asked them to regurgitate it back on Friday. It was an interactive
process. The students were as much the teacher as I was.
And of course that’s very bold now. I just did it because
these students were so energetic, and each of them in their
way had something to offer. I was shorter than the girls
in my classroom, the sixth grade girls. I was 23. I looked
very young, and you could hardly tell the difference between
the sixth graders and Ray Cortines. And I’m sure that
I acted that way sometimes.
EU: They must have loved it though.
RC: They did. I just went back to that school, and it was
just an unbelievable thing walking those halls. But seeing
grandkids and students—it was just amazing. It was
never about me in teaching. I guess I just enjoyed my work
and so it was about finding out how we can create the highest
level of learning in an environment that is enjoyable. Some
of the things in New York I remember doing was to go into
a classroom where a teacher was having problems, take over
the class and tell her, “Why don’t you go get
a cup of coffee?”
EU: This is when you were a principal?
this is when I was chancellor. And let me tell you, many
times I didn’t do much better than the teacher. And there
were times that I settled the situation down. I was at a
cocktail party the other day with some friends and someone
asked, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m
a retired schoolteacher.” I am a teacher. To me, the
teacher is the top of the hierarchy, mainly because I think
a teacher in my model is a learner. And I continue to be
a learner. There’s a term that I learned when I taught
in the army called “observation awareness.” It
was really survival skills. But I always used that term and
made it applicable to my own career. I observe what is going
on. I had a debate teacher who said, “What do you see
when you look up?” And I said, “I see the sky.” He
said, “Oh, is that what you see? What color is it?
What shade is it? You should see all sorts of things in the
sky.” I used that example in my work. I didn’t
look at the kids’ grades necessarily, and I didn’t
look at their behavior patterns. I tried to look at the entire
child. And I thought that was very important for me in some
of the situations that I had. As a teacher, principal, administrator—whatever.
I don’t see a superintendent or a chancellor or an
assistant superintendent or principal as anything other than
a teacher. Let me tell you the best lesson I ever had to
be a superintendent was in my first sixth grade class of
44 kids. It was about management. How was I going to manage
that classroom to maximize the potential of those 44 children?
Well, that’s what I did as an assistant principal,
that’s what I did as principal, that’s what I
did as an assistant superintendent, and that’s what
I did as a superintendent.
EU: Did you become a principal in the school where you first taught?
RC: No. I applied in Pasadena as a teacher and I applied
in Covena the same day, and Covena called that afternoon.
And so I became a teacher there, and then became as assistant
principal in that district. I served in all three high schools
in that district. It was interesting. It started out as a
teacher position and also my first administrative position.
People always gave me the jobs that were very difficult because
I never complained. I was eager. I’m just as eager
today—even as a senior—about life as I was then.
EU: But you must have been a problem-solver
RC: Yes. I believe that there’s a solution for everything.
It was very interesting. I am the critical friend of five
superintendents right now. And when one of the superintendents
was complaining, and I said, “I cut the budget every
year all six years in San Francisco, and all six years, the
achievement went up. I never allowed anything to be used
as a straw man for not dealing with the priority of the child
that I had.” I was trying to help her get beyond herself.
See, that’s one of the things. When I was teaching
at Harvard, they used to ask me, “What is success?” I
said, “It’s knowing who you are, knowing yourself
well, not lying to yourself, and liking yourself. And if
you don’t like yourself, change your ways.” I
remember when I was in Washington; I would stand in the corner
after organizing some large event. I am my best evaluator.
I knew when I did things well. I knew when I screwed up.
And I knew when I was mediocre. I didn’t need anybody
to thank me, pat me on the back, or stroke me. I believe
that you plan, you design, you implement, you evaluate, and
at that point the spiral crosses the next spiral, and that’s
where you modify the plan and do it again, only you do it
differently and you do it better. That’s the way I’ve
done my teaching and my administration.
EU: Not all of us can evaluate ourselves
as critically as you do. But let’s say that someone
has the ability to do that, but doesn’t know what remedy
to use. They haven’t done a great job, the school has
run amuck, and scores are low. But what do they do about
RC: I was never hesitant to ask for help. See, I don’t
think we’ve done a very good job. We think asking for
help is a sign of weakness. It is not a sign of weakness.
It is a sign of strength. We have neither recognized nor
rewarded people who say, “Hey, I don’t know.” The
best thing I do for most people as their critical friend
is put them in touch. I was meeting with a superintendent
this morning. She is an African-American woman who was a
young person in this district in whom I saw potential and,
as she says, kicked her in the butt. But I really pushed
her to go graduate school and get her doctorate. She did
and she’d had many administrative experiences, but
she wanted to be a superintendent. So she’s a superintendent
in probably one of the worst school districts, a small one
in California. It’s not the worst now. But when a foundation
asked what they could do for her, she said, “I’d
like to have a friend. It’s Ray Cortines.” And
so they called me.
EU: So are you now in 2004 acting as an
advisor to superintendents in various districts?
EU:And to boards as well?
RC: Yes. And to some union leaders. In one of the districts
I’m working with, the superintendent and the union
president don’t talk. Let me tell you, you can ask
in New York: even though they got upset with me periodically,
we’ve always communicated. And they didn’t have
to come to me and genuflect. I walked over to the vice president’s
office. When I first came to L.A. and I asked for an appointment
with the union, it was three weeks away. I didn’t have
three weeks. The next day, I showed up at their door. And
they welcomed me. It doesn’t always have to be on my
terms. I don’t believe that we can solve the problems,
that we can solve issues and improve education unless there
is communication. I think very few people ever really knew
whom I liked or disliked. It’s not about that. It’s
about solving the issues on behalf of the children and on
behalf of the adults you work with. The businesses that are
most successful in the economy of the world are those that
respect their people. The CEO doesn’t do it. With the
CEOs, whatever effect they have, they do it through the people—in
my case, it’s through teachers and administrators.
EU: You were touted (when you were in New
York City) as being a civilized chancellor, and not in anyone’s
pocket. That was a great compliment to you in one of the
local papers at the time. You also put a business leader
in to handle the budget. I think that was so far ahead of
the time. You also were interested in art and arts education.
RC: Yes, very much so.
EU:What is your position on arts education?
RC: Well, number one, I don’t think the arts are
an extra. You see a grand piano in my living room and there’s
one at my ranch. I don’t play. I went for probably
11 years and it didn’t take. My parents sent me another
kind of education. They exposed to those kinds of opportunities.
I don’t care what intellect you are. If you don’t
see the larger world or the larger community and the joy
and the spirit of the community—all of those things
come out through the arts. Through performing arts, through
the visual arts, etc. I never cut the arts in school districts.
I felt that was essential. I think you can stimulate reading
through art. Mathematics is art. In my place in San Francisco
I have a very contemporary collection. It reminds me of geometric
problems that I used to be asked to solve. Things like theatre
or dance can be used to teach history. It’s the way
you can teach social science. It’s the way you can
teach interpersonal relationships, which are so important
to young people. When the business community wants an employee,
they don’t want one who is just an expert in a field,
they want one who can get along with people. That means they
have to be able interact with people. They have to be able
to share; they have to be able to communicate. They have
to able to compromise. Winston Churchill said, “The
best way to victory is through compromise.” All of
those are components of leadership. And education is about
leadership. When someone would ask, “What is your goal
with your class or your school or your district?” I
said, “It is to create a community of contributing
citizens.” Citizenship is something you have to train
people in. It doesn’t just fall out of the sky and
then one day you’re a contributing citizen. You have
to learn that.
EU: These are very, very important points.
And I think sometimes they’re neglected today. Are
we indeed on the path in this nation? And I ask you for a
national perspective because you’ve been in so many
different places and seen so many different things over the
years. Are we communicating with each other today? Are we
indeed creating a community of contributing citizens? Are
we on that path?
RC: I don’t think so because we’re too busy
doing things like getting the test scores up. Now, certainly
Howard Gardner is. I do what he does from a practitioner’s
standpoint. He understands the theory and why people respond
as they do. I’m intuitive. I know that. And when I
don’t follow my intuition, I get myself in trouble.
I don’t believe that intuition just happens. I think
you hone it, you train it, and you grow it. And I’ve
told that to students when I’ve taught at the universities
whether it be Stanford or Harvard or Columbia. I think that’s
important. Let me tell you that to be a contributing citizen,
you have to have a comprehensive education. When people said, “We
have this literacy coach and reading is number one,” I
said, “Math is literacy. You cannot do math anymore.
It’s not numeracy. It’s reading. It’s comprehension.
It is an ability to think. It is the ability to solve problems.
That’s what literacy is.” Reading is a foundation
for literacy, but it is not all of literacy. That’s
the reason the arts are so important. That’s the reason
that I feel that motor development—not just physical
education—but motor development for very young children
is important. All of them are going to have a life expectancy
longer than mine. I saw children in my experience who came
from Asia and China who had never had motor development.
I saw that when they were running, they would fall. And it
was because they had not had those experiences.
EU: And you think it impacts them intellectually?
RC: Oh yes. It impacts their life. I don’t see these
things as extras. I don’t see things like physical
education, motor development, music, arts and health as something
you can cut out of a budget. You cannot maximize the potential
of a mind if somebody isn’t taking care of the temple
that the mind is in. It’s like this house. And the
house is only beautiful because there’s a roof over
it that isn’t leaking. And all I’m saying is
that we’ve gone back in some ways to the song of the
50s, the “Ticky Tacky Boxes.” And everything
is in little boxes. I was working with a foundation a week
ago and I said, “You have wonderful programs. But who
is connecting the dots between these programs? Who is relating
what is happening in this principal training?” It’s
all isolated and it would be so much richer if the staff
were talking to each other.
EU: So certainly you would subscribe to
the method of teaching across the curriculum areas. For example,
relating the construction of an Egyptian pyramid in art class
to what you’re studying in history and in math. It’s
not done very well yet.
RC: We have not done well in providing teachers the opportunity.
The first grade is the first grade and the second grade is
the second grade and we meet in the coffee room but that’s
it. I don’t think interaction should happen after school
and on Saturdays and at a little workshop in the summer.
I think it should be an ongoing kind of thing. Let me tell
you, that it’s about time and you have to pay for time.
What we started in the high school and the middle school,
it was just as needed in the elementary where you had a release
period but we never helped people understand what the release
period was. For some, it was an hour they didn’t have
to do anything. For others, we wanted it at the end of the
day because the day is shorter but we never structured it
as an integral part of he profession. I’m not saying
we should take it away but I’m talking about a dedicated
time. Education, teaching, and administration, and management
are far more sophisticated than when I taught. I look at
what teachers do now. I’m not sure I could do very
well and I was a damn good teacher.#
PART II NEXT MONTH