Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

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district wide reform

San Diego, California

A US History class in San Diego

A US History class in San Diego.

San Diego's school system in the late 1990s became a test of whether a reform strategy that was successful elsewhere could be replicated in a new setting with a larger student population. Anthony Alvarado – working for the locally appointed superintendent, Alan Bersin – faced the challenge of transplanting his successful reform formula from New York City's District 2 to San Diego's sprawling 200-school, 140,000-student district near the Mexican border. In the process, San Diego became a battleground between entrenched advocates of site-based control at the school level and the top-down strategies of educational leaders like Alvarado and Bersin who believed that reform had to be expanded and driven by the school district.

In 1998, San Diego's school board turned to a former U.S. district attorney, Alan Bersin, as school superintendent. Bersin, needing educational expertise, invited Anthony Alvarado to join him as academic chancellor. Using a blueprint of the District 2 strategy, they made improved instruction their first priority. They reallocated $65 million a year to finance better training and mentoring for teachers and principals, established three-hour teaching blocks for literacy and created a leadership academy to train new principals in the Alvarado method.

The Bersin-Alvarado team moved boldly, though they had come into office with only a razor-thin 3-2 majority on the local school board. The board, reflecting divisions within the city, became an arena for constant battling over reform. Bersin's decision to fire 13 principals at the end of their first year caused an explosion of protest. By 2001, student scores showed improvement on state tests, but Bersin and Alvarado had become embroiled in a running conflict with the teachers union, the San Diego Education Association, over such issues as who would control policy, who would pick peer coaches to train teachers and whether to hire outside consultants to run staff development for teachers. The union fought for site-based control rather than central command, arguing that teachers in individual schools were better judges of reform strategies than outsiders.

In New York, Alvarado had developed his reform strategies gradually, working with the teachers union (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers). In San Diego, his reform blueprint was already well formed and Bersin pushed the plan ahead rapidly. The union charged that Bersin and Alvarado were moving too fast, demanding too much. The two leaders lacked the personal relationships with union leaders that Alvarado had developed over 30 years in New York. In San Diego, Alvarado admitted, “we were outsiders... and outsiders implies not knowing people, not having relationships, cultural differences.”

By 2002, Alvarado felt reform was being so watered down and that he had become a lightning rod of union discontent that he quit. For three more years, Bersin tried to keep the reform on track, but in 2005 was forced out after a school board election overturned the pro-reform majority. The new board wasted little time in dismantling reform, ending the peer coach system and terminating Bersin's contract. Even so, San Diego made gains in elementary and middle school student performance, especially in reading; the district showed no improvement at the high school level.

Contact Information

San Diego City Schools
Eugene Brucker Education Center
4100 Normal Street
San Diego, CA 92103

Some Research Articles and Evaluations

“Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego,” (2005), edited by Fredrick Hess, Harvard University Press
This book explores critical issues pertaining to urban school reform by looking closely at the recent reform efforts in San Diego. The essays by various scholars and practitioners consider crucial dimensions of reform in the San Diego schools, including performance, governance, the external environment, central leadership and management, district infrastructure, support services and school-level instructional efforts.,bookID.816/book_detail.asp

"From Blueprint to Reality: San Diego's Education Reforms," (2005), by Julian R. Betts, Andrew C. Zau, and Kevin King, Public Policy Institute of California

This report documents how the San Diego reform was implemented and provides an analysis of the impact of specific elements of the reforms on student achievement. It compares the relative effectiveness of interventions such as the after-school reading program, summer school, and double and triple-length English classes, and offers tentative policy recommendations for policy makers in other districts.

“San Diego's Big Boom: District Bureaucracy Supports Culture of Learning,” (2002), by Amy Hightower, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy
This report details the first three years of San Diego's district-wide reform as the Bersin administration reorganizes the central office around the new instructional agenda. Major thrusts of the reform are described along with the reaction of participants. The report also wrestles with the idea that large-scale district-wide reform requires top-down, even bureaucratic methods to change the culture to focus on instruction. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

“Growing Instructional Capacity in Two San Diego Middle Schools,” (2003), by Barbara Neufeld and Dana Roper, Education Matters Inc.
This report focuses on two San Diego middle schools and how they utilize school-based professional development to improve teaching and learning under the new reform agenda. These two underperforming schools were provided with additional funding for staff developers to provide coaching to teachers in the classroom. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

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