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Ray Cortines at home in Pasadena with an
original Steiglitz 1903 photo of
the Flat Iron building behind him

Profiles in Education:
An Interview With Ramon Cortines

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.

Education Update (EU): I want to begin by talking about your earliest experiences as a classroom teacher. You said you had standards, but they weren’t called standards then.

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.

How did you do it?

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?

RC:No, 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 as well.

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 it?

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?

RC: Yes.

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.#



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