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Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform
 
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New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

Anthony Alvarado

Anthony Alvarado, former chancellor of instruction of San Diego City Schools

 
district wide reform
SAN DIEGO, CA:::ANTHONY ALVARADO

INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY ALVARADO,
CHANCELLOR OF INSTRUCTION (1998-2003)
San Diego City Schools

Hedrick Smith: Why did you go to San Diego? Do you figure you've got to take your system to scale?

Anthony Alvarado: I think the first issue is trying to determine when it's time to move on. So before there's any attraction somewhere, the first question is “When do you begin to get long in the tooth in the organization?” And while I'm not sure I got to that point, I thought I might have been getting close to the point. And figuring out and understanding that Elaine's presence meant that there could be a seamless transition with not even a blink in terms of how the organization could continue to grow made it much, much easier in making the decision to do it. So that's one part of it.

The second part of it was: it's time to maybe try ideas out on another level and not to try them out at the level of the superintendency. I think I did not want to spend my time at the political levels of system leadership. I thought it was time to get kind of closer, one level closer to the actual doing of the work. So Alan Bersin in San Diego called me, he came to New York. He looked at some of the schools. He spoke to me. We talked a number of times. We seemed to have the basis for a relationship of mutual trust. I said, “this may actually be the time to try that” and I did. It was a time to think about the ideas of scaling up. This was not available in New York at the time.

Smith: Was there a chemistry between you and Bersin? He's a New Yorker.

Alvarado: Yeah, a smart New Yorker. He knew the San Diego community. He had been both a corporate lawyer and the U.S. attorney in San Diego. So he cared about the work that he wanted to do. I thought together we could do some interesting work.

I don't think I had these visions of grandiosity. I actually think that I went there because this was another challenge that was at a larger level. There were ideas to test and strategies to construct and it was worth doing.

Smith: And you were a bit different. I mean by this point you really had developed a blueprint. You might go on refining it. You might change it. Am I right?

Alvarado: There were a set of ideas that had been developed that are now becoming important in the profession or gaining more and more prominence and they are being worked out in the field. They are becoming more and more effective.

Smith: Is it an enticing challenge to prove them in a larger educational landscape?

Alvarado: It's a challenge, yes it is.

Smith: Talk to me about why you put so much emphasis and focus on principals. What is it you understood about principals and what was it you were trying to change in the function of principals?

Alvarado: First of all, principals are the most important actors on the stage of a school system. The quality of a school, the quality of the adult learning in the school and the quality of the student achievement is a function of the quality of leadership of that person, so one of the things that we needed to do, is spend time and effort finding the people who had the talent, the knowledge, the skill to lead this. And let me tell you what that meant.

For us, the primary purpose of a principal in a school is to lead the improvement of instruction in a school. Their primary purpose is not to manage a school, not to make sure that the buses are coming on time and the books are delivered, and the parents are happy, and the dissent problems are solved – although all those things have to happen and the efficiency with which those things happen actually relieves the principal to spend the time improving instruction. But that idea means that principals have to know instruction. They have to know what good teaching is, and they have to know what to do to improve instruction. If they can't do that, then they can't ultimately get better student achievement results. So the original idea of a principal was that of a principal teacher. That's where the word principal comes from. It then moved in the American historical term to being the person in charge, the manager of the building, and it lost its foundation in knowing what teaching is, and being able to lead its improvement.

Smith: Are adults responsible for the failure of kids?

Alvarado: Yes, adults are responsible for the failure of kids. This is a felt belief. When we would talk often about voice in the principalship, we would always talk about how the leaders voices are about deeply held beliefs. And because sometimes when you come across problems, you don't have the answers, you can't figure them out – you come across a brick wall that you seem to be pounding your head against or when things come at you that centrifugally move you away from purpose – the thing that holds you together is your core beliefs about something. And I think what happened in District 2, is that there was this core belief that kids could learn if adults provided them with the kind of teaching that insured that was going to happen.

Smith: This includes [children] who come from foreign language families, poverty homes, tough circumstances. Everybody can learn – that's your expectation?

Alvarado: You know the answer is absolutely yes. Unfortunately right now, we have this little anecdote that goes out that says all children can learn. And everybody really ascribes belief in that. But the problem with that is that that's only half of the equation. The other half of the equation is all children can learn if adults provide high quality instruction. The reason why you have to add that other half is because often teachers who work very hard, who care deeply and put lots of time in, and who do everything that they know how to do to help a child learn, can't get the child to learn. Instinctively the culture says I taught it, the child didn't learn it.

Later on in our professional life people try to describe our work, and gave us adjectives and principles that we didn't even know we were using at the time. Now it's obviously the performance-based principle. Performance-based means that the performance, the result of the performance, is a function of what I do.

Schools are not yet in performance-based environments. So what has tended to happen in American public schooling with poor kids, and particularly with poor kids of color, is that when they haven't learned the answer, we have all these intervening variables, and we're not one of them. The variables are poverty, the lack of parenting, difficult community circumstances, socio-economic status and on and on and on. And interestingly enough, it never circled back to the teacher or the school. And therefore it let us off the hook.

But what it also did was then to create this insidious belief in people who would espouse that all children would learn, but they really didn't believe it. They really didn't believe it because they did everything they could do and the kids couldn't learn. So when you try everything that you know, and the student doesn't learn, you have to have this core belief in you that it's not even a blink in terms of what's the problem here. The immediate reaction is “What did I do that was responsible for the kid not learning?” Turning that base value into practice so that then you can start getting better at what you do is what a good organization does, and what I think became a core value in District 2.

Smith: So your number one priority is to improve teaching.

Alvarado: Absolutely. It is about creating adult learning both on the leadership level and on the teaching level that improves practice that is tied to student learning. Kids learn from teachers. If the kids need to learn more, and more powerfully, then the teachers need to know more, and their teaching has to be more powerful. And the principal needs to know how to lead that school to have that improvement in teaching practice occur.

Smith: But when you say teachers need to know more, what I'm afraid of is that a lot of people are going to hear Dickens – “Teachers need to know more facts.” And that's not what you're talking about.

Alvarado: Once I visited a classroom and a principal was proud that all the children were reading during the independent reading period. I sat down next to a child and she was reading a book. She finished the line on the page and then she kept on reading along the line on the second page. And she kept on reading like this so there was absolutely no meaning. When we talked about it with the principal, the principal said, “Oh my goodness, what I just saw was wonderful that this child was reading because she had a book and was sounding out all the words.” This is a problem. The child does not know the strategy. That means that the teacher has to know that, and teach the child that strategy. If the teacher doesn't know that, then nothing happens.

I would walk into a classroom and I would see a teacher teaching a child a sound, and the sound was let's say an “F,” and the sound is “fff”. So there were four children who didn't know the letter, the sound of the letter “F,” and the teacher went, “fff” and two children went “fff” and another one said nothing, and another one went “sss.” The teacher said it again and again. Three children said, “fff,” and the last child still went “sss.” The teacher did not know what else to do. What she had started to do was to say “F” louder, “fff,” as if the child didn't hear, and the child went, “sss” louder. What is the problem there? The problem is that giving the sound of the letter was not a sufficient strategy for that child to learn it, so the teacher needed another strategy that she didn't have. She wanted the child to learn the sound. She was working hard at it, but she had a narrow pedagogic repertoire.

What you want to do is to have teachers have a whole broad repertoire of ways to teach children things that they cannot know. Maybe by the third strategy the kid learns it. And it's an example of learning what works. It is what happens in every form of human endeavor. If you're playing golf and you're always slicing a shot, you can look at tape. But you got to try it and then you have to have someone, usually a coach who's next to you, giving you guidance about what you are doing and what you are not doing. Then you have to practice it a lot because usually the bad swing is already ingrained in you. And you have to unfreeze that behavior and habituate a new behavior, and the habituation process takes time, and it takes support. Schools provide none of this for teachers.

Smith: Learning for adults.

Alvarado: Learning for adults tied to practice that showed results. You've got to have that chain. If you leave one thing out of the chain, then it doesn't work. Nowadays in accountability, Hedrick, what we have is this talk about results. Results, results, results. But part of the problem in education is everybody wants to achieve results but it is what you have to do to achieve it that people don't know how to do. If you don't focus the organization on learning what to do and you're just hacking peoples' heads off because the results don't show, you don't improve the quality of learning and the improvement of performance in the system.

Smith: How do you turn around an attitude that says, “I did my job but the kid didn't learn it,” and get them to say, “It must be something wrong with what I'm doing.” How do you turn adults into wanting to be learners when they're used to saying “It's the kids who are the learners and they are the problem?”

Alvarado: We believe that the way to turn adults who have not experienced learning into learners is actually to model it, to have them be part of the learning experience that is effective for them. This translates into a result and success, no matter how small, that they can link to what they did. So the reason adults keep on doing the same things that they've never had success with is essentially because they don't know what else to do.

You know Hedrick, teaching is a strange profession. It is learned primarily in two ways. It is learned because you have been in school for twenty-some odd years. Your models of teaching are the teachers who you've been exposed to. After twenty-some odd years, the jug and mug learning that Dickens described, the pouring of facts into an empty vessel of a mind, that is a narrow view of learning. That's actually what people do. They don't know anything else. So the question is how do people get experiences? How do they try something that works? The research actually says that the best motivator for teachers is their being able to observe the success on the part of their children, and that that success is tied to the work of the teacher. Teachers don't experience that. And therefore the practice, the result, prevents belief.

Smith: You've got a system that's failing. How do you find out how to make it succeed?

Alvarado: By trying to establish a problem-solving mentality and develop a culture that actually eagerly looks forward to finding problems. A terrific researcher once said that problems are friendly. That's a very interesting concept. We normally see problems as something to be avoided. The presence of a problem actually says to you, “I don't know what I'm doing,” and organizations normally try to say, “We have no problems, we know what we're doing.” So you've got to get people to understand how to try to solve a problem. And how do you learn things? You learn things by seeing something done that you didn't know how to do. By engaging in conversation about the thing that's giving you problems, by having someone give you feedback about the work that you're doing – that feedback provides you with ways of improving the practice. And so there are a lot of ways of learning that you have to imbed first of all into your belief structure.

Smith: What were you able to carry from your District 2 experience to San Diego that best took root?

Alvarado: Well, I think the basic theory of action was what we were able to bring there, which is that children learn as a result of the quality of teaching that is in front of them, and teachers improve based on the quality of principals that provide leadership and getting a system to provide the supports that would result in that. I think that's what we were able to effectuate, although we were not able to institutionalize it.

Smith: You made a whole bunch of moves in San Diego on professional development. Tick them off.

Alvarado: There were coaches; there was a leadership academy for principals; there was the kind of training for the instructional leaders, the district office instructional improvement specialist who supervised the principals, so that in fact we could be on the same wavelength; we tried to provide supports for students through summer school; we provided high school department chairmen who could help with the improvement process in high schools; we created literacy specialists and math specialists in middle schools. There was a lot of work.

Smith: And you also brought balanced literacy. You brought your reading strategy from New York to San Diego.

Alvarado: We brought an approach to developing literacy skills in kids, and we actually improved some of the ways that we went about professional development. So I think we were still learning because we were generating the next generation of tools that would help us.

Smith: How can you summarize kind of the essence of balanced literacy?

Alvarado: Balanced literacy provides the technical tools of phonics, phonemic awareness. It's learning how to sound out words with making meaning of text. And providing rich literature and non-fiction that actually raises the level of thinking of kids, so they could engage in the text, make meaning, communicate about it and to learn how to solve problems through language.

Smith: It's not a scripted reading program. It puts a lot of responsibility on the teacher to be inventive about the teaching practice.

Alvarado: Yeah, but inventive is not the word. Teachers need to have a broad range of strategies to engage students. They need to know when and what to teach them as a total class, how to divide them into groups and how to work individually with them around the skills that they need to learn. So they need to learn how to assess. They need to learn how to group. They need to have a broad range of strategies. They need to know literature and they need to know how each child is progressing so that no one here falls behind.

Smith: Were you able to infuse an understanding of that strategy in San Diego?

Alvarado: Well, on one level yes, and on one level no. On the first level you could walk, after five years of the strategies implementation, into classrooms across the district and you could see that literally in every classroom people were approaching the literacy issue with the framework that we had provided and they were working on developing the skills that needed to be worked on. So that's the good news part of the equation.

The other judgment that is made is that it wasn't institutionalized. It wasn't deep enough. Ultimately, people at both the leadership, and the teaching and the staff development level did not get enough practice at it so that it could generate the kind of results that we would expect over time. And partly that did not happen because of the politics in San Diego from day one were split in terms of the nature of the reform and the support of the superintendents.

Smith: Could you see progress in San Diego?

Alvarado: Well, if you look at the data at the end of the years we made progress, and we made progress in ways that compared to other districts in the state. It actually showed that we were on the right track but the depth of the progress was not made, and probably could not be made, because the ultimate lack of commitment to this by the board, the union and the larger community. In District 2, what we were able to do was to have not only an internal community, meaning the professionals committed to doing it, but we worked very, very hard to have both the board understand what our work is and to get the board's support for the work, and to have the larger community understand what our work is and get the support of the larger community, particularly at the school level where each of the principals was able to bring the neighborhood along so that we had kind of a deeper culture and a deeper set of supports for the reform. That was not the case in San Diego.

Smith: I want to stick on the positive side of San Diego as long as I can here. What else do you think you got to take root?

Alvarado: Well, I think people in San Diego began to understand what the values for the reform were. They understood this notion that the kid is not to blame when the kid doesn't learn. Those are changes in beliefs and values that take time to inculcate and that only can be reinforced when there is sufficient success. And I think that people were learning how to do that and learning how to believe that this could be done and were beginning to feel some of the supports that could help them do it and were seeing some of those results.

Smith: Tell me how many teachers were there roughly in the San Diego system?

Alvarado: Roughly 10,000.

Smith: Out of the 10,000 teachers in the San Diego system how many do you think really, by the time you left after four years out there, had at least absorbed the values, if not all the tools of the reform that you were promoting and creating in San Diego?

Alvarado: My answer to you would be first of all, by level – meaning by elementary school, middle school and high school – and I think that the deepest level of the success was at the elementary school level where in fact there was broad scale approval by most of the teachers in San Diego. And I think at the other end of the level, at the high school level, we had the least level of support for the reform. At the elementary level, I would say that certainly two-thirds of the teachers understood what we were trying to do and were feeling in some way the benefits of the supports that we were trying to provide.

Smith: And at the high school level, or the middle school level, what would that figure be?

Alvarado: The figure would decrease as we went up the levels and I would say at the high school level, because we concentrated on reading and mathematics, our target group was much smaller in terms of which teachers we wanted to understand and get involved in the reform. We did some work in science that was very, very interesting. I mean we really had all ninth graders take physics in the high schools in San Diego. Not an easy curricular innovation. We made headway, but my guess it would be in about 20 percent of teachers.

Smith: What was the first alarm bell that went off in your mind about the way reform was going to be implemented in San Diego?

Alvarado: Well, I guess the first alarm bell was when I actually saw the way the board was treating some of the issues. There was clearly a divide in the board about what the nature of the reforms was going to be. Alarm bell one went off almost at the same time as alarm bell two, because they were joined at the hip. Alarm bell two was that the union essentially believed that the teachers are already professionals and that they know most of what they need to know in order to be effective. And if you just left them alone with the present state of knowledge and skill that they would be able to achieve what they needed to achieve, and if the students didn't learn it was a function of the issues that the students brought to the schools.

Smith: Did you sit down with the union leadership in San Diego and try to reach some kind of overarching agreement on principles and on direction?

Alvarado: We did, and in some cases it was a long drawn out set of conversations. So, for example, a clear difference in what happened in implementation between New York and San Diego was when we were trying to get coaches. It was not a problem in New York. In San Diego, the union had a problem with coaching. They thought that teachers didn't need it. They thought that anybody could be a coach because essentially all teachers were undifferentiated and knew what they needed to know, and that the organization could not select coaches, and that the process of creating a mechanism to select the coaches was a difficult one that ultimately resulted in a third party university being a responsible for a selection process for the coaches that had to teach in the district.

So essentially the parties could not reach a conclusion. It had to be farmed out. In New York it was not even an issue.

Smith: I mean this is a clash, this is a confrontation right?

Alvarado: This is a clash, and by the way it stems from our basic philosophic difference and values. Ours is that students don't learn because all of us, all the professionals, are not knowledgeable and skilled enough and they need to learn how to get better. The primary way to do that is to get feedback through coaching.

The union position in New York – the United Federation of Teachers – agreed with us and we jointly developed the process. In San Diego, the San Diego Education Association disagreed with that. They believed that the teachers know what they need to know. They need to be left to their own devices to make those decisions in the classroom. If, in fact, you need coaches, the system cannot select them. They have to be either elected by teachers or they have to be identified through a neutral third party. And essentially it was a fundamental disagreement and underneath the fundamental disagreement was a lack of trust about the implementation of the reform.

Smith: When does this issue come up?

Alvarado: Well immediately. It comes up immediately on the first set of decisions that we want to make. What actually happened in San Diego at the very beginning of the reform, even when the superintendent was hired, was there was a split on the board that was reflected in the position of the union, and then as the reform rolled out became more intense, more oppositional, and essentially prevented the reform from taking root both culturally and structurally in the system.

Smith: How important is it that there is this division on the board?

Alvarado: Well, the impact is that the 3-2 vote on the board essentially gets mirrored in the schools – essentially the willingness to participate or not participate, the willingness to accede and to co-construct the reform or to oppose the reform. So the reform has in it opposition both at the policy level and at the implementation level.

Smith: So a principal has been through your training and has replaced an old-line principal. That principal in any school is running into 60, 70 percent of her teachers either going along willingly, or enthusiastic, but another 20 or 30 percent digging in their heels and just going into the classroom and shutting their doors. Is that what you're saying?

Alvarado: That's correct. An important part of a reform is getting coherence in schools. The school is the unit of change. You need to get everybody essentially on the same page. And if you don't, that centrifugal force that rips apart an organization prevents you from making any progress because people are off in different directions.

I do want to say that I've analyzed my own behavior in the reform issue, and I think that there were contributing decisions that I made that did not help the reform. Because of the nature of my move to San Diego I was literally on a plane for a year and a half during the first year of the full reform. I should have realized that you need to be grounded with the people, particularly if this is a community in which you have no history. What happens is that an outsider brings in a reform that is being opposed, and the outsider had no relational ability to convince, cajole, communicate, listen and work through the difficulties of the reform. It's a problem. In hindsight I would have said, “Not a good idea to do that under those circumstances.”

Smith: You took on the whole city. You took on every subject, you took on every region and you took on every grade. Could you have phased it in?

Alvarado: Obviously a decision should have been made that said “Can you have systemic reform of that large a scale at the pace at which we introduced it/” – which for reform was significant. If, in fact, you have divided policy and union opposition to the reform, the answer is “probably not,” and so the decision maybe should have been that we don't go for a full systemic reform. We divide the reform. We either stage it in phases or we divide it in levels that deal with lower performing schools first, rather than the whole system. We engage more to try to get support for the reform.

But essentially when there is philosophical foundational opposition about the ideas of an enterprise, the degree of difference is not something that can be papered over or something that can be worked through.

Smith: They say you guys should have taken half the city and reformed it, and left the other half of the city unreformed, and then compared results.Was that realistic?

Alvarado: Well it's a very interesting issue. In a city in which the data shows that it needed a level of intervention because of the fact there were significant numbers of students that were not performing, how do you make the judgment that you leave the unreformed part alone because I want to compare if what I'm doing works? Let's let kids not continue to learn? There is an ethical logic about that position that needs further exploration. It was one that did not appeal to me.

Our reform was based upon the best research and evaluation. So it means that if you're reasonably objective what you look at is data, what you look at is what the profession knows, what the research and evaluation data shows that works and doesn't work, not what I want to do, not what I want. I am not driven by what I want I am driven by what I see and know works, not because I was a part of figuring some of it out but because the data and the research shows me that some of that has actually produced results.

Smith: One of the big bonfires of San Diego was the end of the first year – the removal of those 13 principals and assistant principals. What were you guys trying to do in terms of sending a message to the system and do you think that message got through?

Alvarado: Well, there were intended and unintended consequences in that decision and in the way that that decision was implemented. On one level, the message was clear. There had never been people who had been removed from San Diego for not being able to produce results. That does not bode well in a performance driven organization. So the message was, “You have to be responsible for improving performance.” That was a message that was important to give. The decision was not made to give a message; the decision was based upon the findings of the quality of leadership. Those findings, by the way, subsequently upheld through all legal appeals.

The unintended consequence was what happened after this thing got to the level of implementation at the larger levels of the system. This getting out in public – the names being scrolled on television – that was an unintended accident that produced bigger feelings, and justifiably so.

Smith: My recollection is that you never publicly did that kind of thing in New York.

Alvarado: I had never done that and I didn't do that in San Diego. All I did was to give the names of the people who had to be removed through the superintendent to the board and in that process the unfortunate way in which that occurred produced this.

Smith: Do you think that episode in San Diego poisoned the well?

Alvarado: It exacerbated the issue and became a cause celebre because the teachers ultimately did not have an effect on the teacher's union, which was the power constituency here. That was problematic. And they used that to further promote their perspective that this was an administration to fear.

What you would never ever hear in District 2 is that there was any decision that was made that was in any way about relationships. We prided ourselves because we needed and expected to earn trust that what we said, how we said it, how we treated one another despite a demanding agenda, was important to achieving the end that we did.

Smith: To what degree were you and Alan Bersin handicapped by the fact that neither one of you had any real lines of relationship into the teacher's union or the principal's union as far as I know.

Alvarado: I think that's an excellent analysis. I think it's important but it's not only to the union. It is a set of relationships with the people in the district. In District 2, as we were building the reform we were out, we knew everybody. We knew all the teachers. If you gave me a name of a teacher in District 2, I could tell you what school they were in, what floor, where the room was and what they were teaching the last time I visited that room.

Smith: How much were you out in the schools so that you could do that in San Diego?

Alvarado: San Diego was a different issue and that compounded the problem. In San Diego we were designing the reform. We were putting together the district structures that would allow us to do it. We were working on some of the leadership.

Smith: You're dealing with a with a district that's seven or eight times the size and you're simply not out as much in the schools walking in and out of the classrooms. Is that right?

Alvarado: That's correct, and no history in the larger organization. I need you to understand that Elaine Fink and I had had 20 years of experience in which there were all kinds of relationships that were formed, that were continued and built upon when we began our work in District 2.

We were outsiders [in San Diego ] in the classic analysis of leaders going to an organization. And outsiders implies not knowing people, not having relationships, there are cultural differences, et cetera. And there is another part to this whole issue, which is a community in the long run has to be prepared to make the judgment that it wants change. And there is also another part that ultimately comes from the community that says that if you're going to do systemic change and substantially change the nature of structures, relationships, practices in districts that rocks the boat in a significant way – if there is not support for that then that level of reform cannot survive.

Smith: Was the business community really committed to a serious upgrade of the schools in San Diego, or when the going got tough then they sort of back off and say, “Well we want it to happen, but don't make too many waves.”

Alvarado: Well, I would compare it to the reform efforts in other states and cities that have created mechanisms that are involved in the political support of reforms. So in Kentucky, you have the Pritchard commission. In many of the cities that have been involved in the reforms, some of them in Texas and elsewhere, the business community forms as a group that understands reform is unmooring a set of practices that will create political disruption, and that they need to organize themselves in ways that are much stronger to support the reform. And that in fact in many of these cities, there is a political structure in government that is also engaged to the reform. The level of that did not exist in San Diego.

Smith: In San Diego was the business community sufficiently committed to reform that it was prepared to put its shoulder behind reform when the going got tough?

Alvarado: The San Diego business community did not organize itself in a way that could in the long run sufficiently support the reform if the going got tough.

Smith: And you had all kinds of clashes in your elections. I mean the business community went after one of the anti-reform board of education trustees, and it didn't succeed and it created another bonfire. You got into terrible fights every two years over those school board elections.

Alvarado: Because essentially there was a fundamental disagreement in how schools should be run in San Diego. That fundamental disagreement rarely exists in other areas of reform. It is an argument about is this strategy appropriate? Do we tweak the way that we go here? Do we phase this in? But it was not a fundamental disagreement. What San Diego was probably prepared to deal with was incremental improvement in a way that did not disrupt the way, fundamentally, business was done. It was not ready, it was not organized, and it was not prepared to deal with a fundamental reform.

Smith: Why did you leave San Diego? You were there four years. Bersin stayed on another two, three years. Why didn't you stay on with him?

Alvarado: I could see that the reform was ultimately not going to be successful, that the level of ratcheting up the kind of supports that were necessary to make the reform work were encountering political obstacles that didn't let it happen. The handwriting from my perspective was on the wall at that time.

Smith: The actions that the new San Diego school board has taken…

Alvarado: Well, the actions of the school board as we speak have resulted in a number of things. One, the coach structure has been dismantled; all the coaches have been sent back to their schools. The subject matter administrators in high schools as department heads have been sent back into the schools. All consultant contracts to help in literacy and mathematics have been canceled. As we speak right now, there are no more consultants working in schools to provide support.

There was even talk about whether they would undo all day kindergarten, which is essentially unheard of in the United States of America, that is now moving toward universal pre-K, and in impacted neighborhoods trying to educate three year olds because the research on this one is an absolutely overwhelming. And this is in the face that everywhere else in the country, professional development is actually growing. The strategies that were being undone are the very strategies that the rest of the nation is building on to improve performance. The reasons given for this is because they were a part of the reform plan. This is about undoing the reform plan. And underneath it, it essentially reflects the belief here that teachers do not need support to improve their practice. They should just be left in the classrooms to teach what they know and how they do that.

Smith: When you left, did you go to Alan Bersin after the school board election of November 2002 and say to Alan, “I don't think it makes sense.” I got to get out of here or did Alan Bersin say to you, “Tony you are a lightning rod. I think you got to go”?

Alvarado: I went to Alan and I told him it's time for me to leave, and a strategy was created that would make that easiest for the school system.

Smith: Namely…?

Alvarado: Well essentially, Alan agreed that I would transition out and that might create some possibilities to continue the reform because I was seen as the architect of the blue print which contained the strategies of the reform. But I went to Alan and I stayed on a year beyond the time when I first indicated to him it was time for me to leave.

Smith: Is there any place in San Diego, any elements of the reform, particularly at the grass roots level, particularly in the elementary schools, that you think might survive despite the actions the board has taken?

Alvarado: Well, I actually believe that there are individual leaders, and I believe that there are individual teachers who have learned about how to do things that ultimately you can't unlearn. And that is good news. The flip side of that coin is you can only act that way and you can only get better at what you do if there is some reasonable support in the organization to continue that work. Learned skills that aren't the practice become lost skills.

Smith: So is reform essentially dead in San Diego?

Alvarado: No, I think the jury is still out. I think the question becomes what happens next. What does the next administration do?

Hedrick, there are two perspectives that you take on reform. One is the short term that we all concentrate on: what happens here between year X and year Y? The other part is the long view, which says, “What's happening to the improvement of public education in America?” And when you take the long view there are contributions that are made to the long-term improvement of American public education. San Diego has been one of the most researched reform efforts in the history of American public education, second perhaps only to District 2. There is a lot of learning about what worked, what didn't work and why. Sometimes failures still contribute to long-term learning and I believe that while San Diego itself may not be significantly the richer for the work that we did, the American professional community of educators has learned much from the work in San Diego.

Smith: Eric Smith, in Charlotte, essentially says that the kind of training and the kind of responsibility that you are expecting from teachers and the amount of investment that you have to do in their professional development is impossible to sustain at scale and that you have to go to a more scripted system, excepting that the kinds of teachers you are able to recruit need that kind of scripting.

Alvarado: I actually believe that we have never dared to put in place the kinds of incentives to get the best people in those schools. If I paid the best teacher in the world a million dollars to teach in that school, would that person go there? Let me just ask the question. They might, they actually might. If I paid them $100,000 would they go there? I don't know but maybe. If the class sizes were 15 in the schools, rather than 30? If the best staff developers were there as opposed to the worst staff developers? If the best principals were there instead of the weakest principals? Just go down the line of every single condition that now exists in low-performing schools. They get the least talent, okay. They get the weakest teachers who teach in the worst conditions that result in the highest turnover, and that results in essentially the results that we get.

I mean I'll tell you, the only thing I know from what Eric says is he's right that what we've done up until now has not been sufficient as a function of public policy to produce the results that need to be produced in high-need low performing schools. That's a fact. The growth in those schools is frankly minute-flat or minuscule and does not lend itself for optimism right now.

I mean if we had asked this question when doctors were bleeding their patients and putting leeches on them to help them, what would we have said? We would have said that the potential life span of people is 35 years of age. That's what we would have said sixty years ago given the data that we had. We found out a lot of things that changed that: don't have the cadavers underneath the hospitals; and don't have the doctors stick their hands in the cadavers and then go up and perform an operation because you kill your patients when you do that. We did that. Bam. We massively improved mortality rates in operations. We stopped putting leeches on patients. We started developing drugs. We learned how to perform surgery. I mean the profession made progress, it made progress over time.

American public education is still in its infancy as a profession compared to where other professions are. Dick Elmore has said that American public education is the last sector of the American autonomy yet to be re-engineered. So for those people who say it can't be done under present conditions, and for those people who then run and say, “It's because it's the kind of kids who are in the schools and that can't be dealt with”, I reject that as a value, as a personal belief, and as an American social value.


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