Memories of Alan Bersin and the reforms he unrolled are still shaping school reform in San Diego Unified, though not always in the way he might have intended.
Five years have passed since Alan Bersin ended his rocky tenure as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. He is now known nationally as the border czar, not a schools chief.
Yet long after his departure, Bersin is still a player in the school district he once led — if an invisible one. While Bersin is long gone, the backlash against his reforms has continued to shape school reform in San Diego Unified, sometimes in very different ways than his backers might have intended. The school board members elected years after Bersin invoke his name as an example of how not to reform schools.
“Alan Bersin has become like an icon,” said Bud Mehan, who directs a center on educational equity at the University of California, San Diego. “And that era is really shaping the way people think now.”
The district’s new school reform plan is everything that Bersin and his reforms were not. Bersin centralized school reform to ensure all schools followed the same path; now San Diego Unified is decentralizing it.
Bersin moved fast; it is slow. Bersin fought the teachers union; the new plan is the brainchild of a school board that is allied with labor. Bersin was backed by business; now the business world is just beginning to speak up again after years of shying from school issues.
The pendulum has swung dramatically.
Some fear it has swung too far. And on the heels of a new study that found that Bersin reforms helped boost scores for younger students, Bersin is again sparking debate in his absence over what exactly San Diego should learn from him.
His Blueprint for Student Success included a battery of changes: Coaches who were supposed to help improve teaching. A longer school year for struggling elementary schools. Longer English classes in middle school. Teachers were trained in specific ways to teach reading.
But how Bersin did school reform proved just as important in San Diego, perhaps more so, than the reforms that he rolled out. It became a battle — one so bitter that critics compared him to Hitler.
“Alan was one of the more outspoken champions of no-excuses reform,” said Rick Hess, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who edited a book on the Blueprint. “And that was not the way leaders historically approached the job.”
Historian Diane Ravitch called Bersin the first urban superintendent to use the “top down approach.” All schools were supposed to make the same changes. There was little room to tailor them to different schools in the vast, diverse school district, spurring parent protests from Emerald Hills to La Jolla when schools’ particular programs were overruled.
“These were marching orders,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the school administrators union. “It was a my-way-or-the-highway approach.”
Bersin took dramatic and unpopular steps: He rerouted federal money for disadvantaged students to fund the reforms, angering parents who said schools should control it. More than a dozen principals were deemed ineffective and fired. Teachers declared war.
“We learned a lot of lessons about how not to do reform,” said teachers union President Bill Freeman.
Bersin was ultimately forced out by a new, skeptical school board. The Blueprint has not been totally erased: Extensive teacher training over the Bersin years still shapes lessons. Some schools still use longer English classes for struggling kids. But the uniform program of coaches, training and consultants is gone.
The new reform plan that San Diego Unified has unveiled is the polar opposite of what Bersin unrolled. Bersin put his reforms in place fast, hoping to make change before the honeymoon wore off; San Diego Unified is working gradually, letting teams of teachers refine reforms.
Bersin emphasized a single set of reforms from the top; San Diego Unified is now allowing each school to create its own plans and bringing schools together by neighborhood to decide what works best for them. It has put heavy emphasis on collaboration that teachers say was lacking in the Bersin era.
Some fear the school district could overdo consensus.
“Bersin’s name is like a rallying point for those who are opposed to change,” said Scott Himelstein, who worked with Bersin on reading initiatives. “Unless every box is checked by every interest group — not including students — it’s not OK to proceed with change.”
The political landscape has also been shaped by the Bersin years.
After seeing Bersin pushed away, the business world backed off of school issues. Even when business leaders do get involved, they are cautious about reviving complaints that business is meddling in schools.
A new group led by Himelstein, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, has been quick to point out that its coalition also includes parents, philanthropists and other education leaders.
The teachers union, meanwhile, has devoted sweat and money to promoting school board candidates, unseating a sitting school board member who voted to lay off teachers. The result is a school board that sees the teachers union as an ally in its reform push, not an obstacle.
The Bersin years have also left some educators and parents with a reform hangover. Teachers here tend to be wary of outside experts and plans, and a revolving door of superintendents after Bersin has only made them more so. For better or worse, the school board is leery of the next big thing in the faddish world of school reform. It was the biggest school district in California to avoid Race to the Top, a competition between states for stimulus funds that stressed tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
The school board is also careful to avoid any sudden moves.
Former Superintendent Terry Grier complained that he was compared to Bersin even when he sought seemingly small changes, once joking that he felt like Bersin lived in his closet.
School board President Richard Barrera says the lingering distrust has made his job harder. Elected years after Bersin left, he still hears about Bersin “all the time.”
“I’d hear teachers saying, ‘Here are the things we think are effective for kids,’” Barrera said. “But when we want to take the next step and say, ‘Great, let’s work on this,’ they’d say, ‘We aren’t ready.’”
But while veering away from all things Bersin has been popular with many parents, along with teachers and their union, others worry that San Diego Unified could lose sight of its gains.
A recent study found that some Blueprint reforms helped boost student achievement in earlier grades, though not in high school. Lengthening reading classes was credited with big gains in English scores in middle schools.
“It’d be good if we remember that some of the reforms did work,” said Julian Betts, a University of California, San Diego economist who led the study by the Public Policy Institute of California. “Some people thought there was no point in studying it at all. ‘Why would you want to study that?’”
The Bersin reforms were also credited for smoothing out a wildly inconsistent curriculum that left schools teaching reading in extremely different ways. Teachers started using the same language to talk about what they were doing.
The Bersin era shows school districts cannot micromanage instruction, said Richard Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. But Colvin fears that the school district may be swinging too far the other way and sacrificing consistency and accountability.
Freeman and other backers of the new reform plan counter that there are already plenty of standards to hold schools in check, especially with state tests breathing over schools’ shoulders. But the battle over what went wrong and what went right in the Bersin era — and what lessons to draw from it — continues.
“I think we’re still reaping some of the discord,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura. “But we’re also reaping some of the advances.”
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