School & District Management

San Diego Schools Set a New Agenda After Backlash

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 31, 2010 5 min read
Alan D. Bersin, the former superintendent of San Diego’s schools, answers questions in 2005 after being named California’s secretary of education by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The reforms he promoted in San Diego drew national attention but achieved a mixed record of success.

Ten years after the San Diego school district gained national attention for its short-lived “Blueprint for Student Success,” a crowd of district officials last week rolled out a new improvement plan that is almost the opposite of its controversial predecessor.

The city’s blueprint reforms—largely dismantled after a charismatic and aggressive superintendent, Alan D. Bersin, left in 2005—were among the most closely watched and hotly debated of the early years of the No Child Left Behind Act.

And some experts say the story of the demise of the blueprint campaign and the rise of San Diego’s new improvement effort may hold lessons for advocates of similar wholesale interventions using federal Race to the Top and School Improvement Fund grants.

“One way to read the San Diego experience is, reforms that don’t have a local constituency and are not supported by local advocates and efforts are not likely to stick,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “In many ways, Bersin was a test case for how much you can force a school district to change. That’s just an enormous cautionary note when we hear [U.S. Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan talk about how we’re going to drive reform and what these superintendents are going to be able to accomplish.”

Mr. Bersin and his academic chancellor, Anthony Alvarado, were trying to standardize interventions districtwide in creating the blueprint. The plan called for intensive professional development in the district-chosen reading program, double- and triple-length reading classes, and extended learning time for struggling schools, all closely monitored by the superintendent.

In contrast to the approach then, the district will make its new plan final only after holding more than 75 comment sessions throughout the community. Each building principal will decide on interventions to implement with the school’s teachers and parents, and they will share successful programs informally, through site visits to other schools.

Gauging Impact

The unveiling of the new reform agenda came just days after the San Diego-based Public Policy Institute of California released a study, the latest of a series of such reports, that suggests the previous reforms’ impact on student achievement was mixed—and possibly more positive than critics predicted.

Julian Betts, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, found that the double-length “literacy block” and triple-length “literacy core” interventions had increased middle school students’ reading achievement by 1.6 percentile points and 5.5 percentile points a year, respectively. Thus, Mr. Betts argued, a student who entered 6th grade ranking in the bottom 40 percent of the class and then participated in both programs would be expected to be in the 52nd percentile by the end of middle school.

Yet that improvement was reversed for students at the high school level, where English-learners lost as much as 4.9 percentile points for every year they participated in the literacy blocks.

But the study is one among many with differing results. It remains hard to judge the blueprint’s success. Budget cuts started three years into implementation, curtailing major segments of the program.

Comparisons also were hard to make because multiple interventions rolled out districtwide at the same time.

Retired district high school teacher John de Beck, a school board member since 1990, said he had opposed the blueprint in part because he wanted it to be piloted first. “All I wanted was implementation in parts of the district so there would be a control group!” he said in an e-mail.

The Backlash

According to Mr. Betts, though, whether the blueprint reforms ultimately proved effective would have little impact on whether the district would try similar approaches again; the backlash against the blueprint approach was extreme.

The San Diego Education Association protested relentlessly against what President Bill Freeman recalled as a system “more about evaluating teachers than improving student achievement.”

“He literally ruined teachers,” Mr. Freeman said of Mr. Bersin. “If you have a teacher who cannot teach freely and adjust the lesson to meet the needs of students in the classroom, they cannot teach.”

Teachers and parents protested what they considered Mr. Bersin’s “top-down” and “cookie-cutter” approach and succeeded in getting some of the program’s budget cut in 2003. The union won the ouster of Mr. Bersin’s supporters on the school board in the 2004 election, after which Mr. Bersin resigned. What remained of the blueprint lost its last support on the board.

The controversy still reverberates in the district’s reaction to intervention grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 federal economic-stimulus law. The district includes four schools on California’s list of the 5 percent most persistently low-performing schools in the state, and another 77 identified for improvement or restructuring under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Yet only two schools applied for help from the federal School Improvement Fund, and the district did not sign up to take part in either of California’s two unsuccessful Race to the Top applications.

“The reason we did not apply for Race to the Top is we knew that it was going to make us do things that would not work for us,” said school board member Sheila Jackson, who was elected during the backlash against the blueprint. “We want to look for funding that will help us accelerate what we are doing here, rather than funding where people are going to tell you what you have to do.”

Mr. Bersin, now the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has not changed his opinion on what it takes to improve a school system.

“Change must be driven systematically and systemically for more satisfactory results in teacher practice and student gateway skills,” Mr. Bersin wrote in an e-mail. “We need to be open to new ideas and judge them based on results, not on ideology, or whether they threaten entrenched interests.”

Some district officials say that a few of the blueprint reforms survive in “bits and pieces” in schools.

“It’s not that one [approach] was better that the other; this is an evolution based on some foundational work that was done,” said Nellie Meyer, San Diego’s deputy superintendent for academics.

“It really has been five years since the Bersin superintendency, and we are still working constantly to build trust,” she said. “We’ve definitely recognized that trust is a component that triggers academic success.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as San Diego Schools Set a New Agenda After Backlash

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