A Bureaucracy That Creates Policy Instead of Results

After writing about Calahan Street Elementary school last week, I received an email from Dr. Liane Jacob, who was the school’s principal until her retirement in September. From reading her correspondence, it is clear that she still has immense pride in the school that she led for 12 years and is deeply disturbed at the disruptions that the district’s interim replacement has caused. In her own words, “Calahan was a successful, warm, positive school in September. Now there is anger, bitterness, distrust, and change...Minor adjustments will occur with a change in leadership but the devastation that is currently ripping the school apart is tragic.”

In a district victimized by bullying from the top, it was refreshing to hear from someone who was free to speak her mind. Retirement has released her from control of the district so she is able to set the record straight from her new home in London. Her deep knowledge of how the school worked before her departure gives an indication of just how much the situation has deteriorated since the district has imposed their will on the school.

The forced changes in traffic patterns is the best example of why the district should leave the governance of schools to the local community. This community recognized the safety issues caused by the traffic patterns of the school and put together a committee that included a liaison to the LAPD, the LAUSD School Police, the president of the school’s PTA and Dr. Jacob. Working together they observed the traffic patterns and devised a plan that included the “use of all gates to prevent congestion.” By blindly following policy and closing one of the gates instead of understanding the needs of the school, the district’s interim principal has put the children’s safety at risk. This is particularly ironic given that the district’s representative’s excuse for “postponing” field trips was that he prioritizes student safety above everything else when making decisions. Unfortunately, he did not provide any examples of how these trips were actually jeopardizing the students. Where is the accountability when the district’s decisions put students in jeopardy on their way to school and cause these students to miss out on experiences meant to “enrich and extend their learning?”

The district’s restructuring of the PE program is another case where the district ignored positive results in an effort to enforce a policy. Unfortunately, in this case it is not even clear that the policy even exists as I have found that the practice of PTAs paying district employees for work done beyond the school day is not unique to Calahan. In addition to teaching children to be physically fit, the program was designed to be motivational and was based on the program developed by UCLA Coach John Wooden. Dr. Jacob singles out Coach Rey for his dedication and states that “he has changed countless lives by his counseling, his gentle guidance, his friendship and his ability to bring hundreds of people to work in a positive, collective direction...his removal from the PE program was done with little/no knowledge of Rey’s contribution to our school.”

In attacking the PE program, the district had suggested that the drop in the school’s API score could have been caused by spending too much time on non-core subjects. Dr. Jacob provided additional data that shows that this argument was at best disingenuous. As was acknowledged by the district, these results were from two years ago and no one knows how the school performed last year because this data is not being released for any school because of the transition to Common Core. It also turns out that the 862 score achieved in 2011-12 was an anomaly. From 2007 to 2013 the school received the following scores: 828, 835, 826, 841, 862 and 830. Instead of focusing on the drop, the district would have much better off focusing on what caused the sudden increase and encouraged the circumstances that led to it.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that this is the result that we get from a district that is so massive. When a bureaucracy is responsible for overseeing 640,000 students, it is easy to lose track of the fact that the teachers, parents, staff and administrators of a local school community are closest to the students and have the best knowledge of how to meet their own unique needs. Allowing over 900 schools to operate independently causes a lot of additional work. It is much easier to provide oversight by establishing a one size fits all policy and mandate that everyone blindly follow it.

This cookie-cutter technique may work fine in a factory where every widget must come off of the line exactly like the one before it and the economies of scale help drive down costs. However, the product of our education system should not be identical bricks in the wall but individuals capable of critically thinking. If the district is so big that it must rely on blind obedience to policy in order to function, schools like Calahan are going to continue to see their achievements dismantled. Perhaps it is time to ask if the size of the district is interfering with the ability to educate our children.