INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN WHITLOW, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR San Diego Education Association (SDEA)
Hedrick Smith: Tell me, Robin, back in 1998 at the end of Bertha Pendleton's
term as superintendent what was the state of education at San Diego from the point
of view of the teachers and the teachers union. Was the city doing well? Were there
Robin Whitlow: I think the state that we were in in 1998, during Bertha Pendleton's
term, was that we had reconciled the fact that after a contentious strike it
was time to work together and that if we collaborated we could create a better
product for the children that we were teaching. And so we put together a number
of different projects on student accountability, on working together to increase
student learning, that made everybody very hopeful and created an environment
where the San Diego Unified School District was referenced as the lighthouse
reform school district for the nation.
So there was a great deal of hope that we were going to improve student learning
from where it was and had a nice joint vision of where we wanted to go.
Smith: And what about student performance? There were people clearly in the
business leadership and some of the civic leaders in the city who felt dissatisfied
with education performance. Was that a view point that the union and the teachers
share or were people pretty satisfied with test scores?
Whitlow: I don't think teachers are ever satisfied that students are learning
enough. But what we did have is a vision of improving education. San Diego Unified
as a large urban [district] is probably a little bit different because in the
large urban category it was the best performing of all the large urbans. And
what we wanted to do together was to increase that student learning and increase
the achievement, and we were working together to do that. So I can't say that
we were satisfied. We wanted to work together to make it better and we were working
together to do that.
Smith: What was the initial reaction to the appointment of Alan Bersin as superintendent?
After all he wasn't an educator. He was a lawyer; he had been district attorney
here. So he's an unconventional choice in that sense. What was the reaction to
Whitlow: I think that the reaction to his appointment was hope; it was hope that a
new person with a new vision who came to us with good credentials and recommendations
would open up the doors for us to continue the partnership. And I know that in the community
there was some upsets, particularly the Hispanic community was upset because of his
gatekeeper role with the border. But the educators had high hopes that he would bring
in additional resources for a partnership that would improve student education or student
Smith: And what was the reaction to the choice of Tony Alvarado as the school's chancellor,
as the educational chief if you will?
Whitlow: I think on the whole people were very excited with Tony Alvarado's choice
and, in fact, when the school board was looking for a new superintendent SDEA actually
lobbied that Tony Alvarado be hired as the superintendent so there was a great deal
of excitement about his appointment. When he actually came here and we became exposed
to some of his strategies and his working philosophy we started to shift our point of
view. But the original appointment was something that was pretty exciting to everybody.
Smith: What were you excited about and what went astray?
Whitlow: What we were excited about was Mr. Alvarado gives an excellent presentation
on reform, on student learning – how to increase student achievement, how to address
best practice – and it's a wonderful, very emotional presentation of how we can look
at where we are and where we need to go and how to get there. When he actually came
to San Diego he was no longer giving a speech. He was in a job and he was working with
people who are professionals who also had a vision and passion. And what we discovered
over and over again was that we were disrespected, discounted, and closed out of any
So that you know, teachers have never been opposed to reform. In fact I don't
think there's anything you can do to stop teachers from getting better resources
and supplies and strategies to help kids learn. But they were never at the table
when Tony Alvarado was making decisions. He came with an idea that was fairly
rigid and not inclusive of teachers or parents when he was making the changes
in this school district.
Smith: Interesting to hear this because when you talk to people in the United Federation
of Teachers, the teachers organization in New York – and they certainly had their differences
with Alvarado there is no question about that, they disagreed about how to do things – but
they are extremely high on him in terms of his ability to work with the union, the openness,
the collaboration, the good relationship. Have you got any thoughts about that? I mean
the experience you're describing, if I've got it right, is different. What is the reason
for that? Do you have any sense of it?
Whitlow: I do have a sense for it. I spent a lot of time researching why we
were unable to connect in the same way Mr. Alvarado connected in New York. I
spoke to David Sherman and others in New York and I think what came to pass over
the sharing of that information is that Mr. Alvarado and David Sherman and others
in New York had a ten year relationship that developed and evolved over time.
And so their working relationship was such that there was mutual respect. So
when David Sherman or when the union representatives in New York told Mr. Alvarado
that this wasn't going to work he respected that. When Mr. Alvarado came here
to San Diego I believe he came with a much more restricted goal and time line.
He brought his ideas and what he had put in place over a ten year period in New
York and wanted it to happen here in a year or less. And there was no time to
build a relationship, there was no time to build respect. In fact one of my favorite
recollections that expresses this is Mr. Alvarado told me and the president at
that time, Mark Knapp, that teachers should not be allowed to select peer coach
developers because teachers don't even know what good teaching is so how could
we give them that responsibility. They need to have peer coaches chosen for them.
So he was coming from a point of view that was a lack of respect for teachers
as education professionals and wanted us to do everything his way. There was
not much give-and-take on the plan that he presented and put into place here.
Smith: Was peer coaches the first big issue on which you clashed?
Whitlow: Peer coaches were the first big issue that we attempted to work on
collaboratively. In the 1998 bargaining, which was pre-Bersin and Alvarado, we
had bargained into the contract the concept of "peer coach" which was intended
to assist teachers who were either brand new teachers or teachers who were having
difficulty, and giving them additional resources to improve their practice. It
was based on finances so that we were going to deploy those groups first – first
to the teachers who were having difficulty, second to the new teachers – and
as we had additional resources spread that concept around.
When Mr. Alvarado came and talked about the concept of staff developers we
used that portion of the contract to enter into the conversation. And as we spoke
we did clash on what our belief system and his belief system happened to be.
As a peer coach we believed that there should be a trust relationship and that
trust relationship would be insured if people at their sites were able to select
their peer coach. And Mr. Alvarado wanted to be able to choose all the peer coaches
himself through the Institute [for Learning]. And so that was the big clash that
was actually mitigated through the intervention of Steve Weber, the president
of San Diego State and Chuck Nathanson who was working with the San Diego Dialogue
at that time.
Smith: So as I hear you, you're into a battle over control. Who is going to
control the process?
Whitlow: I would say it was about control, but we also had an issue with…the
union didn't want to control the choice. What we wanted to control was the quality
of the choice and if, in fact, the peer coach was not providing useable resources
to the people at the school site that they had an ability to pick someone else.
So they had a trusting relationship that was non-evaluative; instead of someone
that was deployed from the district to do the work of the district versus assist
teachers in attaining best practice.
Smith: Without getting into the question of whether or not there was anybody
in San Diego that was any good, which is a sort of implicit in some of these
comments that you're making here, was there anything to the argument that there
was some value to bringing people from outside or people who had other experience
to help folks here? I mean he certainly did that in New York. He reached out
to Australia, he reached out to New Zealand, he reached out to the City College.
He didn't just pick people from District 2 or District 4. He picked people
from outside the district and I just wonder whether or not there's any value
Whitlow: We absolutely believe there is value. I mean you can't be a prophet in your
own land and it's always good to have someone come in from the outside because they
have a different point of view. They'll see things that an insider will never see because
they have become so accustomed to the view.
Smith: It sounds as though the union was saying 'but it's got to be picked
Whitlow: No, actually what we were saying was the outside consultants were
not objectionable to us until they became so plentiful and there was so much
money being spent and the same people were being brought in at the expense of
the district from New Zealand and New York. There was a great deal of money
spent on people who were coming in and being flown in to give trainings that
were repetitive, that could have been taped; there were other ways. And if those
consultants could have taught people here then we could have internally, probably,
minimized some of the cost and spent the money on the classroom. That was part
of one of our objections or one of the main parts.
As far as the selection for peer coach developers, we believe that if a group
of people are going to be evaluated and given direction on how they can improve
that it won't happen in an adversarial relationship. So one of the ways that
we had hoped to insure that the relationship was trusting and that you could
actually have an interchange – a learning interchange – was to allow the sites
to make their own selections. There were basic paper screenings, qualifications
that everyone had to meet. There was a certification required from San Diego
State. And when they got the pool of qualified candidates an interview, they
picked from that pool.
Smith: That was the end compromise?
Whitlow: That was the end compromise which I thought was an excellent compromise. I
think the product of the bargaining was very, very good. How it evolved in its implementation,
I think, took away some of the effectiveness of the bargaining and the effectiveness
of the program itself, but the quality of the bargaining during that period of time
was very excellent.
Smith: And what was it about the implementation that didn't work well?
Whitlow: Part of the implementation required that the peer coach staff developers,
once they were selected, would be trained one day a week. So 20% of their time was off
campus, away from any constituency other than the people training them. So I think that's
a large loss of time and resource to the classroom.
And rather than people in the positions being peer coaches, some became assistants
to the principals and that eroded the trust relationship. Part of our goal was – throughout
the entire bargaining and the creation of this plan – was to have the program
not be evaluative. And when there were directions from the Institute for Learning
that peer coaches would do walk-throughs with the principal and the vice principal
and an instructional leader, when they walked in [a classroom] immediately there
is an aura of evaluation that occurs for the teacher whose room has been entered
and it colored the way people started to view the peer coach staff developer.
If this is going to be my trusted instructor to help me improve in my instructional
strategy and they are with my principal who is going to evaluate me I'm a little
fearful about what information can be shared.
Smith: It sounds to me as though there is really a basic conflict of philosophy here.
I've talked to Alvarado and I've talked to people in New York as well as here. There
is clearly a sense of urgency and passion that things are not working well in American
education… A sense of dissatisfaction with the level of performance. This is Alvarado's
view. You're really going to have to jack up standards and have people take a very hard
look at what they are doing, whether they are new or whether they have been doing it
for quite a while. And it sounds as though, as I listen to you, as though the feeling
here among the teachers was ‘yes, we're willing to sort of take a look at what we're
doing and listen to colleagues in our school but we don't want any discomfort'. It's
got to be trusting and it's got to be nice and there can't be evaluation.
It sounds as though there's a clash in philosophy. It isn't just a clash about
the role of peer coaches, it's a clash about how serious the problem is, how
urgently you have to move and how much work is going to be required. Is that
Whitlow: I don't agree. I believe that no one wants students to learn or achieve
more than teachers and parents. And I believe that the urgency exists in the
body of teachers with as much passion if not more than with Tony Alvarado or
any of the so called reformers. The clash occurs when people who are academics
come in and they take their idea, which is an untested experiment, and they enforce
it on people without consulting them on what the clientele needs. So there's
an assumption that we have teachers in classrooms who know nothing, who have
nothing to bring to the table when the reform is created. And as a result there
is resentment and I think it is a warranted resentment because the teachers are
people with Masters degrees, with a depth of experience that would be extraordinarily
helpful when we create reform. And the reform's goal to help students learn better,
faster, is crucial and a core value of all the teachers that I know.
What occurs with a Tony Alvarado or an Alan Bersin is that they come in and
they have a concept that's rigid; it doesn't involve assessing teachers' opinions,
parents' opinions. It doesn't assess where the clientele – the student – is and
where we want to go and how we're going to get there. It's imposed one-size-fits-all
in a district that's the second largest in California that has a diverse population.
And I believe what occurred is that the high end was dumbed down and the attempt
to bring the bottom up in achievement was not successful to a large degree. And
if we had allowed all the stakeholders to sit at the table and say ‘here is where
we are, let's create more strident standards, and now you tell me how we're going
to get there as a group, and allow for individual variance from school to school,
student to student', I think the product would have been much better. But what
we had here instead was a very dictatorial, harsh implementation. And people
who were not in agreement with the Blueprint for Student Success in a standards
based system suffered. They were punished. The first thing that Alan Bersin did
when he came here to demonstrate that he would exercise ruthless control was
to fire over ten administrators publicly in the newspaper. He had the police
escort them to their sites and clean out their desks. These are people with 30
plus years experience. And it was a very horrific occurrence. But it set a tone.
And if people were confused about what was happening here, that helped them
understand that if they were not with the program that there was going to be
a consequence. So we've operated in the last six years with fear, with some chaos
and some fear in an attempt to line people up to be obedient to the Blueprint.
And what would have worked better is to collect the group, to collaborate and
say ‘this is where we want to go, what are your best thoughts on how we can get
there'. And collect all the good ideas and then pick the best one for each site
and each student.
Smith: I'm having trouble reconciling two different versions of reality. And
that is no surprise to you. But Alan Bersin says that on any number of occasions
when he would propose things and there would be objections from the SDEA he'd
say 'fine, what's your idea? What do you propose? We need to move on this thing'.
And he would say there's no answer coming back. In your version of it you're
saying he's high-handed. His version of it is the union wanted a veto over every
Whitlow: And I can say, categorically, that is not true. We never wanted a
veto. We wanted a seat at the table when decisions were made about the students
we teach. That's all we ever asked for, that's all we ever wanted. And that's
one of the lines that Alan has used since the beginning was that the union had
a veto. There was never a veto. We never had it, we never wanted it. We wanted
to work collaboratively with the district and the administration and the parents
in the community to create the very best plan for student achievement and we
were shut out systematically at every turn.
Your description of what Mr. Bersin said about either ‘give me your best' or ‘what's
your best answer' – our best answer was ‘can we talk about and can we participate
in the plan that you have before you'.
An example of how that worked was the peer coach staff developer language was
developed in '99, 2000. We had a closed contract, meaning that by law we didn't
have to bargain anything if we didn't want to. It was closed, tight, and we said ‘sounds
like a great idea. We can implement this together'. So we sat at the table and
bargained that. We also shortly after that bargained a position called "math
specialist". And that program had success as well in partnership with San Diego
State and some foundations. So we have asked over and over again that we be able
to be partners, not have a veto, but be partners in the discussion about how
we can best educate the children that attend schools in San Diego Unified. And
we haven't been allowed to be partners. We have been called names and we have
been characterized as people wanting veto power when that's not the case at all.
Smith: You mentioned the business about the firing of the principals. I'm a little
confused about the sequence. Does the bargaining over the peer coaches precede or follow
the firing of the principals?
Whitlow: I believe it precedes. Well I believe actually that it was intertwined in
the time line. Because the time line of bargaining the peer coach staff developers went
from late '98 through 2000 and then we've made amendments to it up until yesterday so
it happened somewhere in the beginning
Smith: I have to say that not being used to educational jargon I find the term "peer
coach/staff developer" a little odd. How did you get to a term "peer coach staff
developer"? I mean in New York they call it "staff developer". You started off
calling it "peer coach". But it's this hybrid term.
Whitlow: The hybrid term is a result of the bargaining. The concept that I described
to you in the'98 bargaining was "peer coach" and we called it "peer coach" because it
was a peer coaching a teacher to attain best practice. And we very intentionally picked
the word peer because it was a non-evaluative peer that would sit with you, watch you
teach. You could exchange ideas and hopefully improve your practice. When Mr. Alvarado
came, he wanted to institute staff developers and so part of the compromise was that
the hybrid name was developed: "peer coach/staff developers".
Smith: In other words you couldn't really agree on the name. You wanted to
call it "peer coach"; he wanted to call it "staff developer" and the compromise
was to use both terms.
Whitlow: Correct. I don't think there was a lot of conversation or argument over the
name. It just seemed to meld together quite nicely because we were using the contract
language "peer coach" and he brought "staff developer" and we said hey, "peer coach-
slash-staff developer" and that was the compromise. There wasn't much discussion about
the hybrid name.
Smith: I see.
Whitlow: I hate typing it.
Smith: It seems cumbersome. So it's a little bit like a camel, it's got a hump
in the middle of it.
Whitlow: Two humps.
Smith: Two humps. Talk to me for a moment about the elections. I have to admit
I'm not a school board elections specialist. I'm aware of school board elections
in my own city and in some others, but the passion and the finance that goes
into school board elections here in San Diego is surprising to me and my colleagues.
Talk about the election of 2000. You have a school board that's split, three
for Bersin and Alvarado's reforms and two against it. We come up to the election
of 2000. Why does this become such an enormous, hot, expensive, bitter election?
Whitlow: I believe that it was surprising to us. Extraordinarily surprising. We attend
TERN which is a national teacher union reform network organization and we had surveyed
or discussed the cost of a standard school board election and had come to the conclusion
it was about $40,000 across the country. Entering into 2000 it became a whole different
game and a part of the exquisite nature of that election was that the business roundtable
or the chamber had put commercials out that were anti-Fran Zimmerman. And they were
extraordinarily critical. It really got our members very riled up because it criticized
her in a very severe way and we knew we were in for a fight because we were interested
in having board members who would meet and discuss and not be rubber stamps for Alan
Bersin's reform initiatives. Fran Zimmerman and John deBeck are strong individuals who
allow us to have a conversation and clearly make up their own mind when it comes to
And we were looking for someone who would be akin to or like them in their
independence and ability to be inclusive in conversations with teachers, parents
Smith: As you approached 2000 by this time you had a number of experiences. The union
is pretty critical of Bersin and Alvarado and so were Zimmerman and deBeck.
Whitlow: And by then we knew that the collaboration was going to be iffy, if
any at all.
Smith: So the lines are drawn.
Whitlow: Yes the lines were pretty clearly drawn by then.
Smith: So what happens in the election of 2002? What changes? And why is it
such a big deal?
Whitlow: Well what changes is we were looking to have a candidate who was not
going to be part of the rubber stamp and so we spent an extraordinary amount
of money. And we were assisted by the California teachers association in that
expenditure to keep Fran and her position and elect someone who was going to
be an independent voice on that board and
Smith: Swing the majority 3-2 to your side.
Whitlow: Well, no, I wouldn't say that it would swing the majority to our side.
We would swing…it would swing the majority to a group that was not going to vote
every single time for Alan Bersin's initiatives. We believe that the three member
board – whether it was Ottinger, Lopez and Braun or Ottinger, Lopez and Nakamura – voted
almost every single time for the Bersin initiatives without a flinch and we wanted
someone who would at least read the documents, question what was occurring, question
the financing of it, question whether or not it was actually working for children.
And have a debate that was public and transparent in trying to assess and move
toward public education that works. That's what we were looking for.
Smith: So of the two seats up in 2000, one is the seat of a supporter of the reforms
and one is the seat of a critic of reforms, is that right?
Smith: So take me forward. What happened?
Whitlow: Well we knew that we were in for a jolly good fight and we had planned
to have our usual phone bank because our power is always the number of people
that we have – our phone banking. We're a volunteer organization. We have 9000
members who had a vested interest in changing the school board so that they were
included in the decision making. And so we had hordes of people here making phone
calls. But we also knew that we had to have mail and we actually looked at radio
and television time which is very expensive in this media market.
We were assisted by CTA in creating commercials of our own. And during that
time money was brought in from outside entities, outside of San Diego from LA,
from Broad, from Riordan, from the Lincoln Club, from a variety of other groups
that were funding the commercials that were on and had independent campaigns.
So we were in what I believe is probably the most unusual school board election
for that time. Others have followed suit since – in LA unified and other school
districts – attempting to get, if you will, their candidates in place.
Smith: So this was a pitched battle.
Whitlow: It was a pitched battle.
Smith: A pitched battle between business interests and union interests, or
what? The two sides that everybody talks about put money in. And you just mentioned
a bunch of business leaders and particularly republican business leaders at least
opposing you. And the union gets involved, the California teachers association
gets involved, so I mean it has all the looks of a labor management battle. Or
a labor business battle.
Whitlow: It does have the look of that. And I think part of the underlying battle is
about public education. It's about the last entity that is not owned and operated by
private enterprise. It's about taking over public education and that's the way we viewed
it. We viewed it that we had to have people in place who would protect public education
and improve it so that all the students are provided with an equal access to good quality
public education and it
Smith: You were worried about who taking over public education?
Whitlow: Business. There were a number of business entities that were deeply
involved in funding some of the campaigns against Fran Zimmerman at that time.
Smith: Then we roll forward to 2002.
Whitlow: Same thing. We were looking again at getting a candidate in place who would
be someone who would be inclusive and not a rubber stamp for Alan Bersin's initiatives.
Smith: And Ms. Nakamura says that some of the ads against her were libelous,
defamatory, and she insisted they be withdrawn.
Whitlow: That is correct. And they were withdrawn which I think is extraordinarily
unusual given the ads that are on television during the political season. Truth really
is not a measure, but I can tell you right now I have letters from Ronny Froman who
was the CFO at that time that sustained the charges that we were making in our commercials.
There was a 30 million dollar deficit which in fact grew to an 82 million dollar deficit
so some of the allegations we made in that commercial were correct. And I can understand
why Ms. Nakamura would feel they were libelous because we were talking about contracts
that her husband had with the school district and he continues to benefit from contracts
with the school district.
Smith: But the contracts predate her running for the office.
Smith: That was the point.
Smith: So this is tough stuff.
Whitlow: It's extraordinarily tough. It's actually not the stuff that teachers get
in the business for and it's not really the stuff that the teacher union gets in the
business for. But you have to take the battle where it meets you, I guess, and if, in
fact, where we are battling is ‘do we keep and maintain public education and educate
all the children or do we let it slip away so that private enterprise can offer charter
schools or public schools or private schools for people who have money and the people
who don't have the same kind of access. The core value that teachers have is that all
children should be given equal access and that's what we'll fight for.
Smith: If you ever talk to Tony Alvarado and Alan Bersin the business about all kinds
having access and being committed to all kids being taught, and all kids having
the ability to learn, and the ability to learn not being related to race or economic
circumstance is something that comes out of their mouths all the time. Do you think that's
just hypocrisy; do you think they believe that?
Whitlow: I think that they believe that. I think that they don't understand how to
implement a big idea. I think that both Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado are big idea people
and they haven't had implementers and they don't understand how collaboration creates
a better product. They both are smart people who have healthy egos, and who are not
particularly willing to share the idea and modify the idea with the people who are the
practitioners, who can make the idea better still.
Smith: So am I hearing you say that maybe there was some merit in putting tremendous
emphasis on instructional improvement, on professional development and peer coach staff
developers but the way it was implemented was the problem. Or are you saying that the
idea wasn't so good and they implemented it even worse?
Whitlow: I think there were some very good pieces of the big idea. I think that the
increase in standards, the staff development…there were some very wonderful pieces to
that particular project. The implementation was poor but that's not the only piece because
what the implementation of the program did is it crashed the morale in the school district.
It took the joy out of teaching and the joy out of learning in many ways.
But what I'd like to say is that it imposed a program that had a very rigid
view of what good teaching looked like in a population that is extraordinarily
diverse. So that you took kids who could not read and then you put them in a
[reading] block of three hours. They weren't allowed to get up; they weren't
allowed to go to the bathroom. Teachers were told they couldn't have crayons;
they had to focus on reading only. And then there was an additional implementation
that was math only. And so what happened to the children in those classrooms
is they became, I think, stifled in some respects because the comprehensive nature
of their education was extinguished. They no longer were able to have art, no
longer able to have music, no longer able to have physical education and other
what I'm going to call "elective subjects". History and many other subjects were
not allowed to be taught because the focus was purely on literacy and math. And
it took a lot of the joy out of teaching.
An example of the poor implementation of that is in first, second, third grade,
teachers would be teaching the reading, the required reading materials, and if
a teacher chose to make part of that a singing lesson – still on task, still
doing the lesson but the students were singing – they were written up, they were
punished. If teachers were not exactly following the proscribed teaching strategies
that the Blueprint provided they were harassed and punished.
So the environment became extraordinarily tense and fearful and I think that's
where we've lost some of the gains that we could have had otherwise. Teachers,
if they spoke up about a better way or a different point of view were disciplined.
And so it created an environment where people knew that if they had a different
idea or a strategy that they either had to be quiet or suffer some accountability
for not being in step with the Institute's prescribed program.
Smith: It seems to have created fear and intimidation and there's no question
about that. We've run into that. But it also seems to have created quite a lot
of excitement and a sense that there has been a cultural change in the teaching
here in San Diego. We haven't talked to that many teachers, but we have talked
to many people including parents and others who will say exactly the same thing,
who say I didn't like the way it was implemented, it was heavy handed, it was
top down but I'm teaching better, my teaching has improved and I can see a difference
in my kids. Would you agree with that or not.
Whitlow: I don't know that I would describe it as excitement. I believe that there
are a number of teachers – particularly new teachers and now Mr. Bersin has been here
since '98 so it's been six and a half years and some of the teachers because our demographics
have changed and have only taught under the Blueprint – so their perspective is not
as broad as it might otherwise be.
But I think some of the enthusiasm about the Blueprint strategies center around
the staff development which we believe is good. It's staff development that is
structured to increase capacity and best practices so that students learn better
and is a terrific implementation. One of the pieces that we had hoped would occur
that did not is that there could be an evaluation and assessment of that staff
development so that it could evolve with the people who are utilizing the staff
development. In the beginning some of the major criticism that was laid on that
staff development was that everyone was required to go to the same staff development.
So no matter what subject area you taught you had to sit through the same staff
development. And the professionals believe that their time could have been better
utilized if they broke off into grade level or subject disciplines and add training
that was focused on their particular teaching area. That didn't occur.
But overall I would say that most of the teachers believe that the staff development
was a good thing.
Smith: And what about the student performance? At least over a five or six
year period to the end of 2004 the percentage of kids performing at grade level
went from 32% to 37% on the California state test. This is a big school district
and that's not an insignificant gain. At least when you talk to people, as we
have, out at University of California in San Diego who follow students and they
say there are significant gains among the elementary grades, more modest gains
in middle school, and some losses in high school, so going backwards in high
school. I just wondered whether or not that's a picture that you share or do
you see the results differently than that? Those are gains you can put in context
with other cities in the state and that kind of stuff. But have there been gains
over these six or seven years, at least in parts of the school population in
Whitlow: Yes, there have been gains. And the gains that you reference I believe are
accurate. And they are not inconsistent with the statewide averages. They are a little
bit less than the averages in the county. So we made gains here at great cost. This
is the second largest district in California. California under funds public education
as it is. And we believe that there was an extraordinary amount of money spent on bringing
in outside consultants, on significantly increasing the number of administrators rather
than spending the money on direct instruction, rather than buying text books, rather
than buying classroom supplies, rather than hiring more teachers. We were buying people,
people's services to evaluate teachers. And so we believe that there was a misplaced
priority in the spending of the money, a waste, if you will, of the tax payers' money.
Rather than spending it on teaching the children, on direct instruction and the supplies
that are attached to that, we were spending money on people who were performing administrative
Smith: Inform me in terms of supplies. I was told there were very few books in classrooms
prior to the Bersin period. And now almost every single classroom you go into they are
reading books in almost every classroom so it's got to be pretty essential to kids for
Whitlow: One of the pieces that teachers were very happy with is in the first
couple of years there were books that were supplied. I would argue with the fact
that there weren't books in classrooms. If you talk to any teacher you'll know
that they spend anywhere between a thousand and two thousand dollars – and I
hate to think how much more –buying books so that by the time their career ends –
Smith: I misspoke. I meant to say that people said there were very few books
supplied by the school system. I think almost everybody would agree with what
you just said, that teachers were personally out of their own pocketbooks buying
schoolbooks and that's a crying shame that that's the case. I was really talking
about the system as a whole. I mean you talk about there not being money spent
on materials and I'm just looking at what I see. Every classroom we've been in
has got buckets of books all around. And almost every teacher we've talked to
that had been here seven or eight years ago has said that simply didn't exist.
So in terms of supplying those fairly basic materials for kids, this system seems
to have done that. Is that right or have we got the wrong picture?
Whitlow: No, no that's right. You've got the right picture. That one of the original
initiatives when Alan Bersin came in was a partnership with San Diego Reads and there
was an infusion of books that were leveled to the Blueprint. And that was a very good
thing. It made teachers very happy that they had that increased amount of books in their
Smith: Talk about the election of 2004 for a moment and the implications of
it. What's really been the impact of the last school board election. Obviously
the majority on the board has changed. Alan Bersin's contract has been shortened.
A number of initiatives like the peer coaches have been readjusted, the Leadership
Academy. So what do you feel the impact of the election has been? Does it make
you feel better about the direction that the San Diego school system is going
to be going in now that Bersin is leaving and the number of his initiatives have
been either cut back or transformed or thrown overboard?
Whitlow: I am eagerly anticipating the time when this school board comes together
with a vision that is the big view of this school district and shares the vision
with the community, and they haven't done that yet. I don't think that they've
actually found their own view, if you will. They're working hard to do that but
we have five strong individuals who have interests in changing particular parts
of the district. And what has occurred in the beginning of their term is that
they have taken pieces of the system that were objectionable to them or that
they liked and they have removed some of those objectionable pieces but they
haven't done it with a systemic view, so that they are kind of piecemeal taking
things out without thinking about the impact on the whole.
So the elimination of the peer coach/staff developer program for the '05-'06
year is something that is going to have an impact. But I don't think there was
a strong consideration of what that systemic impact will be.
Smith: But from the standpoint of the SDEA, from the standpoint of the teachers,
have the early steps taken by the new board been good ones and you praise them
because they're getting rid of the objectionable system that Bersin and Alvarado
set up or what? What is your judgment on the direction? Admittedly there's no
new vision yet. There's nothing there. But just in terms of the actions taken
in their first few months – December, January, February – were those steps in
the right direction in your view?
Whitlow: I think that their step to get rid of Alan Bersin or shorten his contract
was a good step. We happy that he has been removed from the decision making scene
because we believe during his term that the board of education should have been
the directing decision maker and the superintendent and the administration the
implementers. So they've taken that back and we think that that's a positive
One of the things that they didn't do when they shortened his contract is they
allowed him to remain in the decision making seat if you will. And so he is still
making changes that are not particularly advantageous to the health of the system.
So there is some struggle between the school board and Alan Bersin still. But
he'll be gone at the end of this.
But some of the steps that they have made…They've looked at the excessive cost
of consultants and they have made an attempt to restrict that expenditure. They
looked at how to include people in some of their decision making so that they
have increased the number of meetings. They are holding forums, they are asking
people to come and share their opinion about what works for kids and what doesn't
work. So they are stepping forward into a more inclusive kind of decision making
process and it's a beginning.
My hope is that we will have some kind of an educational summit that will be
more formal so that we can talk about what really does work in San Diego Unified
and supplement that activity and look at what doesn't work and change it so that
Smith: Is there a sense that you finally have an opportunity to see the school system
run the way you would like to see it run, not by someone you consider dictatorial and
high handed but an inclusive open board?
Whitlow: I have a sense, I have a hope that that may occur and I think that
there has to be deliberations by the board to create a process whereby the stake
holders are included in a conversation about who and what we want this district
to look like. And once we have done that then the process for selection of a
superintendent will be, let's say, an easier task. But until we know where we
want to go, I don't think we can pick someone to take us there and I don't believe
that the board has that vision yet. So I am hoping that they will include teachers,
parents, community members in the development of that vision. And right now they
seem to be moving in that direction but they haven't put together a plan that
Smith: Is there any risk either to the union or to the teachers in the seemingly growing
desire at least of some parents in some areas to turn to charter schools.
Whitlow: I believe that there is a risk and the risk is imbedded in the revenue
flow. When a charter school is formed, it takes the revenue from the state and
moves it to the charter school so that it takes away the public school's ability
to provide the resources – and I'm talking about textbooks, classroom supplies,
teachers – to provide the education. So every time you take off the revenue flow
you're going to have less ability to provide the kinds of resources that you
need. The RFP that was put out that would have taken eight schools out of San
Diego Unified would have resulted in 10,500 students going into a charter environment
and it would have lost us somewhere in the 70 million dollar range in revenue.
So that would have a negative impact and there's really no research that shows
that charter schools do any better. And in fact there's much research that shows
that the typical charter doesn't do as well, with the exception of schools like
Pruise (sp?) and High Tech High which have a high level of funding above and
beyond the state amount of money.
Smith: There is pretty good evidence that charters have a very mixed record.
The question I was really raising was whether or not that, in fact, is well perceived;
whether or not the urge of parents to turn in that direction is a vote of no-confidence
in the current system. And that people in the current system, whether administrators,
whether the union, whether teachers themselves need to be concerned about. That's
a potentially dangerous trend if it continues. Not just in revenue terms but
the implication for public schools.
Whitlow: Well I think any time our clientele turns away from us we have to
assess why and I think that when parents choose a charter over a public school
if we don't know why they made that choice, then we are not assessing who we
are and what we are providing. And we need to do that. We need to do exit polling.
We need to talk to people and say why are you leaving and what can we do better
so that you stay. And I don't think that we do that. I think we bemoan the fact
that that they are leaving but we don't actually do any kind of assessment that
is face-to-face with the people who are choosing charters over the public schools.
And I think it's about education. If people actually knew what we were doing
and what our achievement is versus what they read in the newspapers, they might
be more pleased. An example of that is the surveys that we do with our communities
that say over and over again that they are happy with their local school. They
are happy with their neighborhood school. But they think the system is not working.
Smith: But the charter people are not happy with their local school because
that's precisely what they are walking away from.
Smith: So they're not giving you the same vote
Whitlow: No they're not.
Smith: What is the lesson from the San Diego experiment with Bersin and Alvarado?
Whitlow: I think the lesson is that together we can create a better product.
If the stakeholders are not included when we create public education and instructional
strategies for students then we're going to have a product that is of less quality. I
would say I have seen in a very clear way that if we have a top down reform package placed
in our school district that it has smaller chance of working than if we all work together
to meet the needs of the students we teach.
Smith: And Alan Bersin will say that he and Alvarado felt that they wanted
to work with you all, that they found resistance, and that they became concerned
that, that the inertia of the past and opposition of the union would bog them
down and therefore they accelerated precisely because of the resistance. And
it was because of the resistance that they felt they had to go more top down
and couldn't collaborate. So they're saying you wouldn't collaborate and you're
saying they wouldn't collaborate.
Whitlow: And I don't believe there was ever an honest effort to include the
teachers or the union in any of the initiatives that they had. I believe that
from the beginning they were going to enforce their will upon the school district
and they repeatedly talked about their desire to collaborate but there is not
one issue that they can show me that demonstrates that occurred. We opened our
contract multiple times. They did not ever come toward us in any of those discussions.
We made multiple attempts in trying to work together up until the time of the
RFP for the eight schools and the sanction difficulty with No Child Left Behind.
And were rebuked, rebuked in a very harsh way by Mr. Bersin saying that he didn't
want to participate in any kind of partnership in addressing the needs of the
students at those eight schools. We could make our own plans but he did not want