It’s not the people, it’s the processes

DAVID L. BREWER III is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

THOSE READING about the Los Angeles Unified School District over the last few weeks may be excused for believing that not a single thing is going right and that nothing is happening to fix what’s wrong.

A report came out pointing to a “rampant” lack of accountability throughout the organization. Inefficient implementation of a new payroll system resulted in some employees being paid incorrectly or sometimes not at all. Teachers at a struggling high school voted to convert to a charter school. Dropout rates continue to hover at unacceptable levels.

My purpose here is not to defend against any of those challenges or criticisms. I’ll reserve the right to take on those issues later. Rather, I’d like to shift the debate to a more productive discussion of the key ingredients for true systemic reform: evaluation, execution and teamwork.


I commissioned the highly critical report conducted by Evergreen Solutions because I wanted an independent evaluation of the district to determine what was broken, why and what to fix first. It was not intended to be balanced; it was intended to be critical. It achieved its purpose -- providing a roadmap for the path forward.

So why hasn’t L.A. Unified (or any major urban school district in the country, for that matter) transformed all of its schools into high-achieving academic institutions? The reasons are many. However, the chorus of local and national criticism is focused on the wrong thing -- people performance rather than systems and processes.

I have watched smart, hardworking L.A. Unified employees labor heroically to educate our children with only a modicum of success. W. Edward Demings, a leader in the field of organizational management, was right: 80% of the dysfunction in organizations is a result of the failure of systems, not people.

For example, too many functions that should be interrelated are instead isolated from one another, which results in fragmented and inconsistent outcomes. Thus, without transformational systemic changes, 100% turnover of the people would yield the same results.

We are retaining Evergreen and hiring some outside experts to assist us in resolving the most onerous systemic problems, and in June, we will present our proposed solutions. We also are creating a division to spur innovation from within the system and to create models for every school in the district. We are developing a comprehensive, rigorous and coherent curriculum aligned to California standards. We are making a systemic change to provide continuous learning and development opportunities for all of our staff -- from teachers to support personnel -- to improve performance. We are establishing an Office of Parent and Community Engagement to empower parents and to foster synergistic partnerships with civic, faith and community-based organizations.

Urban school districts are shot full of holes from silver bullets. The pressure to “do something now” is immense, often leading to underdeveloped programs that do not work, resulting in cascading pressure to “do something else.” I will not be caught in this vicious, failing cycle. The reforms I put in place will transform the system because the old way of trying to fix our ailing schools will take longer than any of our lifetimes.

Today, an election is being held for two school board seats. Conventional wisdom says that this election is a referendum on the district, the outcome of which will determine the balance of power on the school board and, thus, the future of L.A. Unified.

However, as I approach my six-month anniversary with the district, I know that the work I face tomorrow will be the same regardless of the election outcome. We must move from criticism to collaboration, blame to burden-sharing and acrimony to accountability. No matter who is on the board or even, for that matter, who sits in the superintendent’s chair, our children need parents, district employees, communities, the media, unions and civic and political leaders to put adult agendas aside and work together to improve student achievement.

So to the querulous critics, you have two choices: Join the team or get out of the way.