Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

Alan Bersin and John de Beck

In San Diego, superintendent Alan Bersin, left, pushed centralized reform, which was opposed by school board member John de Beck, right.

district wide reform

by Sam Hornblower

The seven-year battle for school reform in San Diego mirrors a war of ideas that continues to rage across the United States.

For more than two decades, two opposing theories of reform have clashed on the national stage: one side trusts each individual school to decide its own strategy for success; the other believes that the unified leadership and coherent vision of a school district's central office is needed to implement positive change at scale.

In San Diego, before Alan Bersin and Anthony Alvarado came to lead the district in 1998 as superintendent and academic chancellor, principals and teachers were in charge. “ You had a very balkanized system,” says Ron Ottinger, former San Diego school board president. “And in that culture, teachers basically ran the schools and they did whatever they felt was best at their schools.”

San Diego subscribed to the then-prevailing wisdom across the country: interference from the district ought to be kept to a minimum. This underlying assumption fit with a national movement to build reform “school-by-school.” This reform movement had emerged in the 1980s, when many Americans became alarmed at the country's declining international competitiveness.

“Site based” reform was the fashion among teacher's unions, administrators, politicians, business leaders, academics and foundation directors. “The conversation at the time was, if you were going to try to fix schools, you would to have to do it without the central office,” says Michael Casserly, Executive Director of Council of the Great City Schools. “You would to have to do it ‘school-by-school,' and go around the bureaucracy, because the bureaucracy itself was the problem.”

The idea was to empower local principals and individual teachers and make the schoolhouse the locus of change. The role of the central office was limited to offering each school the freedom and resources it needed. Local administrators and teachers knew their students better than anyone, certainly more than a bloated, often flat-footed bureaucracy, so the theory went.

Educators, such as Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins University and Yale's James Comer, developed dozens of new curricula, instructional methods, and school reform models, to be provided directly to individual schools. The charter school and school voucher movements sought further distance from district headquarters, demanding independence and individual choice. In decentralized models, the spotlight focused on the principal as the agent of change, armed with the authority to choose among the models created by experts.

But results were slow and uneven. The gains often depended on the talent of an innovative principal and frequently collapsed when that leader left the school. Moreover, scaling up the progress of an isolated school—translating an individual school's accomplishments into comprehensive gains throughout a city school system—proved difficult.

“There was a lot of frustration,” says Casserly of the response to ‘school-by-school' reform's sluggish pace. Presidents, governors and many reformers were dissatisfied.

“The ‘school-by-school' reform model probably touched 8,000 to 10,000 schools” out of 90,000, says Steve Fleischman, of American Institutes for Research. “That's a drop in the bucket of the number of schools that need to be improved… So you start to say, ‘well, what can we do at the district level?'”

Some reformers saw the need for a common curriculum chosen and implemented by the district, and an outside authority that would hold every school accountable for improving the quality of instruction and student achievement. Reformers began to see that school districts could become a staging area to drive positive change. The central office could be used to efficiently coach teachers and reallocate resources to struggling schools.

In 1989, a national governor's conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, focused attention on raising educational standards. Five years later, Congress passed the hard-fought “Goals 2000” legislation, pushing states to develop standards and tests to measure the performance of schools and districts. Texas and North Carolina, among others, passed laws holding districts accountable for the performance of students and schools. Districts could intervene when necessary and place failing schools under state control.

One of the pioneers of district reform was Tony Alvarado, then superintendent of New York City's District 2. Beginning in the late '80s, Alvarado searched his district and the world for the best way to teach students to read. Improving instruction became the focal point of his effort to reform the district's 48 schools and 22,000 students. Alvarado sent master teachers, coaches and mentors into every classroom to lift the practice of teaching and he freed principals from administrative work, fixing their attention on instruction.

Alvarado's top-down approach raised student performance across the district's 48 schools, and raised the eyebrows of many educators. “There was a lot of cynicism about whether districts could add any value to individual schools,” says Warren Simmons, Executive Director of the Annenberg Institute of School Reform at Brown University. “Tony Alvarado proved that districts actually could make a difference.”

The District 2 example helped to change two decades of conventional wisdom about school reform, and cities across the country began to mount district-wide reforms, cities like Sacramento, Charlotte, Houston, San Antonio, Memphis, and Boston. The emerging “standards movement” was shifting school reform's center of gravity towards the district leadership, and away from the individual school principal.

This shift became popular with political and business leaders, eager to see large-scale reform move rapidly in America's major cities. In San Diego, for instance, key urban stakeholders, including the Chamber of Commerce, moved into the reform arena with heavy campaign contributions to school board elections. Local teachers, they said, could not reliably lead large-scale reform.

But in San Diego, localized school governance was especially entrenched. “Teachers controlled the educational program at schools through school-site counsels,” says former board president Ron Ottinger. The board's reform faction saw the city's schools as a disorganized jumble with scores of different reading programs, each school with its own ideas about how to teach reading. “We had 180 schools going 180 different directions on instruction,” says Ottinger. “Teachers didn't have time to find out what the best research was… or the capacity to figure out how to create a common approach across the system.”

The business community soon marshaled a narrow school board majority to pick an unconventional school superintendent—Alan Bersin, a tough federal prosecutor known for policing the Mexican border, but with virtually no experience in education. He was hired to restore order and uniformity to the system, and raise achievement by supporting instructors and holding them accountable for raising student achievement.

Bersin tapped New York's star superintendent, Anthony Alvarado, to provide the substance of his program and to execute a reform across the 140,000-student district. Alvarado brought with him a battle-tested reform plan—a “Blueprint for Student Success”—from his District 2 playbook. “ Bersin and Alvarado came in saying that the old system has failed, that it hasn't raised achievement in San Diego, ” said board member Ron Ottinger.

The district leadership faced unyielding opposition from a strong teacher's union, convinced that instructors at the grassroots were better suited to carry out school reform, and that a top-down approach was misguided. The union, the San Diego Education Association, fought implementation of Alvarado's New York scheme. It was uncomfortable with the principals' new roles as instructional leaders taking orders from a central hierarchy. And many teachers were deeply opposed to opening their classrooms to outside consultants and coaches bent on implementing the Alvarado curriculum and method.

During negotiations over the reforms, Bersin failed repeatedly to find common ground with the teacher's union. The bitter quarrel over what to name the new teacher trainers—Alvarado's ‘staff developers' or the union's ‘peer coaches'— illustrates the rift. “A fter the peer coach negotiation, it became clear that there would be no collaboration,” said Bersin.

Robin Whitlow, Executive Director of the teacher's union, explained: “We very intentionally picked the word ‘peer' because it was a non-evaluative peer that would sit with you, watch you teach, exchange ideas… That trust relationship would be insured if teachers were able to select their peer coach at their sites…Mr. Alvarado talked about the concept of ‘staff developers'. He wanted to be able to choose all the peer coaches himself.”

The battle between the competing visions of site-based vs. district-directed reform was fought out constantly in the San Diego school board which was split narrowly, 3-2, in favor of reform, with the two opponents on the board largely representing the union's dedication to site-based reform and opposed to the centralized Bersin-Alvarado strategy.

From 1998 until the 2004 school board election, Bersin used his tenuous board majority to centralize the running of the San Diego school district. But with the 2004 election putting a new anti-Bersin majority into power, the new board wasted no time in cutting Bersin's contract short, dismantling other elements of reform, and scrapping the peer coach system.

The San Diego reforms had a few limited successes. Scores in elementary and middle schools improved, while in high school the results were flat. The achievement gap between disadvantaged minorities and mainstream kids narrowed in kindergarten through eighth grade. But overall, the effort fell short of Bersin and Alvarado's expectations.

In the end, the aggressive war of dueling reform ideologies — and the failure of either concept to gain a solid consensus — led to an uninspiring coda to the Bersin years. Says Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools, “It is almost impossible to get academic improvement if the leadership of the school district is simply going to be squabbling and fighting over adult issues that have nothing to do with the academic performance of kids.”

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