A few years ago I sat with a group of urban district leaders in a noisy L.A. restaurant, leaning forward to hear every word from the new Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent, John Deasy. Deasy had, admirably, given up a comfortable job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to get back into the fray to try to tackle one of America’s most impermeable school districts. Deasy had the support of the mayor and a couple of years of opportunity. He was optimistic about the task ahead: creating hope, erasing inequity, professionalizing teaching, holding adults accountable, giving families choice.

In nearly any other sector, a man like Deasy—who is able to articulate a strong vision of change and pursue it relentlessly—would be able to get people to follow him and accomplish most anything. But this was LAUSD, where for decades strong leaders were eaten alive by the politics of race and unions and poverty and rampant district dysfunction.

Deasy came out strong in his new position, making aggressive moves toward a new teacher evaluation system that included value-added measures of effectiveness… But more than anything, it was impossible to make challenging policy decisions and maintain the support of LAUSD school board members, who—as in other cities—are influenced by community politics and stakeholder interests, rather than acting like they should, as a governing body that oversees a long-term civic vision and strategic plan…

If you are honest with yourself (and older than 20), you may find yourself believing that if a leader like John Deasy can’t make real progress, the urban superintendency truly is an impossible job. We need to stop relying on heroism and instead start dismantling special interest-captured school boards and other governance structures that get in the way of school improvement for urban students. We need civic leaders to commit to a long-term vision of institutional change that will weather the leadership shift of the moment.

I’ve seen the L.A. story often enough now that it’s starting to feel like a bad video game that you play over and over, always with the same result… If and when Deasy, yet another promising superintendent, leaves, the conversation should not be—as it usually is—about the man. It needs to be about the systems that stood in his way.

voiceslogoRobin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, noting a point made by Dropout Nation this weekend about the need to move away from the traditional district model. It’s better to move away from old-school models that breed dysfunctional bureaucracies than to keep them around to do further damage to children.

“I’m just not a math person.” We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high school math, inborn talent is just much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence…

So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough…

Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers  underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work. In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math—for example, Andrew Hacker has called for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x.

We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hard-working foreigners. But even more importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.

Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, in Quartz, essentially explaining why all children should get strong, college-preparatory math needed for success in an increasingly knowledge-based world.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Numerous commemorations will be held, and meritorious amongst these should be a focus on his advocacy for mental health and the rights of the disabled, providing an eloquent voice on these major health, social and economic issues. Ultimately, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was enacted by Congress in 1975.

Yet, this week’s scheduled court proceedings for a youth in Riverside County will shed light on how effective – or ignored – Kennedy’s advocacy has been on California’s compliance in protecting the rights of children covered by that landmark legislation. A judge will decide where Joseph Hall will be placed for shooting to death his abusive father, a state leader of the neo-Nazi movement, when the boy was 10 years old. A judge earlier this year convicted Joseph, now 13, of second-degree murder for shooting his father, Jeffrey Hall, while he slept on a couch May 1, 2011, despite history of physically abusing the boy and his other children.

Joseph, seemingly, had been placed on a fast track to a long stay in California’s notorious, troubled juvenile prison system until a team of lawyers and advocates intervened to challenge his treatment by county and education officials as emblematic of yet another “throwaway kid” in California’s penal system, where too few lawyers and judges are trained in understanding the 1975 federal law. His team wants him placed in a residential treatment facility.

Beyond the sensationalism of the murder case itself, Joseph’s team argue that his rapid conviction and denial of timely and essential emotional and disability diagnostics, treatments and placement considerations is an opportunity to actually shine a spotlight on how youth – like Joseph – with emotional and disability needs are too easily locked up and then discarded because of heightened costs associated with providing appropriate treatments for emotionally abused and disabled kids. Joseph’s advocates are challenging state and local juvenile, probation and education agencies, which, they allege, acted in their own fiscal interests while circumventing justice for Joseph….

They allege that California has a disturbing and blemished record of compliance and advocacy on behalf of disabled and abused children – particularly those who find themselves in an otherwise obscure and barely understood juvenile justice system. In Joseph’s case, they contend that the Riverside County juvenile hall and its Office of Education have callously and consistently violated laws in a blatant calculation to shave costs by expediting and shifting Joseph to the state youth facility without securing mandated provisions for his behavioral, mental health, educational and rehabilitative needs. Undoubtedly, major changes must be made in this Dickens-like juvenile justice underworld out of sight from most Californians if we will ever live up to [Kennedy’s] vision and challenge.

Former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, now founder of the Foundation for Parent Empowerment, in the Orange County Register, pointing out that juvenile justice is often anything but.

What matters?” This is the question Charles Krauthammer, psychiatrist turned Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, asks as the first sentence of his new book, a memoirish collection. The book is called Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics. He explains that the working title for the book had originally been There’s More to Life than Politics and that it was going to include just about everything but politics. Naturally, though, a man who “left a life in medicine for a life in journalism devoted mostly to politics” decided that he couldn’t disengage. Thanks be to God.

There is, of course, much more to life than politics. Particularly if by politics what you mean is the ups and downs, the ESPN SportsCenter–like media coverage of Washington maneuvering and campaign “horse races.” But as Krauthammer points out, there is actually no escaping politics. Nor should we seek to. “Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything,” he writes, “because, in the end, everything — high and low and, most especially, high — lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.”

If we start thinking that we are above politics, we need to remember that if we don’t get our hands dirty paying attention to who it is we are electing, and to policy and pending decisions, we are shirking a responsibility. Disengagement is dangerous. Engagement is our civic duty. How do you get your politics right? There is a synergy, a symbiosis between right living and a healthy politics. Our politics reflects our individual and community lives. Matters of character are matters of politics.

The media thrive on conflict and scandal, and so it’s often the worst of political life that we focus on. But politics is necessary. “Politics is,” Krauthammer explains, “the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns”. “First and above all else,” he continues, “you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness.” The “glories yielded by . . . successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things”…  The alternatives, Krauthammer writes, are things like the “deranged Stalinist politics” of North Korea, creating “a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material.” Or “Taliban Afghanistan, which, just months before 9/11, marched its cadres into the Bamiyan Valley and with tanks, artillery and dynamite destroyed its magnificent cliff-carved 1,700-year-old Buddhas lest they — like kite flying and music and other things lovely — disturb the scorched-earth purity of their nihilism.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review, on why all of us, including families and school reformers, must be fully engaged in politics to help everyone, especially our children, have better lives.