INTERVIEW WITH ALAN BERSIN, SUPERINTENDENT (1998-2005)
San Diego City Schools
Hedrick Smith: Why did you take the job [as superintendent], you're not an educator?
Alan Bersin: I was approached by a group of civic and community leaders in
San Diego and asked if I would be interested in trying to turn around a school
system that was widely perceived in our community to be sliding. I thought about
it for a number of months and then agreed to have my name considered. From a
personal and professional standpoint it was largely driven by my commitment to
public education, the fact that I had been raised in a public education system,
and that everything I have in life I owe to my father and mother and to the public
education that I received in the '50s and '60s in New York City.
Smith: So you took it because you believed in education and public service?
Bersin: Yes, I had earned the right, after a professional life in corporate
law, to actually get an opportunity to give something back. I became the United
States Attorney in 1993 and I looked upon this portion of my life as an opportunity
to provide public service, to give something back to the community. And this
was a terrific challenge and a wonderful opportunity to continue public service.
Smith: Not being an educator, did you need an educational partner?
Bersin: No question about that. I understood that I wasn't about to teach teachers
about reading and I needed to connect with an educational leader and someone
who could educate our system as well as educate me. There was a period of three
to four months beginning in March of 1998 when I was both U.S. Attorney and the
superintendent designate. I used that opportunity to speak with many people around
the country, get suggestions, and met with a couple of perspective candidates,
and then found Tony Alvarado. Tony Alvarado was a terrific partner, and one of
the great educational leaders in this country who had taken a school district
and accomplished what we needed to do in San Diego. We needed to turn around
a system that was sliding, that had seen a long period of stagnant or declining
student achievement, and build a new chemistry, a new confidence that we could
educate a San Diego student body that had changed dramatically over the preceding
Smith: What was the state of schools? What was the state of student performance
here in San Diego in the fall of 1998?
Bersin: In September 1998 we had seen almost a decade of stagnant and even
declining test scores. While test scores are only one indicator, they are a pretty
good weather vein on a system basis or a school basis as to whether or not students
are making progress, whether or not they're getting a years worth of learning
and progress for a year's worth of seat time, if you will. San Diego had of seen
an alarming slide over the decade of the mid '80s to the late '90s, both in mathematics
and in English language arts. There was a sense in which our teachers and our
school district administrators were overwhelmed by the complete transformation
in the demographics of the system from 1977 when the system was 80% Caucasian
and middle class, to one 20 years later that was 70% children of color, with
two out of three children below the poverty line. So we had a school system that
had changed in terms of our students and the families that we were serving but
had not adjusted organizationally, culturally, or instructionally to the challenges
that it now faced.
Smith: Why did you think Tony Alvarado was particularly suited to this kind
of a challenge?
Bersin: In District 2, and earlier in the Bronx, Tony had been an educational
innovator; someone who understood that the key to improve student achievement,
particularly with kids from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, was the quality of
the teaching. If we teach it well enough, our children, held to high expectations,
will learn it. With Elaine Fink, Tony had created in District 2 proof that improved
instruction, systematically, could have a huge impact on student learning that
would be reflected not only in test scores but also in the quality of learning
and teaching that took place daily in the classroom.
Smith: As you're going about this, you and Tony Alvarado, do you have a sense
that you're doing something that's important, not only for San Diego but for
Bersin: I think Tony, being a nationally known educator, came to San Diego
in part to test the proposition that what he had accomplished with Elaine Fink
and the principals and teachers in District 2 could be done at scale.
Smith: So what did you and Tony Alvarado set out to do here in San Diego starting
Bersin: We understood that the task was to improve student achievement, that
first and foremost the purpose was to hold all of our students to high expectations
and to provide quality teaching systematically and district-wide that was necessary
to lift the floor and raise the ceiling on student achievement in San Diego.
The theory of action was very specific: improve the teaching, improve the quality
of instruction and we will see gains in student learning.
Smith: And so what kind of infrastructure did you try to put in place?
Bersin: The theory of action based on improved teaching required that we put
together an infrastructure for the principals to learn to become instructional
leaders, and learn about how to lead faculties to improve teaching. So you're
talking about a massive investment to select, recruit, train and retain school
So what did we do? First, we changed the way in which we selected principals.
We moved toward a system in which the emphasis was put upon leading instruction,
not being a campus manager, although, operationally that would be required. But
the main criteria was “do you understand what good instruction looks like?” “Can
you see yourself as a learner that will improve your skill and knowledge, both
in terms of coaching teachers, but also in terms of your own professionalism
as an instructional leader?” The second was to invest massively in building knowledge
in the system for our teachers to not only recognize and honor the profession
of teaching, but to recognize that we needed to make a huge investment in skill
and knowledge district-wide.
Smith: What does that mean?
Bersin: We invested massively in increasing the knowledge base of our system,
and that was done by outside consultants. We also created visitation within faculties,
between schools, and among learning communities.
Smith: So you're teaching teachers?
Bersin: Coaching teachers. I had a coach in Tony Alvarado. Tony was being coached
by colleagues. Together we coached our instructional leaders. Our instructional
leaders coached our principals. Our principals coached our teachers and our teachers
coached our students. The point here is to make students the engines of their
own learning so that they learn about becoming learners. This is about critical
thinking and clear communication but it's also based on the coaching model, adults
and students working together to improve their knowledge base. We had to invest
in a peer-coaching infrastructure. Master teachers who were peer coaches in large
numbers started applying to become principals because the value was placed on
teaching and learning. So master teachers who in the past had looked upon administration
as crossing over to the other side, in this system it became the premium in which
leadership was judged and valued. It led to a massive change over the last seven
Smith: How many schools do you have and how many principals have been changed
over the last seven years?
Bersin: We have just under 200 schools in the system and from 1998 to 2005,
only 10% of the principals who were in place and leading schools in 1998 are
at the same schools seven years later. Overall, approximately four out of five
of our principals are new people who have come in to the system and, I think,
injected a really healthy dose of innovation, courage and instructional leadership
into the system.
Smith: You said you invested heavily in teacher development, staff development,
peer coaching and so forth. I mean what does a big investment mean?
Bersin: In 1998, San Diego City Schools, which had a $1.1 billion budget, invested
less than one-tenth of 1% in teacher training and professional development focused
on math and literacy skills. By the high watermark of our reform we had increased
that number to almost 6.5% of the budget or $65 million.
Smith: So you went from $1 million to $65 million on teacher training?
Smith: So this big investment, $1 million to $65 million in teacher training,
was the key to your strategy?
Bersin: When you look at the peer coaches in literacy and math, and the investment
in their skill and knowledge, and the investment in inter-visitation, and the
investment in providing time for teachers to conduct study groups, yes it was
a huge investment, an enormous one. We made an investment of more than a quarter
of a billion dollars in our teachers, in honoring the need to support their growth
and their transformation as the critical path to improving student achievement.
Smith: So you make this enormous investment and yet you get tremendous resistance
from the teachers, why?
Bersin: The change process, both in terms of an organization and a system as
well as the transformation that we were asking our professionals to make. Something
I didn't understand at the outset of the change, but learned and understand in
ways now that make me honor teachers even more, is that teaching had previously
been in San Diego and elsewhere a private practice. It really hadn't changed
much from the years when I was in public school, where teachers would go into
a classroom, close the door, pull down the little shade over the window. And
in retrospect it depended on how good the teaching was and how great the teacher
was as to whether or not students made progress in terms of their own learning.
What we were asking teachers to do in San Diego, at scale, was to make public
school teaching a public enterprise, with peer review, peer coaching, principal
evaluation. An entirely public event was completely new for many of our teachers
who in the past basically had been left alone to deal with issues of teaching
and learning on their own. And we were asking for an entire change in that.
Smith: Let me just ask you about you and Tony as a team. What kind of chemistry
was there between you and Tony?
Bersin: It was terrific chemistry, and it remains terrific chemistry. We were
partners and had become close friends. Tony had a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban
father. I come from Jews from Byelorussia near the Ukraine. We bonded terrifically
because first and foremost, we both grew up in New York. And while I'm a Californian
and raised my family here, and consider myself a Californian, all of the differences
and the beautiful diversity of America, particularly in New York, gave us a common
platform from which we built both intellectually and emotionally a very strong
relationship that I think sustained a lot of the very difficult changes that
we lived through together.
Smith: So do you have a sense as you guys start out on this reform that you're
really going to take on the sacred cows here, that you're going to turn a system
almost upside down?
Bersin: No, in fact, the tumult of the change really resulted from the pace
of the change, and the pace of the change was not something that we chose deliberately.
I think we both understood the notion that there would be pain and that there
would be a transformational restructuring that would take people out of their
comfort zone. But the degree of the conflict here really stemmed from the pace
that, in many ways, was forced on us by the political circumstances that existed
here in San Diego.
Smith: Why did you have to go faster because of the context?
Bersin: I almost remember the very clear point of decision on that, Rick, after
we had negotiated the peer coaching arrangement with the California teacher's
association here in San Diego, which led us to an agreement, but it was an agreement
that in many ways didn't make sense. It was watered down. It didn't really serve
the ends to which all of us were purportedly working. And it was so bitter in
terms of the way it was negotiated, something I frankly had not seen either as
a corporate litigator as a Federal prosecutor in terms of the inability to settle,
and make agreements and not let every disagreement become the occasion for a
war, an emotional outburst. I realized that we were faced with a very big dilemma
given the implacable hostility that was confronting us here from the union.
I understood how the union had come to this. There had been a very bitter strike
two years before. The union won the strike by persuading the public that the
school board's positions were unreasonable. And frankly, the union …seemed to
have a veto power, and understood itself to have a veto power over every decision.
Once Tony and I grasped that that was the political context, the calculation
went something like this: the average school superintendent in urban America
lasted, at that point, no more than 30 months. The union tactic, as I saw it,
was that “we're just going to wait this out and we're not going to actually cooperate
and we're simply going to wait this out until these two intruders and outsiders
leave.” Once I understood that that was the political challenge, we knew that
we needed to increase dramatically the pace of change and that, in fact, there
was going to be a huge price to pay politically in terms of the dysfunction and
dissention in the system.
Smith: So what you're saying is, union opposition early on caused you to speed
up the tempo of your reform because you felt you had no other alternative?
Bersin: No question about that. I understood that from the beginning. I also
understood that unless we won the hearts and minds of our teachers that this
reform would never be sustained, that in fact, people, professionals need to
embrace the practice if it's going to last.
Smith: So you had to do the change first, and then let the teacher see the
results, and then come to believe in the reform?
Bersin: That was the theory of action. And while some would consider it a photo
finish, I think seven years later that's exactly what's happened in San Diego.
And the large majority of our teachers have embraced this change and I think
you'll see it in our schools. When you go into the classroom and when you talk
to our teachers, many will say, “We don't like the way it was done, but we are
better teachers than we were seven years ago.” I think it's fair to say that
significant first stage changes in a large system like public education take
seven to ten years.
Smith: John deBeck says it was far too fast, too much too soon. What's your
response to that?
Bersin: What we had to do was actually confront the fact that educational reform
has been defeated year in and year out in urban America by those who resist change.
Those who are tied to old ways of seeing and doing simply wait out the reformers.
To overcome that cycle, to break that, required that we move quickly.
I come from a South Brooklyn union community where I was trained early on that
you never cross picket lines. I have trained my own children about that. So this
is not about having any personal animus or hatred or antipathy. I've been the
member of two unions myself, and so it's important that we put that in perspective.
This is not about personal animosity. It's not about hatred. This is about an
institution that's caught between the past and the future.
This institution is in the hands of people who are fearful, anxious about losing
status and are not leading their people. I've met teacher union leaders in Denver
in Anne Arundel, who understand that in order for the franchise to survive,
teacher unions have to help contribute to improving student achievement. We don't
have that in California now, and we didn't have it in San Diego in 1998.
Smith: Let me just ask you point blank, do you feel as though from the beginning
that you're in a battle over who was going to control the running of the school
Bersin: Yes, I think the rearrangement of the power was a big sticking point.
Let me give you a good example. After the instructional leaders were selected
the notion was that principals were going to become instructional leaders. To
do that, they needed to be in classrooms to work with teachers, to do walkthroughs
and to engage with teachers on instructional practice. Some of our principals
hadn't been in classrooms for years and years and years except to do the very
formal teacher evaluations that are prescribed by statute – the checklists and
the analysis. The first telephone call I get from the union on this is, “You
can't have principals going to classrooms, that's an evaluation.” So I say, “Well,
it's not an evaluation. They're in classrooms to engage with teachers about instruction,
about teaching.” “That's an evaluation.” So I'd say, “Well, you have to show
me where in the contract that the principals are barred from being in classrooms.” And
I get a remarkable response, which is, “It doesn't matter what's in the contract.” I'd
say, “It doesn't matter what's in the contract? Then what's requiring this to
happen?” He'd say, “Because we don't want it to happen.” You know, that's the
kind of dialog.
Smith: So it's one thing after another. There's a battle over who's going to
decide what's going to happen, can you run the school system or not?
Bersin: Yes, and one would hope you'd find a balance. There has got to be a
balance between top-down and bottom-up. I understood that, but we couldn't get
any traction on finding the common ground because everything was looked at as
an issue of power. And the theory of school reform became all power exercised
at the site.
Smith: At the school?
Bersin: At the school. And the difficulty was that site-based decision making
doesn't make sense if there's insufficient skill and knowledge at the school
site to make progress for kids. Not enough skill and knowledge at the school
site really led to this idea that the district's got to take a major role in
using its resources to improve the knowledge base, to have teachers know more
and be able to teach better.
Smith: Let's take an issue: peer coaches. Okay, so one of the things that Tony
Alvarado had done in New York in District 2, which obviously attracted you, was
this tremendous emphasis on teacher development, teacher training, having coaches
in and out of the classroom. So what did you guys want to do here in San Diego
and what was the response from the union?
Bersin: When the original peer coach concept was raised there was actually
agreement on it. Everybody agreed that it would be good for peer coaches to be
in schools to work with teachers. But here's where the rub came. How do you select
them? Who selects them?
Smith: But you and Tony wanted to do that, to run that, right?
Bersin: It didn't have to be selected by Tony and me. It needed to be selected
by people who could make a judgment about the skill level of a particular teacher.
That ran into a blanket opposition. The union proposal was, “Teachers know best
and teachers should select their own peer coach.” And then the question was, “Well,
what if they're not knowledgeable? What if they're being picked because they're
popular in the teacher lounge? What happens then?” “Well, then the teachers would
move to remove them.” So we made a proposal. Tony and I said, “Well, let's do
this then. Let's create a pool of people who are certified as being master teachers
and then teachers could select anyone they want from this pool of people.” “No,
that's not acceptable.” So we ended up with sort of a horse that looked a little
like a mule. The process that was mediated by San Diego State's president and
the head of San Diego Dialogue was that faculties would pick a peer coach who
would then go through a San Diego State literacy course, and the instructors
at San Diego State would then determine whether or not that person had sufficient
skill and knowledge. I mean it was a little backwards.
Smith: Alvarado said he was never satisfied with that, that he really wanted
either himself or his people – people who knew good teaching – to select the
teachers, the peer coaches.
Bersin: There was no question. You wouldn't want someone to be a batting coach
who was hitting.190 and had never been able to demonstrate any knowledge about
batting. This was about whether or not we would get expertise and build up the
level of knowledge in the system. What this peculiar system meant over time was
instead of having eight out of ten peer coaches be really terrific, it was closer
to five or six out of ten who were really the quality people that could really
lift the level of instruction. This becomes about what will make the adults feel
good in the system, rather than what the kids need for improved education. It's
a conflict that is really central to the challenge that we face in public education
Smith: You said the union was heavy handed. They say you were heavy handed
and they cite particularly the firing of those 13 principals at the end of your
first year. Talk about that; what was that about?
Bersin: The fault line of the school board was the union. There were two union
supported board members and three business and civic community board members.
This was a polarization I inherited. In fact, I was hired on a 3-2 vote.
That decision at the end of the first year on the administrators was actually
a unanimous vote by the board and what it recognized was that there needed to
be a change in direction, that in fact, these particular administrators were
not in accord with the instructional changes, with the new vision of leadership.
This is not an occasion for blaming them personally, but they could not see themselves
as instructional leaders, would not act as instructional leaders, did not engage
the new vision for school leadership, and needed to be removed. This was intended
to build some traction to the reform, and also was really putting a marker down.
It was supported unanimously, there was no complaint, not from the board nor
from the teacher's union. This was not something that I particularly enjoyed
personally, but I didn't shy away from the need to say, “Look, we're moving in
a new direction and if you can't go there, then you need to leave.”
Smith: But it caused an enormous uproar. You did the removal but did you deliberately
make it public?
Bersin: No, in fact that was a great regret on my part. That was supposed to
be confidential and remain confidential, and it was largely a mistake for which
I'm accountable. I took responsibility that those names got out into the media.
And then the media reacting to the first change of this kind made it into an
unpleasant experience for everyone, particularly for the affected administrators.
Smith: You say it was a mistake, a mistake by the public relations people,
not from the board?
Bersin: Yes. The names were not supposed to be released in the way that they
found their way into the public almost immediately.
Smith: So somebody on your staff made a mistake?
Bersin: Yes and I'm accountable for that mistake, but this was not deliberate.
Smith: What about the business about being escorted out by the security guards?
Bersin: A member of the general council's office who was here before, actually
confirmed that that was the practice beforehand, as it was the practice in the
private sector, with which I was familiar. And frankly I regret that, not only
because of the perception publicly but because it turned out that the people
were deeply affected by that. The truth was that I was concerned because it had
never happened before. I followed the practice because I was concerned that there
would be security, both at the school site and for the people involved. I freely
concede that it was not perceived that way and it was a mistake.
Smith: People were intimidated?
Bersin: You know, this intimidation is a charge that was made in the beginning
and I understand that. I think that it is almost entirely dissipated. My family
and I have been subjected to the worst vilification politically that I've ever
seen. I understood that came with the territory.
Smith: Francis Zimmerman compared you to Hitler?
Bersin: I leave the record to speak on that. The fact of the matter is in all
of these years I have never actually responded at all and I don't intend to do
it in the context of this interview. I've never responded to those odious comparisons,
or to lots of other similar things that have been said about me.
Smith: But Francis Zimmerman seemed to want to personalize it. People wanted
to personalize it.
Bersin: It was completely repulsive and yet I think the tape of my response
shows that I was agitated. I was upset, but I didn't respond in kind.
Smith: You mentioned inheriting a polarization on the board. Can school reform
be effectively carried out when there is polarization on a school board, and
presumably that reflects polarization within the community?
Bersin: Yes, this was a school board that was divided 3-2 in hiring me and
ironically I thought that I could heal that division. I mean I had been a corporate
lawyer so I knew that a 3-2 board vote was not the best platform from which to
launch a major school reform. I actually thought that I could heal with my background
and my political affiliation and the fact that these were five Democrats. I was
wrong. I didn't understand that the fault line was the teacher's union leadership.
Smith: So you're saying both Fran Zimmerman and John deBeck are, in effect,
union representatives on the board?
Bersin: I think that was pretty clear. Fran met with me four times in six years.
She'd meet regularly with those who were plotting to undermine the reform, but
that's her right. She had a right to do that. Mr. deBeck was much more professional
and open. We had differences of views and respected each other even though we
didn't agree. But this was a polarized board. This was a board that was led by
Ron Ottinger, who was one of the outstanding board members in California, and
supported by Sue Braun and Ed Lopez and then by Kathrine Nakamura. These were
people who were willing to put up with the same kind of vilification that our
team was, and they lived through all of this. The dissenting members of the board
never accepted the decision of the board. This reform could not have begun or
continued without having a strong board. The polarization was there, but I don't
understand how this could ever be done by consensus.
Smith: Take me outside the board for a moment. The board elections themselves
were bitter and acrimonious. The business community and the teacher's union leadership,
actually, was very dysfunctional, both in the 2000 election and in the 2002 election.
Both sides made these huge investments in the form of political contributions – $700,000
by the business community in 2000 and $700,000 by the teacher's union in 2002.
Neither side won the political election. I think the lesson is that school board
elections have to be looked at, and can't be converted into these pitched battles.
A larger issue that we have to look at is whether or not school board elections
really remain viable in 21st century America. With the taxing authority
to raise money for schools shifting to the state, have school boards outlived
their historical function?
Bersin: They may have, although I don't think that having the state legislature
act as a super school board is particularly effective either. I think that has
its disadvantages. I mean it's not a yes or no, because I think what we have
to do is find the right institutions that serve us so.
Smith: But you're suggesting the school boards we have aren't right.
Bersin: No, I'm saying that having democratically elected school boards in which you
have school board candidates at the bottom of the ballot, not many people know about
them. It gives a special place for either an employee group to contribute large amounts
of money or to organize to get certain people elected. It gives the business community
the chance to do the same. It may not be the best way of selecting those who we want
to make policy about public education. So I think that explains why you are seeing school
boards in the east of the Mississippi now being appointed by the mayor or the city council.
It's happening in Chicago, New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia. I think that's a
trend that we have to look at. It's not perfect, but does do away with the idea of having
a down ballot invisible election in which people are elected who may or may not be the
best to make policy. In the southwest you have right-to-work states in which you don't
have the same situation. I'm suggesting that we are looking at an institution that has
served us well but we should be looking at it.What's the best way to make policy for
public schools? What's the best way to create a link of public education to democracy?
We need that link critically, but I'm not sure that we've got it right now.
Smith: How many teachers do you have today?
Bersin: We have about 8500 teachers.
Smith: How many do you think are for the reform?
Bersin: Given the turnover in teaching that's taken place over the seven years,
I believe that we have 85+% of the teachers with us in the sense of focusing
on the work. I'll give you one example. As part of the new board review, while
looking at English language arts curriculum there is an ongoing debate, it's
in California and elsewhere, about whether or not the balanced literacy framework
that we've been working with in San Diego should be replaced by a return to the
basal reader. When that matter was brought up, 200 teachers turned up at the
education center to speak about how they don't want to go back. They understood
how to … blend a decoding and word study and phonemic awareness with comprehension
and with critical thinking and clear communication.
One teacher came up to me, I remember it was a second grade teacher from Curie
Elementary, and she said to me, “Do you remember when you and Tony came out to
our school and we argued so much with you about the balanced literacy and that
you were forcing us to buy new classroom libraries and we wanted to use the money
for videotapes or VCRs.” And I said, “I remember the debate very well.” She said, “Thank
goodness that you persevered, and that you stayed the course, because I've been
teaching in this system for 27 years and I am a far better teacher today than
I was seven years ago.” But that's not a unique story in terms of people saying, “Look
this was tough; it was rough. We had to question all of our values, all of our
practices for 20 years before that. But we're better teachers now.” And think
about all of the new teachers who have grown up – the teacher who has been in
the system for seven years now knows no other way than high expectations for
kids, all kids can learn. “We have to teach them if they are going to learn and
in order for us to deal with these learning issues we have to get better.” I
think it's 85 to 90% of the teachers who are currently in the system.
Smith: Some people have said that you asked Tony to leave because you were
carrying a lot of baggage politically for the reform… and Tony had become a lightning
rod. He was a New Yorker. He was an outsider. There were cultural clashes. And
therefore it was smart, and it was something that both you and he could agree
upon that it was time for him to go to try to reduce that.
Bersin: I think that summarizes it. Tony had become a lightning rod, as I was a lightning
rod. Tony felt that many of the changes that needed to take place were not going to
take place as quickly as he would like. It was really a mutual accommodation. But I
read it as being that part of the change process where the original visionary, the purist
if you will, has to give way to more pragmatic considerations. We needed to consolidate,
and I don't think Tony really disagreed with that.
He and I talked a long time about how this change process ought to work, what
the change sequences were, what the consequences of staying were, and that, in
fact, the system would not be able to absorb more than at the point it was – it
was not the time to push forward.
Smith: So he had his best shot and pragmatically it was time to move into another phase.
Bersin: Well, I think that's one way to characterize it. You know everybody plays a
role in these things. Nobody's indispensable, and that's absolutely the truth. This
is a long transformation of public education we're talking about… a larger issue here
about public education and how you educate people to the reform. If you go into any
a group of community leaders in virtually any city in America and ask how many people
can talk for more than a minute and a half about what standards based reform is, in
terms of the driving force of the reform movement, you'll find only a handful – 5% at
the most – can actually articulate what it is we're attempting to do in the schools.
So this problem of public education is much larger than whether this political tactic
works, or this person was persuasive enough. There is a huge issue of understanding.
The most effective way, in terms of responsiveness from the public, of selling
the San Diego reform was presenting it as “back to basics”. You know, it was
anything but “back to basics.” It was about a sophisticated
balanced literacy program. But the way in which people wanted to understand it
is, this was going to be better and more three r's – reading, writing and arithmetic.
And, in fact, in public education we have a huge gap between what people think
is happening and what in fact needs to happen, and how that happens in terms
of providing resources in a standards based system.
Smith: Ron Ottinger, who is certainly with you most, if not all, the way says
he thinks you all lost a public relations battle.
Bersin: I think there's no question we lost a public relations battle or didn't win it.
But, we have survived for seven years. There isn't another reform that I know
of in a school district of 100,000 students or more that actually sustained itself
over seven years. I wish the political coalition that spearheaded the reform
could have lasted forever. That's not the way the world works.
Smith: In terms of what you yourself have stated was the number one goal of
reform, what do you think your seven years of reform delivered?
Bersin: In K-8 we've seen significant growth in terms of student performance.
I think by any of the usual measures, the California standards test, or the No
child Left Behind indicators, that San Diego stacks up quite well. In fact, San
Diego is now, together with Long Beach and now San Francisco, the school districts
that have met all of the 46 federal indicators. But it goes beyond the test scores.
I think when you go into the classroom you see a different
quality teacher and learning going on, the majority of them, according to our
principals and instructional leaders. So I think that the challenge that we have
is that we haven't seen progress in high school. The biggest challenge here in
San Diego, and across California and the nation, is to take the same kind of
energy that went into improving the primary grades in particular, but K-8 generally.
We need to invest the same kind of thought process, creativity, and political
will to change the American high school because I think it's clear that that
institution is sorely in need of repair for so many of your young people.
Smith: You had a new school board elected in November 2004. In very short order
they began to dismantle the infrastructure. What was your reaction? Did you fight
the board when they wanted to get rid of peer coaches, the Leadership Academy, and the outside consultants?
Bersin: I stated my view clearly, and the board understood that I thought there
were errors being made that they would come to regret. But unlike a lot of people,
I always saw this infrastructure as a means to an end. I always understood that
this particular state of affairs was not the be all and end all.
I'm more impressed by the evidence of the culture change than I am by saying
that these structures are the reform. They were not the reform. The point of
the reform was to improve student achievement by improving the teaching in the