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A Noneducator Pulls Off the Impossible: Urban School Reform

April 22, 2001|Larry Cuban and Mike Usdan | Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, is the author of "Oversold and Underused: Computers in Schools." Mike Usdan is president of the Institute of Educational Leadership in Washington

STANFORD — If dramatically changing a school system is like turning around an aircraft carrier, as San Diego School Supt. Alan Bersin said his first year--"The carrier hasn't changed course yet, but it's shimmying"--the carrier has clearly changed direction in his third year. Such dramatic movement is uncommon in Los Angeles and New York City, where noneducators like Bersin have been appointed school chiefs to raise student achievement. Why San Diego has been different goes well beyond the fact that the city is smaller than either of the two bigger cities' school districts.

Less than a year on the job, the former U.S. attorney and "border czar" for the Southwest region achieved a whirlwind of victories. Within 90 days of becoming superintendent, Bersin persuaded 78% of San Diegans to support a $1.51-billion renovation-bond referendum to build and repair schools. Within 180 days, he delegated the instructional side of his work to Anthony Alvarado, a former district superintendent from New York City who, without hesitation, imported his ideas on teaching and learning. Bersin reorganized the district bureaucracy, fired administrators and realigned budgets to conform with his stated mission of improving "student achievement by supporting teaching and learning in the classroom."

In short, within six months, Bersin engineered an accelerator-to-the-floor strategy of reform that jolted the entire system (16,000 employees for 139,000 students spending more than $867 million a year). In doing so, he put into place a district infrastructure that pushes teachers and principals to gain expertise for improving student performance in literacy and math. These machine-gun bursts of top-down change have continued throughout the first two years of Bersin's tenure as he consolidates his changes and plows ahead with further reorganization and initiatives such as the Blueprint for Student Success. But his victories have come at a cost.

Continual conflict between Bersin, a school-board minority and the San Diego branch of the National Education Assn., the teachers' union, has tainted the changes. Bersin has managed to retain a slim 3-2 majority on key school board votes, but incessant haggling over agenda items is wearing. Union leadership has criticized Bersin for his lack of collaboration in introducing changes. "It is reform being done to us, not with us," says the union president. In response, Bersin says, "[Union] leadership, virtually from day one, has greeted reform with the unremitting hostility of a Khrushchev 'nyet.' "

Fear and mistrust of Bersin's motives and the reforms persist among many administrators and teachers. Union-organized demonstrations have drawn thousands of teachers to protest how teacher-coaches were chosen and the layoffs of 600 teacher aides. Resistance to reform from high school faculties and administration has left secondary schools, as is the case in most cities, in the backwater of district changes.

The San Diego reform story poses tough questions about the prevailing assumptions and wisdom of big-city school districts that have noneducators leading them. For example, can a noneducator superintendent swiftly establish a new infrastructure for teaching and learning that concentrates on improving academic achievement of low-performing students?

For San Diego, the answer is "yes." By explicitly delegating Alvarado exclusive reign over the instructional domain while he manages the system and shields his deputy from political fire, Bersin has established a bifurcated superintendency. Bersin oversees the business, facilities and operations side of the organization; Alvarado designed an instructional system in which school-based staff developers work with principals and teachers to implement new math and literacy programs; a rich array of literacy and math courses from experts are offered to buttress such teaching. Learning communities of teachers and principals have been formed, and the outlines of a district professional culture have begun to emerge.

The test of this new infrastructure is whether this combination of elements will achieve what Bersin and Alvarado seek: all schools concentrating on teaching literacy and math, with the numbers of low-performing students on state tests shrinking as overall achievement in reading and math rise for the district. Although test scores have improved in the last two years, it would be premature to attribute the gains to the reforms. After three to five more years of state testing, patterns of students' academic achievement at elementary and secondary levels will emerge more clearly. For now, sustaining the infrastructure and culture remain the challenge.

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