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How Kafkaesque Bureaucrats Are Ruining Education

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Posted on Aug 19, 2013
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By Wellford Wilms

Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation, opened its doors to more than 640,000 students for the new school year. The following story is a sobering tale of bureaucracy run amok, to the detriment of its schoolchildren.

When John Deasy took over the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2011, he promised a “world-class” education for all students. A cornerstone of his plan has been to tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to their students’ scores on standardized tests. For the past two years Deasy has driven his vision relentlessly from his 24th floor executive suite in the district’s downtown headquarters, through a half dozen layers of administrators, to nearly 900 Los Angeles schools. 

But on July 2, 2013, a new school board was sworn in, and the majority seems skeptical of Deasy’s business model. Matthew Kogan, an educator who walked precincts for the board’s newest member, teacher Monica Ratliff, explained, “It’s a very narrow model and there’s a lot of hostile things about it towards teachers.” 

Despite intense pressure from the district headquarters to boost scores, academic performance is shockingly low and it trails behind students in most other large California districts. Just 39 percent of LAUSD students are proficient in math and only 41 percent are proficient in English (though their scores have improved since 2010). Nearly four in 10 LAUSD students fail to graduate from high school, and African-American students are nearly twice as likely to drop out as whites.

Deasy is quick to blame the schools for students’ poor performance but the real problem is right under his nose. As my experience attests, the villains aren’t the teachers, as many believe, but often are power-hungry district bureaucrats who set their own agenda and are accountable to no one. 

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The story that I relate here portrays a microcosm of what paralyzes the LAUSD and every other large urban school district in America. After studying schools for 40 years, I know that concentrating power in the district office may give the illusion of control, but it dooms reforms at the schools where it counts because it emasculates principals, burns out teachers, infuriates the teachers union and drives away community support.

Several months ago, after a bruising confrontation with LAUSD bureaucrats, my co-teacher, Avis Ridley-Thomas, and I were forced to abandon a decade-old partnership between UCLA and the LAUSD that had served some of Los Angeles’ neediest students. Ridley-Thomas, who founded the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Dispute Resolution Program, and I taught and trained hundreds of UCLA undergraduates to mediate disputes, and we sent them to schools to resolve conflicts among middle and high school students. The UCLA undergrads also teach the younger students how to defuse tensions for themselves through peer mediation, and they act as role models—big brothers and sisters—opening the younger students’ eyes to the larger world of higher education with field trips to UCLA. 

Mediation is an idea of profound importance because resolving conflict person-to-person without using force has been proven to produce trust and lasting solutions. The results have been remarkable, and it has not cost LAUSD a dime. The UCLA students have resolved more than 2,000 disputes, often in highly charged school situations that include potential suicides, bullying and name calling, any of which can easily escalate into violence. One UCLA student told me:

“It is an awesome experience. This one girl was starting to cut herself but she couldn’t talk to anyone. We sat down with her and she started crying because three boys she’d known in elementary school were bullying her, calling her fat and ugly. After she calmed down we met with the boys who had no idea of the harm they were causing. We had a third mediation with all of them and the boys apologized. It is amazing to see something like this happen right before your eyes.”

When we were forced to end the program, we also had to abandon plans for an even more ambitious project to establish schools as community centers for conflict resolution, where teachers, parents, students and police officers would mediate neighborhood disputes after hours. This would bring those groups together in some novel ways that would strengthen the fabric of the community. 

West Los Angeles College agreed to share the model with the other eight campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District and a greatly expanded network of LAUSD schools to increase the impact. We brought funders together at the schools with partners at the Los Angeles Police Department, UCLA, West Los Angeles College and the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, knowing that if it succeeded, it could be a model for the entire city. 

But on Feb. 1, 2013, everything stopped. An LAUSD employee—let’s call her Ms. Jones (not her real name)—invoked the district’s burdensome and complex procedures to effectively drive us away. The UCLA students were upset, but the real victims were the children in the schools who were deprived of a powerful learning experience. The other less tangible loss was what could have been a major step bringing mediation to Los Angeles neighborhoods, where violence often rules how conflicts are settled.


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