What’s the Story in Los Angeles Unified School District?

John Deasy—the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest—resigned last week.  He had worn out his welcome through the notorious iPad scandal and a new fiasco involving a district-wide data system launched this autumn that left high school students sitting in study halls without the classes they would need to graduate and left the school district unable to create the high school transcripts students would need as part of their college applications.

News stories reported the superintendent’s resignation here and here, but the best analysis of Deasy’s story is by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post. She titles her piece, Leadership Mess in L.A. Schools Could Be a Movie—But You wouldn’t Believe the Plot.

All the reports claim that while test scores grew during Deasy’s tenure (though they were growing before he took over 3 1/2 years ago), he was abrasive and authoritarian.  A Broad Academy-trained school administrator, he testified for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that targeted due process for teachers in his own school district and he was an early pioneer in introducing evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores.

The problems that brought down his tenure as superintendent, however, involved a succession of botched—and very expensive—purchases by the district of technology from private companies. First came the iPad scandal.  Many worried when Deasy made the decision to use capital improvement funds for the $1.3 billion iPad purchase, and there came to be many questions about his ties to Apple (that produced the hardware) and Pearson (that created the software on the iPads).  The purchase has been put on hold for re-bidding.

Then as school opened this fall, LAUSD launched an enormous information system supposedly designed to track student data from Kindergarten through 12th grade. “Instead,” reported Abby Sewell of the LA Times on October 11, almost two months into the school year, “the Los Angeles Unified School District’s student information system, which has cost more than $130 million, has become a technological disaster.  The system made its debut this semester and promptly overloaded the district’s database servers, requiring an emergency re-engineering.  In the days and weeks that followed, many teachers were unable to enter grades or attendance or even figure out which students were enrolled in class. Because of scheduling blunders partly stemming from the new system, students at Jefferson High School sat in the auditorium for weeks waiting to be assigned classes… But a quick fix to the problems plaguing the system is unlikely.  More than 600 fixes or enhancements are needed in the software, and there are ‘data quality and integrity issues’ that include grades, assignments and even students disappearing from the system, Supt. John Deasy acknowledged last week in a letter.  It could take a year to work out kinks in the system just to enter grades, he said.”

To be fair, the idea for such a system cannot be attributed to John Deasy.  A court mandated the creation of a student information system two decades ago, according to Sewell to keep careful records for students with IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  However, Deasy presided over the most recent chapters in a story of design changes and  shifts in private contractors.  The LAUSD even sued one of its former vendors over delays and design flaws. Deasy was criticized by a judge just weeks ago, after complaints at Jefferson High School were the subject of a legal complaint. According to LA Times writer Howard Blume, “The judge also chided Deasy, saying ‘he does not admit to knowing’ about Jefferson’s scheduling problems or ‘describe any actual or anticipated efforts by LAUSD to remedy them.'”   Members of the school board expressed amazement that school district staff, including the superintendent, had not immediately addressed the scheduling problems at several high schools and instead waited for the court to require that they do what ought to have been their jobs.

Deasy is now gone, and according to Sewell, “While district Internet technology staffers work to fix the problems, school officials have resorted to work-arounds, including tracking grades and attendance the old-fashioned way: with paper and pens.”  Deasy made his name by being tough on teachers, but his administration became preoccupied with gadgetry and technology, not the kind of programmatic support teachers desperately need.

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