School & District Management

Review Probes Successes, Challenges of San Diego Reforms

By Lynn Olson — October 08, 2004 6 min read

In 1998, the San Diego schools embarked on an aggressive campaign to improve instruction and achievement in the more than 140,000-student district. Now, on the eve of a school board election that could decide the fate of those initiatives, a review by more than a dozen education experts and researchers has found solid growth in elementary school literacy but few gains at the high school level.

Moreover, the fast-paced, centralized approach has come at a political price: The district administration has yet to gain the deep-seated support of teachers.

Read draft papers from the “San Diego Review.”

Undertaken at the request of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, the “San Diego Review” also has the support of a range of outside foundations and sponsors, including the Council of the Great City Schools. It touches on virtually every aspect of the district, from professional development to business services.

The goal, according to Frederick M. Hess, the principal investigator for the project and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise In stitute in Washington, was not to make definitive judgments about the district or to prescribe changes, but to help researchers and practitioners learn from one another about the nature, successes, and challenges of urban school improvement efforts. “San Diego is the longest-running, continuously led urban reform effort in America today,” Mr. Hess said. “It’s going to hold lessons.”

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The 18 draft papers that comprise the review were unveiled at a daylong conference here last week at the University of San Diego. The papers will be revised based on conference feedback and published as a volume by the Harvard University Press this spring.

What’s striking are the pace and the scope of the San Diego initiative, known as the Blueprint for Student Success, which has sought to boost student achievement by changing teaching and learning in every school.

“It’s been a fast reform. But it’s also been a reform that’s been very strategically rolled out,” said Amy M. Hightower, an assistant director at the American Federation of Teachers, who co-wrote a paper about the district’s efforts.

Mr. Bersin, a former U.S. attorney here, took charge of the school system in 1998. Soon after, he appointed Anthony J. Alvarado, a nationally known urban education reformer from New York City, as the chancellor of instruction. One of their first acts was to set up a new Institute for Learning in the central office to oversee all instructional and professional-development activities.

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Their initial focus was on improving the ability of principals to lead teaching and learning. Instructional leaders—all former principals—held monthly, daylong conferences for principals on instructional issues. Principals were required to spend at least two hours in classrooms each day observing practice.

The district mandated a new, three-hour “literacy” block for reading and writing in elementary schools. Centrally trained “peer coaches” were assigned to each school to work with teachers on instructional strategies. In secondary schools, literacy- and math-content administrators replaced department chairs. The district also offered teachers a range of paid professional-development courses on aspects of the changes.

In collaboration with local high er education institutions, the district established an Educational Leadership Development Academy to identify and train future school leaders. Some 90 percent of principals have assumed their jobs on Mr. Bersin’s watch. A redesigned human-resources strategy has reduced the number of uncertified or emergency-licensed teachers from 409 in 2001-02 to just 17 this school year. The district also increased help for struggling students, such as reduced class sizes and accelerated literacy and math classes for low-performing 6th graders and high schoolers. The system also provided extra support to eight of its lowest-performing elementary schools.

Redirecting Resources

To pay for the Blueprint priorities, which have cost from $62 million to $108 million a year, the school system engaged in a massive reallocation of resources.

“I was shocked at the extent to which there really was a huge impact here, in terms of shifts of resources, both money and people,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Washington-based Urban Institute.

In 1999, the district eliminated 104 central-office positions that did not support teaching and learning. It did away with more than 600 instructional-aide positions, citing evidence that they did not help raise student achievement. The central office also took direct control of the vast majority of federal Title I money targeted at poor children, most of which had previously been controlled by schools, and used it to support Blueprint activities. Similarly, the district redirected state categorical grants. And it raised nearly $40 million from private foundations for fiscal 2001 to 2004 to support its initiatives.

Those strategies appear to have paid off—at least in elementary literacy. The proportion of elementary pupils scoring above the 50th percentile in reading on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition rose from 44 percent in 1998 to 57 percent in 2003, a rate of growth faster than in seven other large California districts, according to Daphna Bassok and Margaret E. Raymond of Stanford University.

Such trends were reflected on the California standards tests from 2001 to 2003. Progress has been steepest among low-performing schools and minority students. But the district has made less pronounced gains in math and even fewer at the high school level. Moreover, scores have leveled off, and San Diego has yet to see a significant reduction in the number of schools in the lowest categories on the state’s performance index.

Political Price

Mr. Bersin’s take-no-prisoners approach also has come at a cost, including a school board bitterly split 3-2 during his tenure; a teachers’ union adamantly opposed to him and his policies; and a teaching force that, while supporting many of the initiatives, is ambivalent about his leadership.

“That broad acceptance and intense commitment to retain these reforms in classrooms has yet to happen,” said Larry Cuban, a professor of education, also at Stanford, who argued that without teachers’ trust, the reforms “will falter and ultimately fail.”

Whether a new school board can find opportunities for cooperation and consolidation awaits the outcome of next month’s election of three newcomers to the board.

Several of the papers also suggested that while the single-minded focus on instruction was vital, it may have gone too far: Inattention to operational issues could compromise those efforts.

Now, the district is attempting to launch a second stage of reform in the midst of budget cuts. That next phase includes redesigning high schools, returning more autonomy and authority to school sites, and putting a new accountability framework in place.

But some of the experts gathered here questioned whether principals steeped in being instructional leaders are ready to think strategically about budgets and operations. And many argued that the biggest obstacles, provisions in the union contract, remain. Given the acrimonious relationship between the union, the San Diego Education Association, and the superintendent, significant contract changes are unlikely on Mr. Bersin’s watch, observers say.

Terry Pesta, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, contends that the union has been shut out. “They look at our contract as something to get around rather than something to work with,” he said.

“One of the difficulties of this urban school reform,” said Mr. Bersin, “is that we somehow think we can do it without struggle.”

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