Teaching Profession Opinion

Blame, Credit, and Urban School Reform

By Larry Cuban — November 23, 2004 9 min read
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Although conflicts between superintendents and teachers’ unions are common, they are not inevitable.

Do teachers’ unions block school reform in big cities? Those on the political right, including many business leaders, voucher-supporting reformers, and academics, believe, as former U.S. Sen. Robert J. Dole bluntly put it as the Republican candidate for president in 1996, that unions strangle reforms and lower student achievement. Those on the left, including equity-seeking reformers, other academics, and Democratic office-seekers, believe that a reform-minded union can help children achieve, seek social justice, and simultaneously honor the spirit of the negotiated contract. Each side, of course, has salty stories of either a union handcuffing entrepreneurial managers or a union endorsing charter schools and waiving contract rules to advance a superintendent’s reform agenda. Without much research evidence showing clearly that unions help or hinder students’ academic performance, all that is left are stories.

But not all stories tout heroic or villainous unions. Consider the San Diego Education Association, locked into a highly personal struggle for nearly seven years with a tough-minded, noneducator superintendent who came to office determined to improve students’ academic achievement. That story is packed with lessons for other big-city districts.

Although conflicts between superintendents and teachers’ unions are common, they are not inevitable. In Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere, union-superintendent battles have made headlines. But even in New York City, there were moments when the longtime teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker and his successor endorsed centrally designed reforms and marched hand in hand with whoever was the city’s schools chancellor. And there have been extended periods of time when teachers’ unions in Boston; Hartford, Conn.; Rochester, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and San Francisco have worked closely and harmoniously with superintendents to advance school reforms in their districts.

That has not been the case in San Diego, although Superintendent Alan D. Bersin won the bet that he would stay in office longer than Marc Knapp, then the union president, and has a $1,000 check signed by the union leader to prove it. Bersin, whose contract expires in 2006, will likely exit San Diego soon, now that three new board members have been elected and the slender majority he has had since 1998 will be realigned in the next few months. When that happens, I would not, however, draw the primary lesson that in San Diego, the eighth-largest district in the nation, union enmity or managerial arrogance—take your pick—ultimately drove Bersin out and suffocated the reforms. Such a lesson would be both untrue and unfortunate.

The fact is that the struggle between the union and the administration was one of many factors affecting reform in the San Diego city schools. Consider that, for six years, the San Diego school board has split 3-2 on every recommendation advancing Bersin’s reform agenda, one heavily supported by local business leaders but with lackluster aid from civic officials, ethnic communities, and organized parents. Teachers’ union activists ran school board candidates to oust the three-member Bersin majority in 2000, 2002, and 2004, and failed. Moreover, mandated state standards and accountability measures required further changes in the district’s curriculum and testing. The federal No Child Left Behind law increased demands on both district managers and schools. Added was the sudden and harsh shortfall in state funds over the past few years. Within this context occurred the nasty struggle between the union and the superintendent.

The battle between Bersin and the teachers’ union may have slowed some district initiatives, diverted others, even created new channels, but it has not destroyed the reforms. Although many anti-union writers might swiftly point to the San Diego Education Association as the culprit in the story of district school reform, they would miss two larger lessons for the nation’s big cities that are embedded in this district’s systematic and inventive attempt to improve schools for minority and poor children.

First impressions matter. I read somewhere that half of all decisions to buy a house are made in the first 60 seconds. For those who believe that altering initial perceptions is tough to do, a telling fact is that most San Diego teachers’ first impressions of their new leaders in 1998 ranged from startled to sour. The former U.S. attorney Alan Bersin and his new chancellor of instruction, former New York City district superintendent Anthony J. Alvarado, subscribed to the “big boom” theory of institutional change: Apply electric paddles to jolt the heart of a system sufficiently to alter its course. In a few months, they restructured the central office and created new positions to help school staffs, while firing hundreds of aides and administrators. They mandated a centralized curriculum for literacy and math and designed a program of coaching classroom teachers and principals to install these ways of teaching and learning in classrooms.

One unalterable fact about school reform in any large district is that teachers enter classrooms every day, close the doors, face their students, and begin teaching.

Teachers’ first impression of a hard-driving, resolute superintendent firing employees and of a chancellor of instruction dead set on reshaping classroom instruction soured expectations of working together with a new administration. The “big boom” executed through top-down orders became a freeze frame fixed in teachers’ minds, one played over and over again by the union and others opposed to the reforms. A perceived lack of respect for their expertise angered most teachers and hardened the impression that Bersin and Alvarado were both distant and arrogant administrators.

Researchers have recently documented how this teacher anger still runs deep, six years later. When Bersin and Alvarado acted decisively, they expected that their electroshock tactics would upset, even initially shatter, relationships with teachers and principals. But they gambled that their swift early actions to retool the structure and culture of the district would work, over the long haul, as teachers and principals eventually came around to accept the worth of the instructional reforms.

And many San Diego teachers—some researchers say most, especially among elementary school faculties—do find worthwhile the literacy and math focus, the idea of principals as instructional leaders, and professional development concentrated on instruction. But those frozen first impressions hardly melted over time, making it almost impossible to get away from an “us vs. them” mind-set. Hostility rather than trust made it difficult for top administrators to build district and school-site cadres of leaders who would continue implementing the many sound pieces of the Bersin-Alvarado program after the two were gone. Which brings me to a second lesson.

Without teacher commitment to district-designed reforms, sustained improvement in teaching and student achievement will falter and ultimately fail.

“Teacher commitment” refers to the total teacher corps in San Diego, not just the union. While a union protects teachers’ interests and ensures that administrators honor the contract, it cannot deliver 8,000 teachers to a reform movement aimed at improving student performance. Sure, teachers are union members, but they still make independent decisions about what is valuable in a reform. One unalterable fact about school reform in any large district is that teachers enter classrooms every day, close the doors, face their students, and begin teaching. Regardless of what San Diego teachers think about their union’s position, they determine daily how much they will embrace the details and spirit of the reforms.

And the gathering evidence from teachers in school reports, interviews, and focus groups is that this priceless commitment, this precious trust in district leaders, has foundered on those early decisions to transform district structures and culture. That students’ academic performance had initially increased and then plateaued in elementary schools, but showed little improvement in secondary schools over the past six years, even when compared with other California urban districts, is simply another clue to the importance of teacher commitment.

In my judgment, superintendent-union conflict alone, one that the media amplify again and again, has not strangled district reform in San Diego. Other factors shaped events between 1998 and 2004. What I can say for sure is that ignoring the importance of teacher trust, of a school board split 3-2, of little community support beyond business elites, of external state and federal mandates, and of the spiteful union leader-superintendent conflict set against declining revenues has slowed down, softened, and, on occasion, detoured the design sufficiently in its seventh year to raise serious questions about its future. Now that Alvarado has left (in 2003) and Bersin’s tenure is coming to a close—either when his contract ends or before, as a new school board majority emerges—broad public acceptance and intense teacher commitment to sustain these reforms in classrooms have yet to happen. Other big-city school systems need to consider the San Diego experience.

Yes, Alan Bersin will have served longer than most urban superintendents, but I doubt whether his legacy will be an imaginative instructional design or improved student performance. His successor will still face depressed student achievement, especially in high schools; lack of funds to sustain systemwide help for school staffs; and classroom teachers who yearn for respect. Moreover, no broad civic and parental coalition awaits a new school board and superintendent to mobilize citywide support for sustaining the infrastructure, coaches, and professional development. If superintendent turnover in other big cities is a guide, I would expect the next superintendent to systematically dismantle much of what Bersin and Alvarado assembled.

In my judgment, superintendent-union conflict alone, one that the media amplify again and again, has not strangled district reform in San Diego.

San Diego could dodge that usual pattern. Should a civic coalition of business leaders, public officials, foundation executives, and ethnic and nonethnic parents arise, it could press for a newly elected school board to seek a healer of a superintendent who would consolidate those Bersin-initiated school practices that promise higher student achievement. Short of that, I would expect the same wretched pattern of a new superintendent entering and pulling apart what his or her predecessor built.

That would be a loss for urban school reform. There is much to be admired in what Alan Bersin has done in San Diego. He and Tony Alvarado were coming close to compiling the hard-core evidence that this top-down strategy and aggressive implementation worked in altering what teachers do in their classrooms and in leading K-12 students toward improved academic achievement.

But coming close is not enough. The lightning that connects a thunderstorm to the ground has yet to strike in San Diego. But it can strike in other cities if seeking villains in teachers’ unions is shunned and these lessons are heeded.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2004 edition of Education Week as Blame, Credit, and Urban School Reform


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