LAUSD Superintendent's New Chief Of Staff: 'A Really Large System Can Serve Every Single Child'

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Rebecca Kockler, whose work as Louisiana’s head of academics increased student academic achievement and teacher effectiveness, has been named Chief of Staff to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.

With a strong track record during six years at Louisiana’s Department of Education, Kockler brings a depth of experience in education that the teachers union had criticized Beutner for lacking.

“I have been a career educator from the moment I graduated college,” she told Speak UP. “I’m part of a family of career educators. My mother’s a principal. My brother’s a principal. We sit around the dinner table and talk about curriculum implementation. This is what I do. I am an academic person through and through.” 

Kockler, a graduate of the prestigious education leadership fellowship at the Broad Academy, has also worked for Teach For America as a vice president and senior managing director of its Teacher Support Team, and as a middle school teacher in Newark, New Jersey. During her tenure as Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content, Louisiana become the fastest-improving state on several national metrics including Advanced Placement exams and 4th grade NAEP English tests.

“Rebecca is a terrific addition to our team,” Beutner said. “Her work in Louisiana helped narrow long-standing achievement gaps, resulting in the state’s highest ever graduation rate, while increasing standards and course requirements, and improving ACT scores for all students. As a career educator, she will help our district deliver on our promise of providing every student with a high-quality education.”

Having turned around a large system of 700,000 students, which had been failing, Kockler believes she can help do the same for LAUSD. “People don’t believe that our big systems can serve kids. I think that’s completely wrong, and we have to prove that a really large system can serve every single child, including our most struggling students. Louisiana was historically one of the lowest-performing states in the country, and, in fact, it’s [now] the fastest improving on most metrics.”

Board President Monica Garcia (BD2) said she was inspired “by her commitment to serving all kids, and her experience in closing opportunity and achievement gaps in large public school systems.”

New Orleans is certainly the highest-profile city in Louisiana to turn around its educational system after starting from scratch after Hurricane Katrina and moving to a nearly all-charter school system. Most of the schools that Kockler worked with in the state, however, looked nothing like those in New Orleans.

“Folks think of Louisiana as New Orleans, but that’s not the full story,” she said. “The vast majority of schools I worked with were in very rural North Louisiana or urban north Louisiana, or in urban Baton Rouge. They’re traditional districts with traditional public schools. New Orleans has a unique story and context, but the rest of Louisiana has a traditional story and context.”

Kockler said her success in turning around Louisiana schools included: “dramatically raising expectations and standards, making sure we knew how our kids were doing against those at every single level, including important subgroups.”

She also made sure schools were implementing the most effective curriculum, and she focused on “making sure teachers are trained at scale in how to use and implement that curriculum, and providing dramatic supports for teachers and principals across the state.” 

Kockler acknowledged that she’s stepping into LAUSD at a challenging time, when the district is facing financial problems, and the teachers union is threatening to strike. But she remains optimistic. “I think there are big challenges in every big system,” she said. “I believe deeply that every single child in Los Angeles Unified, in Louisiana and in our country is capable of a lot a lot more than our systems are delivering on right now.”

She also acknowledged that the political climate in Louisiana, where the Tea Party was a major force, differs greatly from that of Los Angeles. The strength and role of teachers unions in that state varied district by district. Louisiana reformed teacher tenure in 2012, and teachers there have more accountability.

“Accountability plays a role in our system in Louisiana, certainly, but what that should look like and does look like in Los Angeles, I just have so much more to learn,” she said. “I personally feel committed first and foremost to listening.”

And Kockler said she tends to focus most on teaching rather than politics. “I think a lot about what happens in the classroom,” she said. “I think a lot about how kids learn how to read and the science behind mathematics coherence -- the sort of nerdy stuff in education.”

Most of her work in the past, she said, has been at the teacher level: “giving teachers better tools, listening to teachers, building coalitions of teachers that guided our work, providing massive training at scale and coaching to teachers, building models of teacher support structures across the state,” she said.

“A lot of that, every teacher wants in every single system,” she added. “There are unique challenges around how you deliver that here, but I think teachers in L.A. are looking for the same support. So much of my work is about helping that teacher teach fractions in the best way possible.”

Kockler said her own mother put herself through college and became a teacher at an excellent private school to give her daughter access to a better education than her home school was providing. Her mom’s sacrifices inspired her to pursue a career in education so that other “moms don’t have to work that hard to make sure their kids had opportunities.”

While restrictive state laws and union contracts may limit what changes she can bring to Los Angeles, Kockler’s can-do attitude may be just what LAUSD needs.

“I’m here to help Austin dig into the meat of how kids learn and how to help our system do that at a very large scale. That’s what I do in Louisiana, and that’s what I hope to do here,” she said. “I think every kid should be able to show up every day and have a great school where they feel safe and loved and where they learn math in incredible ways and read books and talk about those books in creative and interesting ways. I care most about a system that delivers that for every kid in every school.”