School & District Management

Early Bersin Exit Further Clouds San Diego Plans

By Jeff Archer — February 08, 2005 4 min read
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With Alan D. Bersin now set to make an early exit from the top job in the San Diego school district, the fate of his much-studied improvement agenda has been left in greater doubt.

Even before the announcement late last month that the superintendent would leave at the end of June—a year ahead of schedule—the school board had begun chipping away at parts of his 6-year-old master plan, the Blueprint for Student Success.

With a majority of its members new as of December, the board recently halted funding for outside consultants hired under Mr. Bersin to work with educators on their mathematics and literacy instruction. It also killed a mandate that all schools in the 140,000-student district have “peer coaches”—teachers who work with colleagues on honing their craft.

And looking ahead, board members predict big changes in, if not the elimination of, another Bersin hallmark: a leadership-development academy that trains aspiring principals through internships and mentoring by San Diego school leaders.

A former U.S. attorney who was hired as the district’s superintendent in 1998, Mr. Bersin has drawn national attention to San Diego for his single-minded focus on instructional improvement. (“Review Probes Successes, Challenges of San Diego Reforms,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

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“It does not look promising in terms of the board’s willingness to stay the course on key pieces of the blueprint,” said Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who led a major research project on Mr. Bersin’s initiatives.

With the help of Anthony J. Alvarado, a former New York City schools leader, Mr. Bersin overhauled the way the district provides ongoing training to teachers and principals. He also increased the amount of time spent on teaching basic skills.

His top-down management style often sparked heated criticism, but he was able to keep pushing his plans because he enjoyed the steady backing of three of the school board’s five members. That changed in November, though, when board elections resulted in a new majority made up of members who have criticized his leadership.

Initially, some new members said they wanted to work with the superintendent to address their concerns. But last month, the board brokered the deal in which Mr. Bersin will leave at the end of this school year—12 months earlier than anticipated in his contract. The agreement will pay him $240,000, plus benefits, after he departs.

More Flexibility Sought

Leading up to the deal, the board took a number of actions seen as undercutting some of Mr. Bersin’s priorities, particularly his approach toward staff training.

In targeting his use of external consultants—some of whom have come from as far away as New Zealand—board members said the district’s own teachers were well equipped to help their colleagues.

Members of the majority also argued that individual schools should be able to decide for themselves if they need a peer-coach

position. And while the board voted to continue the Educational Leadership Development Academy through this school year, some members said they doubted that the principal-training program would last beyond that—at least not in its current form.

“In many ways, we were taking money from everything else and devoting it to the professional-development programs,” said Luis Acle, the president of the board.

Adding to the tension, the board also tweaked a policy Mr. Bersin had backed to let low-performing schools identified for restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act become charter schools. The board amended the plan to require approval of at least half the staff members at each school before charter status is granted.

In a statement issued with the announcement of the contract buyout, the superintendent expressed confidence that the district’s teachers and administrators would continue to focus on improving instruction. At the same time, he conceded that much of the “professional-development infrastructure” that he had built would be “reduced, and in some cases, entirely eliminated.”

Just how far the district swings in its strategies won’t be clear until a new superintendent is chosen. At a board retreat this week, members were slated to begin that discussion.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a close observer of the San Diego district, characterized the board’s actions so far as “nibbling around the edges.”

“The notion of dumping everything that one’s predecessor has done is a well-worn example among urban superintendents,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen in San Diego, because there has been a lot of successes.”

Shelia Jackson, one of the new board members, agrees. The former teacher wants educators to have greater freedom than she thinks Mr. Bersin allowed in determining the best kind of instruction for their schools.

But she also said she doesn’t plan to erase all that the superintendent has put in place over the past six years.

“Our goal is not to just flip back and go 180 degrees,” she said. “Our goal is to take what has been working and build on it.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Early Bersin Exit Further Clouds San Diego Plans

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