Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.
Alan Bersin will become the next state Secretary for Education on July 1, one day after the expiration of his contract as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Bersin replaces Richard Riordan who resigned April 27. On April 29, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also appointed Bersin, 58, to a seat on the 11-member state Board of Education.
The unions. [San Diego County Board of Education president] Bob Watkins said that the CTA [California Teachers Association] would be foaming at the mouth over this [appointment] and that they’re an impediment to progress. What message is the governor sending to the unions with your appointment?
I don’t think the governor is sending any message to the union. What he’s doing is confirming his point of view that the system needs to be reformed and in fact, we need to make difficult changes in order to support teachers and recognize their efforts, to support students and their families, to see the kind of progress that people have a right to expect … But the CTA has a point of view … I respect what unions are intended to accomplish. But when you get this proportion of power, this proportion of influence, when in fact, the interests of employees are elevated to a place of priority over the achievement of students, you end up with a system that, in the long term, will not benefit the very members that the union is seeking to protect.
And is that what’s happened?
I come from a very union-friendly background. This is not about expecting people to be different in their perspective but rather to broaden that perspective to understand that the long-term health of the franchise, the long-term health of public education, requires that quality student achievement be high on the agenda of everyone, including the unions … It’s when you look at your job in a more narrow focus of simply protecting wages and hours and working conditions of the adults in the system, having an understanding that that’s got to be aligned with the interests of improved student achievement, that you start to run into problems of putting the long-term health of the franchise of public education at risk. And I think that’s the challenge for union leadership …
The important thing is finding the common ground that can make leaders bridge differences. But there [has to be] a recognition on the union side, the teacher union side, that student achievement has got to be foremost, not just a matter of rhetoric. There has to be serious consideration given to how to improve student achievement and what changes are going to take place in terms of teacher assignments, in terms of providing incentives for teachers to take on tough assignments and rewarding them when they succeed in those assignments … [People] have to be prepared to see that there is common ground, not only on wages, hours and working conditions, but also on what it is that will revitalize public education in California and in San Diego.
So you feel that you can help facilitate finding common ground? The unions obviously are going to be components that have to be dealt with.
No question about that … But you’ve got to start off with some propositions about what the objectives are, what the purposes are, and one of those has got to be that we’ve got to keep our focus on, long-term, what is the system that is going to be accepted by parents and community members as producing the appropriate education for our young people. That’s what this is about.
How serious is the situation in public education in California today?
I think there’s been significant improvement, but it … has to be accelerated if we’re going to meet the expectations of families with students in public education, and frankly with the public, the taxpaying public. The good news is that we’re making progress; the bad news is we’re not making it fast enough to meet the expectations of students and their families in many cases, or the taxpaying public. We need to have this common ground to really accelerate the progress over the next generation, so that in fact we narrow and then close the achievement gap.
Can we look forward to a statewide Blueprint for Student Success?
The Blueprint for Student Success was basically a resource allocation strategy that put resources into productive uses that educators had long agreed were necessary. Excellent leadership at school sites … professional development for teachers, modern books and materials for students and teachers, extended learning opportunities for students, enhanced parent involvement in their children’s education – that’s the blueprint. Those strategies have been recognized for generations as the critical paths to improving student achievement. That is the work at the district level that I think officials at the state level have an obligation to support.
And you measure progress based on what? You’re a believer in the testing and accountability of students?
The testing, the standardized testing system in California is one very important dimension, but not the sole indicator of progress. The interaction between the student and the teacher in the classroom and the presence of content, the so-called instructional core, is something that should always supplement one’s view that comes from a statistical rendition of test scores … But you have to actually find [a] way to be able to assess what any particular school ought to be doing or what any particular student needs in terms of instruction. That requires something much more sensitive than the standardized test score.
Many of your critics have said that the emphasis on math and literacy has led to a sacrifice in other areas of student learning.
It’s up to reporters like you to actually assess whether the arts have suffered in the city schools, and I would submit to you that they haven’t, that in fact the GATE Gifted and Talented Education, arts, music, athletics are actually much stronger than they were eight years ago. But I make no apology for the focus on literacy and mathematics. Those are the critical gateway skills that our students need in order to access knowledge, in order to think critically and communicate clearly, in order to be able to succeed in the workplace or the university. If you cannot think critically and communicate clearly, and if you cannot compute precisely and understand what a mathematical approach to life involves, you will not be able to prosper in the world that we now live in. But the suggestion that that was done at the expense of what makes life worth living … is simply inaccurate.
Or even the stifling of teachers and their unique ability to teach. That’s been said.
If you talk to many teachers, yes, there was what’s now being referred to around the country as managed instruction. We did create K-12 curricula frameworks, we did create literacy and mathematics frameworks that involved the use of some pedagogies and the reliance on teacher skill and knowledge in unlocking student learning … We live in this time of transition where teaching is in the process of becoming a genuine profession, and that requires that it’s not solely based on individual virtuosity. There are accepted frameworks of skill and knowledge … and you have to stay within that. But the notion that this denies people creativity, I think, would be denied by the vast majority of our teachers. Yes, people needed to re-evaluate their practice and incorporate research-based methods – that’s the obligation we have to our students, but …
But that still gives them room for creative license?
Looking back, what would you say is your biggest weakness, or your greatest regret here? Is there one thing that you can think of that you wish you could do all over again?
I think the focus on instruction is absolutely essential. But I think, in fact, the focus on instructional operations, what it would require to actually ensure that teachers were supported and that the right teachers were in the right classrooms – that, politically, should have been focused on earlier … I would have focused more on human resources, more on what would assist principals and teacher leaders to build the change faster. But I think the sequence was right. I just would have focused more on instructional operations as well as on professional development. Most people when they ask that question think the answer’s going to be [that] you should have all gotten along a lot better. But that really misportrays the nature of the change process, particularly when faced with what we were faced with here, which is the implacable hostility of the group of union leaders that did not, that feared to embrace change, that was satisfied with the status quo, and would not engage in serious negotiations …
I would have preferred a union leadership that understood that there were going to be differences … The notion that you can go through large-scale transformation without dislocation has actually, I think, been revealed to be fairly hollow by our recent difficulties in the city [of San Diego]. In the city we placed a premium on getting along. We placed a premium on not looking at difficult facts in the face and … confronting them … We didn’t talk honestly about the problems that existed nor did we trust the community to be able to absorb the hard choices that would [need to] be made. Instead, we all got along with the consequence that, Dorian Gray-like, we now see a body politic that is scarred and disfigured and weakened by, frankly, the lack of leadership.
Well, can both happen? Can there be negotiation and compromise and change at the same time?
Absolutely, absolutely. But that requires … that all the stars are aligned. There are very rarely situations in which all of the stars are aligned. For example, we look at what’s the greatest accomplishment in American life over the last generation. It’s the civil rights movement in my view. Yes, we cannot legislate morality, we cannot legislate how people feel. But we change the conditions in which people interact and operate, and over time their beliefs and attitudes change because they see different results from changes in their behavior. If we had waited for people to agree that apartheid ought to be eliminated in America and segregation should end and that that was always going to take place through consensus and if we only discussed it more, we’d still be waiting for the end of segregation in American life. And in fact, I submit to you that the changes in the attitudes and the beliefs of people north and south, as a result of that change in conduct, has left us a stronger and richer country and a more just country. The absence of conflict needs to be deferred, but it shouldn’t be avoided. It shouldn’t be avoided in the interest of getting along when the situation that needs to be addressed is a serious one.
Is education now your calling, or do you ever see yourself going back to being an attorney?
Oh, I’ve never stopped being an attorney. I’m now an educator, proud to be one, but I’m an educator lawyer.
Both of them concerned with issues of justice.
Where will you be in 10 years?
(Long pause) About five years away from sailing in the Caribbean.
– MARSHA SUTTON, Voice Education Writer
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at