How Bureaucracy Ruined an L.A. Unified School Program

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Among the long list of legitimate reasons why students in California public schools struggle to achieve—inadequate funding, diverse population, under-trained teachers, external cultural distractions, curriculum priorities, lack of parental involvement—bureaucratic inertia generally ranks pretty high.

The word “bureaucracy” has negative connotations of rigidity and delay that make it an easy target for school critics. But it’s an organizational model of necessity in a complicated, modern world where myriad problems are addressed by multiple sources at federal, state and local levels, and management must be answerable to all.

That said, what up with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)?

Wellford Wilms, a professor in the Educational Leadership Program at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, wrote a damning story for Truthdig last week about how the LAUSD bureaucracy scuttled a highly-successful, and desperately needed, program that he and a group of volunteers conducted for free.

Wilms and his UCLA co-teacher Avis Ridley-Thomas were forced to abandon a decade-old partnership between the university and LAUSD that helped hundreds of the school district’s neediest students after unsuccessfully navigating new bureaucratic obstacles.

Wilms and Ridley-Thomas trained hundreds of UCLA undergraduates to mediate disputes and then sent them to middle and high schools. There, they taught the younger kids how to use peer mediation techniques to solve problems like bullying and potential suicides peacefully, while also serving as role models. The kids took field trips to UCLA and got to experience another way of being in the world. Wilms said mediation had been used successfully in more than 2,000 incidents over the years.

The educators had plans for expanding the program to after hours, and were recruiting other higher ed institutions to participate. But on February 1, they were informed by the school district that they would have to submit 19 pages of forms “including insurance coverage for malpractice, liability, auto, workers’ compensation and sexual abuse, plus fingerprinting and clearance forms, TB tests, scopes of work, student schedules and supervision plans.”

Wilms found the forms confusing and full of “legal and district jargon.” For the first time, there would be expenses that cost thousands of dollars. As he waded through the paperwork, his calls to his contact in LAUSD seeking advice and answers to questions went unreturned. He called the experience “Kafkaesque.”

Wilms was finally forced to throw in the towel, days after the UCLA-trained undergrads were scheduled to begin their work. The grads, who were upset that they were breaking promises to the LAUSD kids that they would be returning in January, were deployed to schools outside the district.In February, Wilms reached out to LAUSD Supervisor John Deasy for help, but never heard back.

He said the experience with “oppressive management” was not new for him, but unsettling nonetheless. “It is ironic that the LAUSD jettisoned a program that teaches students about taking responsibility and initiative, building trusting relationships, and resolving conflicts without coercion or violence. Imagine how much more productive the LAUSD could be if only its administrators could learn those same lessons," he said.       


–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

How Kafkaesque Bureaucrats Are Ruining Education (by Wellford Wilms, Truthdig)

Definition, Development, and Problems of Bureaucracy (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Leave a comment