April 26, 2020 - From the April, 2020 issue

 Austin Beutner: Leading Without Precedent, the Nation’s 2nd Largest School District

The Los Angeles Unified School District —the second largest district in the nation—serves more than 700,000 students and employs more than 75,000 in faculty and staff. With school facilities shuttered amidst the statewide stay-at-home order, public education faces hurdles it has never experienced before. TPR spoke with Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner on the extensive and unprecedented challenges the district—its students, families, faculty and staff—face in the transition to remote ‘distance learning’. Beutner further provides his insight on the ways in which Los Angeles Unifiedhas partnered with local and national organizations in their goal to continue providing a quality education and support to students and families in need.

"There is no playbook for how you take an organization of 75,000 people—where the practice is built on meeting, discussing, and engaging with each other in close proximity—to a virtual organization, while the lives of students, families, and employees are turned upside down."—Austin Beutner

Austin, when you took the job to run the second-largest school district in the country, did you find a file in your desk for what to do in the case of a crisis or anything else that could be of value for how to transition to distance learning or crisis learning in days? Was there a playbook related to crisis management in a school district that touches 26 cities, or were you flying on your own?

This is flying a plane while you're being asked to redo some of the wiring in a thunderstorm while also being low on fuel. Anybody who says that they could have planned or anticipated this is deluding themselves. Our preparedness was for the known, and what do we know? We know earthquakes. They have a beginning and an end. During the Northridge earthquake—probably the biggest one in our community in our memories—schools closed for a week.

Fires are sometimes longer than a week, but there's still a beginning and an end. The middle, between the beginning and the end, is typically not a time of much learning. Families are safe at home, and they might bring home short-term assignments, but there's no real provision for cognitive learning in any consequential way during a one-week shutdown or a traditional downturn—fires, floods, rain, earthquakes.

This also is not an isolated incident. In an earthquake or fire, typically the entire system doesn’t shut down; some schools, but not all schools. In either, you're still able to operate in physical proximity to the 75,000 people who do the work.

Much of the commentary has been on the difficulty students and families have—and it's extraordinarily difficult. It's hard for students, our youngest learners are going to be the most impacted because the pedagogy, instructional materials, and the practice of online: how do you teach a child to read online?

There is no playbook for how you take an organization of 75,000 people—where the practice is built on meeting, discussing, and engaging with each other in close proximity—to a virtual organization, while the lives of students, families, and employees are turned upside down.

The Los Angeles Times’ Sandy Banks just wrote a brilliant piece on the admiration you've garnered in the last couple of months on leading in this environment, but clearly your resume—which included publisher/CEO of the Times, First Deputy Mayor of LA, and investment banking—also includes your Clinton administration appointment to helping Russia transform from a centralized to free-market economy. Was that more or less difficult than this challenge?

It’s more comparable than one would think. In that case, there was an economy and a society turned upside down, and you had to start each day realizing that what you did the prior day, or would have been done the prior month, wasn't going to work or, at best, wasn’t going to be sufficient. That's the approach we have to take here.

Large, complex bureaucracies—and I mean that in a positive sense—are reasonably good at doing what they did the day before, because that's how they're set up. That's how they're trained. That's what school systems, municipal organizations, and government are set up to do: do what you did yesterday and do it a little bit better.

Now, we have to change a lot in a hurry.

In terms of collective experience, if there's one thing I've learned over the course of my working career, it is that there's done and not done; there’s no ‘working on it.’ That’s the mode we have to adopt now, students are either connected or not connected.

Our goal is to connect every child. It’s either done or not done—and that frees you from a lot of the challenges of “working on it” that big organizations or bureaucracies have or are sometimes criticized for. Coming out of the private sector, a ‘not done’ job generally doesn't lead to a good outcome for the business or service you were meant to provide.

We took that mindset when we set up our relief efforts. We quickly reframed our operations as a relief effort, not a school cafeteria. We have provided more than 10 million meals to the students and families that we serve; by any measure, that is feeding more people than any other effort in the country. We made the decision early on that we weren’t going to ask questions. Roughly two-thirds of the recipients of those 10 million meals are children and one-third are adults. We brought in partners like the Red Cross because they have expertise in disaster relief, and that's what we're doing here.

Those are things school districts don't typically do, but if you think of it as a relief effort it makes a lot of sense. But, if we're looking ahead and trying to anticipate where the challenges are, we're going to find that what we did yesterday is not necessarily a very good prescription for what we need to do tomorrow.

That's probably our biggest challenge that we try to work on every day when I meet with my leadership team: is this going to be good enough? Is this what ‘good’ should look like? Is this where we want to get to, or is this just an incremental change from yesterday? And, if it's an incremental change, it may be all we can do, but let’s not assume it’s sufficient.

Harvard Business School preaches that management is “the process of working with others to ensure the effective execution of a chosen set of goals. Leadership is about developing what the goals should be. It’s more about driving change.” 

Have you been able to mobilize Los Angeles Unified’s many stakeholders, given the shock to the system caused by the pandemic, to collaboratively work on the district’s existential challenges?

We have a complex system with many different partners. If you respect your partner, try to inform them, engage them, and give them a seat at the table. We have to recognize this as a crisis and so do some things differently. We’re the largest school district in the country with an elected school board.

 Before we closed schools, the board president and I brought forth a motion to the board for emergency authority to allow me—and the leadership team—to make some decisions in a different fashion than we would in the normal course. It's not to lessen the authority of the board, but to recognize that we just don’t have the time to deliberate on certain decisions that we might have deliberated on in the past. For example, the arrangement that we reached with Verizon was done over a weekend. In normal times, that would have taken nine months. Sometimes you have to recognize a different approach to get to the same place.

We are in regular conversations with our board, our labor partners, and with our communities. It’s not the same as what we could do before, but we can't look past the need to do that. Part of leadership is being transparent and making sure people are informed. I give a daily set of updates and a weekly—rather extensive—address.

We're the first school district to talk about the level of connectivity we have, at all levels in the system; we think we need to be transparent. We need to show what the challenges are, where the opportunities are, and whether we are making progress or not. Transparency in a crisis is vital; and be careful not to set unrealistic expectations.

When I said schools will be closed for the remainder of this school year and will continue in a remote fashion into the summer, I articulated the challenge we have in coming back. There are things that we can't control or information that has to be provided to us: testing, treatment, and contact tracing are the big three. We all wish there was a vaccine, but that doesn't seem to be coming quickly.

With the absence of testing, treatments, and contact tracing, it will be hard for us to articulate a path for how we get back into our school facilities. We closed with less than 50 identified cases in all the Los Angeles area and none in our school community,. That number is now more than 300 times larger. Any conversation about going back two days after the peak is not well informed by science.

We have to, in our quest to be transparent, make sure that those who would ask us when we're going back to school understand how we're going to make that decision. It's not about wanting to go back—of course we do—but we will only be able to go back when we know more about testing, if there is a treatment, or contact tracing so we can do so safely. 

In interviews with the leadership of USC more than 20 years ago, they noted that they were able to make some fundamental changes that repositioned that 100-year-old university only after the civil unrest in LA in the early 90s, because stakeholders were galvanized to set a new course for the school. Has COVID 19 been a similar shock – allowing LAUSD to rethink itsPublic enterprise?

That’s a good question, and I think time will tell.  The early signs are encouraging. We—together with CBS2, KCAL9, iHeartMedia, and the Chargers—held a telethon to raise funds to support our relief efforts. Not, in my lifetime, have Los Angeles Unified, CBS2, KCAL9, iHeartMedia, and the Chargers all worked together on an initiative.

We have raised more than $5 million for charitable efforts alongside those organizations and have more than 10,000 individual donors. Some of the things that we're going to need to do in learning how to better engage students online will make it better when we're back in the classroom.

We’re going to need all the creativity and all the different ways to share knowledge, learning, and lessons. Stay tuned, I think we’ve got some exciting news coming this summer that will help when we go back to the classroom.

I believe this may serve as a wake-up call for the community about the importance of public education and the safety net we provide. It’s interesting to me to hear so many people surprised at how many meals we’ve served. We do that every day when school facilities are open, and we're doing it now in a different way.

It’s too early to say whether it's sufficient, but this crisis can become an opportunity, and my hope is that we’re back in school soon and safely. I hope people don't forget the importance of public education, because it is the foundation of our communities. If public education is not healthy and well, I don't see how Los Angeles will be healthy and well in the long term either.

LA Unified has spent tens of billions of dollars on its facilities program. Yet today, we have shuttered schools. Is there an interest in tweaking the District’s facilities agenda - or repurposing bond funds that have come from the state and local measures for school facilities?

We will tweak it no question, but that doesn't obviate part of the legacy of underinvestment that we have. Part of the investment we'll need to make—so that we're never in this position again—is to make sure that we've invested adequately in technologies and the ability to support students and educators using them.

San Diego has had bond funding for decades to be one-student-one-computer device. Los Angeles hasn't. The state of infrastructure over the past 10 or 12 years was more about the need for building capacity to get away from year-round education.

We still have buildings that are more than 100-years old and questionable as to how they would withstand an earthquake. We have safety issues like that that we need to address. We have schools without science labs or music facilities where students can engage and learn with each other.

We'll still need to invest in what’s thought of as more traditional facility investment, but rest assured that part of the communication we will have with the community is about the need to properly invest in the technologies.

Given the district’s necessary commitment to distance learning, are there any LAUSD initiatives that are defining and measuring learning different that might offer some insight or guidance on how student success might be measured going forward? 

There are many, and—starting this week—we’re going to be sharing those bit by bit. But as I said earlier, there’s no substitute for being in a school setting. The converse would also be true, we're able to do and share some different types of learning, and you'll see more of that. PBS is an example. It's broadcast TV, so it's a different form of delivery. In the past, we've been hesitant to direct students to TV, but now we know good practice is not to sit in front of a computer all day; but at home it’s OK to use TV, a book, or other approaches.

You will see us share online learning from museums. There's a rich set of cultural institutions, and the knowledge they have to share is vast. We, in essence, are a distribution partner. A classroom teacher is not going to teach what the Natural History Museum has to share. Our ability to provide that to students and families in different ways is something we can do together.

There are some opportunities to share and learn differently, we’re not trying to replicate online what happens in a classroom. That would be a mistake. As you and I have learned, a 10-hour, 6-hour, or even 3-hour Zoom call is not going to be productive. On any normal day in school facilities, we have 70,000+ classes, ranging from AP US History to a 1st grade class.

[Ed. Note: For our extended interview with Austin Beutner, see below the following update, in which the superintendent details LAUSD's extensive COVID-19 relief efforts and transition to distance learning]


Austin, you are speaking to TPR almost exactly one month since LA Unified sheltered its facilities and started to move to distance learning. Give readers an update on the array of challenges on your list every day while running the second-largest school district in the country?

Austin Beutner: We made the decision not to close school, but to close school facilities. Once we started to see the issues arising in China and saw the virus spread to our community, we knew it was a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. We chose to close before there were any occurrences in the school community, with the benefit of hindsight; we're fortunate to have made that decision.

We've tried to do the same three things that we do when school facilities are open: help students learn, take care of students and families most in need, and take care of the more than 75,000 people who work with us.

If our employees are not safe and well, we don't have a system that can provide learning and take care of students. When we closed, we announced that we would continue to provide salary and health benefits for all Los Angeles Unified employees. We think that morally that was the right thing to do. We’ve extended that further, so even people who work part-time who may not have been eligible before—if they are involved in our relief efforts—we've extended health benefits to them as well.

It's interesting to note that 80% of our families live below the poverty line, the everyday struggle for families is enormous.

We also have 75,000 employees, and I read somewhere that Mark Zuckerberg was talking about the challenge of managing a workforce of about 50,000 employees, remotely.

I'm sure it's a challenge for everybody at Facebook, but the company was online before; they're native and fluent in all of the digital tools.

That’s not the case for school districts, which are organized around facilities and the vivid and important exchange of people and ideas in buildings. We’re not set up to operate remotely, either in schools or administratively. So, it's been quite an undertaking for all of my colleagues to shift to working remotely before we can even begin to help students and families.

We have tried to be on the front lines doing what we need to do. The first challenge was providing meals. We  have provided more than 10 million meals to the students and families that we serve in the community. By any measure, that is helping more people than any other effort in the country. We made the decision early on that we weren’t going to ask questions. This is a relief effort, not a school cafeteria; we're going to provide help to those who need it. Of that 10 million, roughly two-thirds are children and one-third are adults.

We're also using that network to provide other support. We’ve surprised children with toys and provided books, supplies, and even information on how to re-enroll in Covered California. We can do all of those things because we are in regular contact with roughly 60 different points of presence throughout the communities we serve. That will continue as long as we are in this situation.

We started a charitable effort, and have now raised close to $5 million from foundations, businesses, and individuals in cash, donated goods, and services. For instance, most recently, we worked together with Amazon and are in the process of providing 120,000 headphones to all of our high school students.

As part of our disaster preparedness, we had purchased a number of masks and protective equipment—for use in fires. We're using them on the front lines where we are providing support for families, but we saw hospitals had an acute need, so we donated 100,000 N-95 masks to 10 local hospitals.

We opened a mental health hotline. In normal times, we provide counseling and support to students and families in schools. We knew that that need still exists and, if anything, this pandemic is causing greater dislocations in the communities that we serve. We set up a phone line that anybody could call. That will soon convert to video for those who have the capability and wish to see the face of their counselor and vice versa.

Continuity of Learning

The last leg of the stool is how we provide for continuity of learning. We decided early on that we had to connect with every student. There was no other path we saw for us to provide every student with the education they deserve, and it's been a multi-layered approach.

First, we sent every student home on March 13—the last day they were physically in school—with a set of work plans for the next few weeks. It might have been a paper packet, it might have been continuing to learn via digital devices, if they had one already, or it might have been something in between.

Second, we reached out to PBS. I called Paula Kerger, the CEO of PBS National, and Andy Russell, CEO of PBS SoCal, and reminded them of the roots of PBS: distance learning. We created student-centered learning shows that could be provided to every student, so those who didn't yet have internet access still had access to instructional content. There are now three shows running on KLCS, KCET, and PBS SoCal that we co-created with the content expertise of the PBS team, the ability to clear program rights, and the instructional expertise of the LA Unified folks working side by side. This was back when people could be side-by-side in the conference room before schools closed, and that content began airing when students were no longer in school.

The first day of school closures, the content was available. It has stood the test of time; I think it gets better each day. More than 200,000 people are watching locally, and I'm pleased to hear that it’s students and family members, so they're sharing learning. At the same time, they're finding a few moments of solace away from the chaos outside.

The content has been adopted by school districts and PBS affiliates in more than 30 states. You'll see the online support now provided for it with instruction plans; it's more than just a show. There are prompts, lessons, and work that can be done along with the show to share in the learning.

The main event is transitioning to online. We didn't start from a position of strength. The same conversation our community has been having is about the lack of adequacy in school funding.

Private schools in the Los Angeles area invest about $50,000 per student. In New York City, public schools spend about $30,000 per student. In Los Angeles, we’re asked to make do with $17,000. There's been much discussion about the symptoms of that lack of investment: school libraries without a librarian, school clinics without full-time nurses, and another symptom is the lack of investment in the latest technology and training in that technology so that every student is not only connected, but able and prepared to learn online.

We’re making an emergency investment in excess of $100 million to provide the device and connectivity, and it's an important ‘and’—it's not just the device. When we started, we estimated as many as a quarter of our students and families lack access to the internet at home. I'm old enough to remember when everybody had wired access to each other—the Lifeline service—allowing you to share your ideas with anyone else in the country.

Somehow when we went to the internet and wireless, a divide grew, and there were those who couldn't access it because they couldn't afford it. That divide was often talked about as a rural divide, but there's a very real divide in urban America for those living in poverty. We made arrangements with Verizon for deeply discounted wireless internet access. It has to be wireless as it’s not physically possible—especially in a stay-at-home environment—to provide for cable access to the internet in every home.

We bought the devices, and we provided a way to connect them. Maybe the FCC or California Public Utilities Commission should have done that a while ago, but we're stepping in because it has to be done. Our goal is to connect 100% of students.

I don't have today's figures, but starting at zero as of about a week ago, we're at 96% of high schools, low 90s in middle schools, low 60s in elementary. We hope to get to 100.  We'll find that the last few percent will be the hardest to reach. They were the hardest to reach when school facilities were open, because they might have been part of a family experiencing homelessness, the foster system, or poverty. Regular attendance was a struggle for some of those students when school facilities were open, so we’re working with community organizations, faith-based organizations, and other partners to try to reach every child.

The elementary numbers are lagging in part because of the prior lack of investment, and in part because of a lag in supply lines for the devices. We have orders expected to arrive by the middle of May to be able to reach every student, assuming we can supply the student.

The next piece is making sure the technology works and that students, educators, and family members know how to use it. We're undertaking a massive training exercise, providing training to our classroom teachers in a series of five different modules. We’re more than halfway there, meaning every teacher has already taken all five.

We have the same exercise for families. We've set up a hotline that will soon be providing video lessons as well. I don't know how facile either of you are with Zoom and Google Meetup, but you have to know how to use the technologies and the technologies have to be robust enough to support large volumes of concurrent users.

Schoology is a knowledge-sharing platform that LA Unified has used for a few years; think of it as a more elegant version of Google Docs. A teacher can post information, share lesson plans, share videos, share other links the student might wish to access, and the students can—on the return path—submit their work, questions, and comments. 

When we shifted to the virtual classroom, we found very quickly that Schoology was not designed to support more than half-a-million concurrent users. We had to bring in Amazon, and they are helping migrate the capabilities of Schoology to the cloud. The same is true for our hotline, we brought in Amazon to help us. There are two parts to running a hotline: the physical capability of the system and the capacity to provide guidance and expertise. We quickly took all of our online services to the cloud, so that we had easily scalable service for whoever might call

We expect in the next few weeks to be through the bulk of it. But we’ll have new students and families and the technology will change, so supporting that will be a continuing exercise. We're now spending a lot of time on what good instructional practice looks like online. It’s important to note, most of the models you'll be shown have a huge selection bias: affluent families with a lot of support at home, affluent communities or private schools with unlimited budgets, unlimited training, and students with demonstrated aptitude or proficiency to work independently. Public Schools have a different mission, we serve every child regardless of circumstance, and one of the challenges we face is engaging them in a remote setting.

Newspapers on kitchen tables had a captive audience when that was all that was there. When that form of delivery shifted online, newspapers found a world of competition. The same challenge is faced by public education.

We all believe in the virtue and value of an engaged teacher. Their presence in the moment, helping a child learn, is the gold standard we all aspire to. When we shift to remote learning, it's very different. The classroom is not contained and the willingness or ability of the student to pay attention or be engaged is going to be very different. We will always have those students who are more motivated or have support at home to help them be motivated, but that's not all of our students.

We're going to have to find different ways to teach them and engage them in the learning, and some of the  simplest measures are not good proxies. Be careful about comparing physical attendance in a school to logging in online. Physical attendance in the school implies your presence and that you’re ready, willing, able, and engaged. Logging in does not imply all of those things, it implies turning on your computer. Your computer may not be turned on while you're reading a book or working on a writing assignment, so the digital footprints that one receives is not an apples-to-apples comparison to some of the measures that are used in schools, which are simple, but imply attendance. You assume an awful lot by the physical presence of that student. Be careful about implying the same thing to any digital footprints.

We're in the early days of this work, there are no large-scale systems that are online. Each day, we learn something new. We've got to think fast and act fast. Find the problem, solve it, and then wash, rinse, repeat again tomorrow because there's no playbook for this. There is no roadmap for how to deal with the coronavirus from a medical standpoint and there similarly is no map on how you transition a large complex public-school system to online.






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