School Disruption

Tommy Chang Ed.D. ’13, instructional area superintendent at the Los Angeles Unified School District, oversees the Intensive Support and Innovation Center, which supports 100,000 students in 145 schools. He is in charge of the schools with the most challenges, as well as those doing some of the most innovative work in LAUSD. A native of Taiwan, Chang taught in the Compton Unified School District for six years, and was the founding principal of Animo Venice Charter High School. He is a graduate of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership for Social Justice in LMU’s School of Education. Chang was interviewed by Scott Timberg.

You work with a wide range of schools in both prosperous and financially beleaguered communities. Do these very different schools have much in common or do they have drastically different needs?
I think the needs of all communities are different. But the schools that need the most support are sometimes the ones that do the most innovative work. We need to disrupt the system; just trying to support those schools more intensely doesn’t mean we’re doing anything innovative. We’ve seen over decades that the achievement gap is very hard to close. We have to figure out how large bureaucracies support schools doing innovative work. It’s an interesting mix.

Can you give us some examples of innovations that have worked?
There’s a middle school in Westchester, not far from LMU, called the Incubator School [where] the kids are learning how to be entrepreneurial. There’s a high school downtown called Los Angeles School of Global Studies. When you go into that school, you’re not going into an English class, or a history class: Content is intermixed. So you may go into an English/history class, and learn about the experience of Native Americans through U.S. history and then apply it to your English class; teachers work together in pairs, sometimes in triplets. They’re trying to rethink not only curriculum but also the use of school space and time. We’re not going to close the achievement gap unless we do something very different.

How substantial a factor is poverty in shaping public education these days? What are the most effective ways educators can keep it from taking a toll in the classroom?
Poverty will always be a huge force for certain kids. If kids are coming to school without having breakfast, without having proper healthcare, with dental pain — these are all factors we have to think about. How do we make sure their needs are being met? In many of our schools, we have wellness centers.

At the academic level, we have kids who are not getting what they should at home. So we have to make sure there’s as much enrichment in the schools as possible. We have to make sure a wide range of extracurricular activities exist. All of these things are part of the equation.

LMU’s doctorate in education takes the issue of social justice seriously. How did it shape your thinking and values?
Defining your mission around social justice is critical. When I was at LMU, I was part of a very tight cohort that believed our purpose was to be leaders, to make a difference in our work and our lives, and to lift kids out of poverty.

The program also reinforced in all of us that this mission was important for us not only then, but for the rest of our lives. Once you get your doctorate, that’s a responsibility for the rest of your life. We have a mission to ensure that all kids have the same opportunities in life.

What would you like to see when you look at L.A. schools in a decade’s time?
Progress would be something radically different. I went through a really fun exercise with my kids: We Googled “schools in 1800s,” “schools in 1900,” and for 2000. What we saw was that so little has changed. Over the next 10 years, I’d love to see the experience of adults and kids in our schools revolutionized. If our schools look like the workplaces of Google or Facebook, that would be amazing, or like college campuses. That’s where we want to get to. They should not look like the schools and classrooms of 100 years ago.

Go here for more information about the School of Education's Ed.D. in Educational Leadership for Social Justice.

Scott Timberg is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He worked as a Los Angeles Times staff writer for six years, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon and elsewhere. His book “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” is due out this fall. His blog is called CultureCrash. Follow him @TheMisreadCity.