Wednesday, November 21, 2007

SHOULD SCHOOLS BE BLOWN UP? LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer on English reclassification, payroll problems and failing schools.

Superintendent Brewer's Q&A with the LATimes Editorial Board


November 21, 2007 - Admiral David Brewer, superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, dropped by the editorial board the other day to discuss, among other things, the problems of English-language learners and his own on-again-off-again plan to create a mini-district for low-performing schools. Some highlights:


David Brewer: We have the largest English-language learner population in the nation, over 200-some-odd thousand students. If we were to carve them out as a separate district, they would be the sixth-largest district in the nation. That population right there is the most challenged population. And there's an irony with that population; 70% of them are native born. And so we said, OK, so what's driving this low achievement throughout the system? Well, the standard English learners, a percentage of whom are also African Americans, are also in this mix. So when we began to look at it we said, my God, if, if you look at one of the pieces, called Reclassification to Fluent English Proficiency, and we're reclassifying about 50% of that population K through 5. That means 50% of that population's showing up in middle school not prepared, frankly speaking, for middle school, because of language. And so we said, OK, then we have to go to a family-of-schools approach.

Now you've heard all the UTLA rumblings. If a separate district was the answer, let them run it, was my position. But when I went and presented to the task force our findings, UTLA came back and said — you know, they were clearly opposed to a separate district. When I look back at [former superintendent Ruben] Zacharias, people were opposed to his hundred schools, because of the labeling, of the stigmatism. And my counter to that has been quite clear. I think that in L.A. the general public, other than through the 1381 debate, you know, really does not know how well or how badly the schools are doing. I don't think they really know. I don't think they're really focused on it.

Jim Newton: You mean they don't know how the school where their children are going is performing or they don't know globally how the whole system is...

David Brewer: I think both, in some cases. If you asked the average parent, how well is your school doing, I wonder what they'd tell you. Now I haven't surveyed that. It really goes back to the whole, it counters the whole stigmatization argument. We have schools that have been in program-improvement status for nine years. Now I think most of those parents probably know that those schools are not doing well. Now program-improvement has its own politics, because you can have great students inside of those schools that are doing well, but the thing about NCLB is it shines a light on the schools that are in the shadows... Because we have such a large population of ELs and SELs, that's the reason I'm having this national summit in December. We have to focus like a laser on that in order to drive this school district to what I would consider world-class academic standards. [...]

Karin Klein: What kind of power will you have over the way pre-schools do things if you do manage to get more kids into pre-school? Because I know that LAUP's priority at this point is not to focus on English-language instruction and to let kids continue in their native language.

David Brewer: To the extent that I'm dealing the LAUPs and the private folks, then I have to, you know, work with them on that. To the extent that I have my own early education centers and I'm building more and more of those, then I'll have a lot of influence. You know, that's a partnering and articulation conversation that we're going to have to have. [...]

Karin Klein: What are the schools that successfully reclassify kids from English-language learner, what are they doing?

David Brewer: A lot of it goes back to professional development. A lot of it is just the way they do business. Many of them are using the same tool — open court — to do it. They're working harder and longer and have teachers working there who know how to get it done.


David Brewer: People keep asking what I'm really doing. What I'm really doing is putting in the systemic changes inside the, what I call inside of the school walls, in order to make this district work the way it's supposed to work.

Jim Newton: Give us an example of one of those. What's a change you're making inside a school wall that is making life better for children in that school?

David Brewer: Professional learning development and leadership is going to be really at the core of this. If you're going to have a world-class faculty, world-class organization, your people have to be well trained in leadership and management. That is not the case. That's why I created a position — I recognized that probably within three to four months of getting here. I called for that appointment; I finally got it in July. What you will see in many cases is that you put people into positions with absolutely no training with the exception of credentialing for teachers and leadership academy for principals. But everything else, no. There's nothing there. And even there we can do a much better job, because our position is that teachers need leadership and management training just like principals do. For several reasons, because they eventually become your principles, in many cases. They eventually become your administrators. For a system not to have that in place, to me, is ridiculous... When you benchmark against other districts we are woefully behind. [...]

Tim Cavanaugh: How much does the district spend on professional development right now?

David Brewer: Right now we don't know. Because right now everybody's doing their own thing... Estimates run somewhere in the neighborhood of $400... That's everything that's out there. That's people coming up to us and saying we want you to try this program. Or some classroom teacher saying we want to try this program. I mean, right now there is no coherence in the program. [...]

Joel Rubin: Do you have any idea how much you're going to have to spend on professional development in the system that you want to have?

David Brewer: Ah, no, not yet, I don't have that yet, Joel. I don't know.

Karin Klein: When you say everybody does their own thing, is that at the school-site level, the principle decides what the professional training will be?

David Brewer: Yes, in some cases that is indeed what happens.

Karin Klein: Does the school have a dedicated amount of money with which to make those decisions?

David Brewer: No. The way it works in some cases is that some school sites will go out and get grants; that's not general fund money. They'll go out and get grants...

Jim Newton: And it's the same thing with the district; they'll just go out and do it on their own?

David Brewer: Yeah. In some cases that's the case. In some cases it's more centrally controlled but in some cases it is not. And so, we're just now at the beginning stages of getting our arms around that.

Tim Cavanaugh: The $400 million figure is from district general funds though?

David Brewer: No, not all...

Tim Cavanaugh: That's including grants and so forth?

David Brewer: Grants and other funds, yes.


David Brewer: The failure was this: That first of all there was no contractor oversight. That there was no real person in charge of this thing, at least the person who was in charge of it was not technically smart enough to know how to work the system. There was no separate chief information/technology officer dedicated to this. That was the first thing. We were depending on people who frankly speaking did not know how to interpret the problems that the system had technically.

So what we had to do, we started making progress, and then the June fiasco happened, when a software glitch caused this major overpayment cycle. The system also has its own, in other words, when you go through a school-year pay cycle, there are certainly things that happen throughout the school year. You've got the start of school; you've got normal-day where you find out how many kids are there; you've got summer school, and you've got all of these things. So what should have happened was this payroll system should have been rolled out in parallel to the old pay system. And going through all of the things that you see us going into now, then you would have seen all the glitches and overpayments and stuff like that happen outside of the system, instead of inside the system. That did not happen.

And you did not have the expertise for contractor oversight to look at the contractor. In my previous job we had, I had $1.5 billion in contracts. But what I had was a separate organization that maintained contractor oversight and made sure the contractors were delivering what they were supposed to deliver. So we have EquaTerra doing that now. We hired EquaTerra in June, and so EquaTerra comes in, finds all these problems, and is now beginning to clean it up. So beginning in June to November we cleaned up one of the major problems, which was causing the overpay. It's a software glitch associated with something they call reannualization. And so we fixed that problem, but we are still not out of the woods because we've got to recoup money; we've got to do W-2s and we've got to simplify the pay system, and— and we just found out that SAP cannot account for about 500 people inside of the system who do not work to a standard calendar, even though we were told that we could. And now my contractor oversight says if that doesn't happen, they can't get paid.

Robert Greene: Is there still a contract with Deloitte for maintenance of the system?

David Brewer: Yes.

Robert Greene: So EquaTerra is on top of that?

David Brewer: Yes.


Tim Cavanaugh: Do you see a correlation between the schools that do well with reclassification and the parent involvement that we were discussing earlier?

David Brewer: Yes. There is a correlation there.

Tim Cavanaugh: Then when we talk about successful and unsuccessful schools, and concentrating on the unsuccessful schools, is there a missing element in school choice, in that underperforming schools are not allowed to fail? That maybe some schools should just be allowed to go down to the point that they go out of business and the people who still go to those schools, who are left at those schools, are required to go somewhere else, where hard work and achievement are considered the norm?

David Brewer: Uh...try that again.

Tim Cavanaugh: Should some schools be allowed to fail?

Jim Newton: And then send those kids to places that don't fail?

David Brewer: Yeah, that's what I thought you said. Ha ha! That... No, no. Our job, my job is to make sure they don't fail. Why? Because there's a neighborhood component to this. OK. But this is a very interesting phenomenon. That's why I hesitated on this. Because some people are already voting with their feet. The 20,000 drop in enrollment, a large part of that was economic migration and some of it is just folks moving out of the system. But of the 20,000 reduction in enrollment, 6,000 was because they went to charter.

David Hiller: I thought they closed bad, and I thought it was under No Child Left Behind.

David Brewer: They can.

David Hiller: And I thought they closed bad schools, my recollection was in Chicago.

David Brewer: They can.

David Hiller: I think they closed a bunch of them. And it's a big controversial thing because, you know, they're neighborhood-based. But, you know, what's worse? Just continuing to send kids to failing schools or declaring Hey, time's up on that school, time to blow it up and start again.

Tim Cavanaugh: Not in so many words maybe...

David Hiller: No, in so many words. Arnie Duncan got crucified in some places, and you know what? Within a year the parents and students were back in schools that were better, including — some of them were charter schools, and now you've got a lot of parents saying all right, now life is better.

David Brewer: Reconstitution is an option, David. And I'm not saying that's off the table with me if we don't get what we want. Reconstitution is an option. Now, reconstitution has been tried in this district before. So you know, again, that's the politics of L.A. And I think that's why...well, Joel, you probably have a better feel for this than I do.

Joel Rubin: Well whether he knows it or not, he just quoted you. When you and I talked about reconstitution you said, "Blow it up."

David Brewer: That's right. Reconstitution is an option. I'm not backing...

Jim Newton: It's one the district has never availed itself of.

David Brewer: Again, I go back to the past. When this was tried before. I think Cochran Middle School this was tried before. I've been told. So I say, what happened? Cochran's still a high-priority school. You can reconstitute, but one of the things about No Child Left Behind is that the collective bargaining agreement allows teachers to follow their students. And so No Child Left Behind will not trump a local collective bargaining agreement.... It's not that it trumps federal law, it's that federal law has to respect collective bargaining agreements.

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