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Thursday, August 04, 2005 | Although there’s a tremendous need to focus “laser-like” on improving student achievement, the state must first address the larger issues of massive over-spending that, over time, have bred “irresponsibility and lack of discipline,” said California’s education secretary Alan Bersin in an exclusive interview with Voice earlier this week.

With education costs more than half the state’s budget, Bersin supports Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s position that prudent fiscal policy must take priority.

“The governor believes that more investments have to be made in education, as I do,” he said. “We have got to move from being in the middle of the pack in terms of per student expenditures to much higher up if we’re to go from worst to first. But we cannot continue with a fiscal house in disarray.”

Bersin, a former U.S. Attorney who served as San Diego City Schools superintendent, also said that ways must be found to spend the money more wisely.

“Before those investments can be made, we’ve got to reform the way in which we operate so that we get a much better return on the dollars that we spend.”

As an example, he cited teacher salaries, saying California’s teachers are the highest paid in the nation. “While I don’t begrudge this, and think in fact teachers need to be paid more, it must be done in something that is not a single-salary schedule that does not take into account differences in assignment and differences in need,” Bersin said. “That’s the kind of reform that has to be made before we can go back to the taxpayer and say we need you to provide significant additional resources.”

Bersin believes the people of California are serious about wanting to address the problem of under-achievement in the inner city schools and in the rural areas, but he also thinks they are skeptical that the state can “make those investments profitably until we make changes in the system.”

Bersin, dressed casually and appearing more at ease and less guarded than at his previous interview with Voice of San Diego on May 17, has settled comfortably into his new position after one month on the job. Although commuting between his home and family in San Diego and his job in Sacramento, he seemed relaxed and affable, and ready for the next step in his career. “I’m fully engaged in the challenges on behalf of the governor, the state board of education and the secretary of education,” he said, praising Schwarzenegger as a man who is “determined to reform those parts of the system that are broken.”

Bersin, 58, had high praise for the next San Diego City Schools superintendent, Carl Cohn, a former superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District. “I congratulate the San Diego school board on the choice of Carl Cohn, an excellent choice,” Bersin said. “Carl is a proven leader who will be able to work with the hundreds of superlative school leaders in San Diego and the thousands of dedicated and knowledgeable teachers, to place San Diego at the head of the class in terms of student achievement.”

Saying there have been significant changes in public education in past years in places like San Diego and Long Beach, Bersin believes Cohn’s challenges are different from the challenges that existed seven years ago, when Bersin was hired to be SDCS superintendent. “I believe he will make improvements where improvements need to be made without disrupting the infrastructure of teaching and learning that was established by the teachers and principals over the past seven years,” Bersin said.

Bersin described himself as a change agent at SDCS, and that role “…was one that, given the circumstances in 1998, almost preordained the political conflict between the district leadership and the (teachers) union leadership, which I think is different for Superintendent Cohn. I was never offended at anything the union did. I was saddened by their lack of understanding and being so dinosaur-like in the tarpits. But the teachers moved beyond them, the schools moved beyond them and I expect they will play catch-up and not be left behind.”

It’s important, he said, that the community rally around Cohn and the new team, “build on the successes that our teachers and principals have achieved and … make improvements where they have to be.”

Bersin looks forward to working with Cohn in each of their new capacities, saying, “He’s been a colleague with whom I’ve worked in the past and I look forward to doing it again, all in the interest of improving public education, not only in San Diego but now across the state.”

Specific ways to improve education

He said innovation in how to compensate teachers is critical. “Teachers need to be paid more, make no mistake about it,” he said. “But they cannot be paid pursuant to a single-salary scale that does not take into account differences in assignments, differences in skill and knowledge and differences in outcomes for students. You need recognition pay – recognition pay that, as in every other sector, rewards professionals for taking on the toughest assignments, recognizes when they take on the toughest assignments and rewards them when they succeed at those assignments.”

“Every other sector in our economy and society has made these adjustments and introduced the tools that permit us to distinguish among levels of compensation based on a whole variety of measures,” he explained. “We need to do that in education. We need to unlock the forces of enlightened self-interest in order to improve productivity. All of this is about productivity. It’s about improving the teaching and learning, and the supports for our teachers so they can teach more and the supports for our students so they can learn more.”

He said society needs to “enlist on behalf of public education the tools that have led to vastly improved productivity in every other sector.”

Bersin supports Schwarzenegger’s November ballot initiative to extend teacher tenure from two years to five years. “The tenure is again one of those elements of improving accountability as a means of increasing productivity,” he said. “I don’t believe, notwithstanding what you hear on television and radio ads, that anyone could reasonably disagree, and frankly I’ve never heard any new teacher disagree with the proposition that tenure should not be granted after two years but should rather be commensurate with greater skill and knowledge and with a demonstration that this is the right profession for the particular individual.”

Another strategy for improving achievement that Bersin supports is the use of technology as a tool. “We need to create and then replicate the classroom of the future,” he said. “How do you employ distance learning? How do you use digital learning to support what teachers are doing in the classroom? These are the critical issues.”

Bersin lauded competition, in the form of charter schools, as essential in public education, just as it is in every other field, calling charters a challenge to the status quo. He said charter schools “are not burdened by industrial-age work rules that are contained in many collective bargaining agreements. They permit greater productivity, which needs to be there. In addition to the competition in the system, we owe choice to the parents and to the families we serve. We should not be afraid of choice or competition. They’re the engines that lead to improvement and we have to embrace it as being a mechanism for our own improvement.”

Secondary school reform is also at the center of Bersin’s agenda. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the last decade in the elementary grades … in harnessing sound instructional practices to improving student achievement,” he said. “Secondary schools are the challenge. Vocational education that involves high-level literacy and mathematics is crucial to the governor’s agenda, and I’m looking forward to incorporating that into the secondary school reform agenda.”

Teacher unions and their future in education reform

“I come from a union-friendly family, I have been the member of unions and unions have made a crucially important contribution to American society,” he said. “In the 1930s, private sector unions were absolutely critical in redressing the imbalance of power between forces of labor and the corporate sector. In the 1960s, public sector unions like the teachers’ union made a major contribution to dealing with abuses that had existed in that sector.

“Forty years later, unions in the public sector represent the most conservative forces in society. They are interested in preserving what was going on a generation ago rather than providing for new circumstances. This is what happens in history to institutions. Circumstances change and they don’t, and they become more concerned with protecting the agenda of yesterday than in looking to what has to happen tomorrow. It’s just the short-term myopic focus on what was achieved in the past.”

Bersin agrees that teachers’ unions are designed to protect their membership – which means teachers’ wages, hours and working conditions – but disagrees that this explains what he views as intransigence on the union’s part.

“The long-term health of the system requires that the students learn more and that teachers be teaching more effectively,” he said. “So this idea that [the unions] can only be concerned with the interests of adults and what adults want for their jobs rather than what children need for their education is a false understanding on the part of leadership. And that’s why when you run into the extraordinary labor leader from time to time nationally who gets it, there’s such hope. But routinely people growing up in these positions don’t understand that.”

Bersin maintained that any dramatic change in society, of the sort needed to turn the education system around, must come at a price, and discord is inevitable. “There’s always a tension between the need for stability and order and the need to adapt to new circumstances,” he said. “It will always be there. The question is what is the nature of the resistance, what is the nature of the impediments, and have we changed to take into account the needs of students? This is a historical process.”

But without accountability and competition, “you’re not open to new ways of doing things, and you can’t overcome the tendency to look at the status quo as the beginning and the end,” Bersin said. “Then over time you build up the pressures that lead to large-scale social change. And that will happen in public education unless we satisfy all of the families that depend on the institution.”

Bersin believes change has already taken place in union membership, and sees a weakening across the board of the labor movement. “I think any reasonable survey will indicate that in San Diego and elsewhere union leadership is losing touch with where most recent members and new teachers are,” he said, because unions are losing touch not only with their members but with American society as a whole. “Coming from where I come from, that’s not something that I take much joy in.”

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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