Lessons from Los Angeles’ school records disaster

A new student record system adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District has caused chaos for kids, teachers and administrators. Kindergarteners were accidentally enrolled at high schools, while hundreds of older students spent weeks without class schedules. Judy Woodruff learns more from Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times.

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    This has been a very rough year for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its new system for storing important student records like attendance, grades and test scores has not been working at all in many cases. It's led to a chaotic fall for many of the 650,000-plus students.

    Kindergartners were actually — were accidentally enrolled at, yes, high schools. Hundreds of students spent weeks without class schedules. The school board has replaced the district superintendent.

    While the problem is particularly bad in L.A., it's a cautionary tale for other school systems that struggle with coordinating large populations too.

    I spoke about this recently with Howard Blume. He's an education reporter at The Los Angeles Times.

    Welcome, Howard Blume.

    First of all, why did the L.A. school system need or want a new computer system and what was it supposed to do?

  • HOWARD BLUME, The Los Angeles Times:

    Well, they did need a new computer system, both — for a number of reasons.

    One, it all began over a lawsuit over services to disabled students. They were essentially losing disabled students in the system and not keeping track of what their disabilities were and what special help they needed.

    So, that was one issue. But then they realized as they got into this they needed a better tracking system and record system for all students, and they decided to try to do that. And it makes sense if you think about when the different departments switched from paper to computer, every department had its own system, they didn't talk to each other. The systems are now old.

    And we want to systems to do more than they used to do. So, like, for example, you want to find out if a student's missing homework will turn into truancies, will turn into a dropout, so you can do all sorts of things with technology if you have the right technology working in the right way.

    So it's definitely a direction everyone wants to go in. It just didn't work.


    Well, as you say, technology is supposed to be able to figure all this out, but it malfunctioned. What exactly went wrong?


    What went wrong was lots of things.

    Inadequate staffing, inadequate funding, inadequate planning, inadequate oversight — the system was just not ready. It was not able to bring all the information into it. It was taking information that was right and corrupting it. So students were getting wrong GPAs. They were getting classes they'd already taken. They were not getting the classes they needed to graduate or go to college.

    The attendance accounting was wrong. There really wasn't much that actually was working right. And something like this, you have to do a lot of things right and you have to move a little slowly if you need to and you have to test it, and you have to have some sort of independent voice to say, stop, if you need to say stop and slow down.


    It does sound like a nightmare.

    Were students' educations actually disrupted by this, or is this just a matter of delays and inconvenience?


    Well, they were disrupted because, when you think about it, if you have a student getting their schedule right two-and-a-half months into the school year, that's just a delay. That's a disruption to their education.

    And if they were taking — if they were supposed to be in a calculus class and they get in there two-and-a-half months after the start of the year, they are now behind and probably in trouble. If they needed a class to apply for college, if they needed a class to graduate, those are serious issues.

    It got — those are the serious issues. They're also comical issues, like in the elementary schools, they were bringing stacks of paper to school so that they could record this information by hand on paper, because they couldn't do it on a computer anymore. But in some ways, it approached farce.

    But there were definitely serious implications for students. And the district itself, its funding is based on accurate attendance accounting. So, if you can't keep track of who's in class, then the district itself won't get the money it needs to continue operations.


    Well, as we reported, the former superintendent was asked to resign. He is gone. But what else is being done to fix this? How are they trying to get things back on track now?


    Well, they have brought in experts from Microsoft, because the original software for the system goes back to Microsoft, and they're working out a contract there. They have brought in retired administrators and counselors and sent them out to schools to try to get students' records straight, and they're focusing first on high school seniors who are most at risk of not being able to apply to college or not being able to graduate on time.

    So they're sending out an army of retired people, and they're just — all hands on deck are trying to figure this problem. It is going to take, they estimate, more than a year to fix it and probably a lot of money.


    What is the lesson here though for other school systems around the country that, as you told us, may also be looking to update their data systems, their computer systems?



    Everybody really has to do this. And once the system, if they ever get it working right, it will do some really great things. You will be able to track all the elements of a school child's life and, of course, because of that, you also need privacy protections.

    But the goal is that you can get students on the right program with the right help. But the key thing here is to make sure that you don't unplug your backup system or your old system before you turn on the new system and figure out what's going wrong. That's one thing. You want to start off small and work out the bugs.

    You need a little bit of distance and have some independent oversight, and make sure you're fully staffed, that people are trained in how to use the system and that they get the help they need. Those are some of the lessons learned. And these things are expensive. If you do this — if you try to do this on the cheap or if you try to do it too fast, you are likely going to run into problems.


    I have a feeling that people running school systems all over the country are watching this very closely.

    Howard Blume with The Los Angeles Times, we thank you.


    Happy to do it.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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