Voice Education Writer
Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | It’s been an eye-opener, to be sure.
Coming off the North County coastal education beat for the past seven years, I feel like a bewildered refugee, wandering the halls of San Diego Unified’s Eugene Brucker Education Center on Normal Street (has any setting for such rancorous school board activity ever been so misnamed?), becoming familiar with 200 schools of varying configurations and in disparate states of readiness and disrepair, and poring over budget numbers that are mind-boggling compared to skinny Del Mar, Solana Beach, and San Dieguito.
Now assigned to cover San Diego City Schools, I’m getting educated about the real-life world of public education, not the fantasy-land of education in North County. I’m learning about the hopeful promise of charter schools, the power of angry unions, the destructive nature of divisive school boards, and the depth of the dilemma facing large urban school districts charged with improving academic performance in the face of widespread poverty, under-funding, significant language and cultural differences, the flight of the middle class, and sanctions for not meeting state and federal objectives.
The Israelis and Palestinians got nothing on district superintendent Alan Bersin, who has encountered hostility and resistance at every turn as he has tried to solve a problem of such magnitude that any weaker individual would have been crushed long ago.
So, what are my first impressions, and what have I learned in two months?
I’ve learned that this new school board is much more civil than I anticipated. Expecting flashing daggers and flying fruit, I came upon a polite, respectful board that is courteously yet purposefully dismantling many programs put into place under Bersin’s signature program, the Blueprint for Student Success.
They are taking it apart piece by piece, but they are doing it so politely – at least in public – that you hardly feel you’ve been had. They are rejecting peer coaching and teacher training programs, lowering kindergarten standards, setting up obstacles for the creation of charter schools, reassigning popular principals, and buying out Bersin’s contract one year early – all the while smiling behind clenched teeth and saying “please” and “thank you” and “with all due respect.”
Me, I’d rather have the fireworks if it means better opportunities for the kids. Lose the manners and bring back policies that will advance academic success.
The majority of board members have told me personally that they favor many aspects of the Blueprint. So Bersin’s downfall would seem to stem not from the policies he proposed but from the manner in which he implemented them – in other words, style over substance.
Yet their actions negate their words. Perhaps it is too hard, after all, to disentangle the policies from the man?
Will they throw the (Blueprint) baby out with the bathwater? Will this board reject Bersin’s ideas just because they came from Bersin?
One wonders how the Blueprint’s focus on instruction in the classroom would have fared had it been proposed by someone less forceful and more patient. The problem with going slower and handling the unions and teachers more patiently, is, of course, the kids.
As Katherine Nakamura said, there is a sense of urgency here. It’s fine to exhibit patience as you slowly but surely move a monolithic structure like the massive teachers’ union into place behind new programs, but the kids, darn them, are growing older with each passing year.
Kids don’t wait for egos to be stroked and feelings to be massaged. They need attention and they need it yesterday. There isn’t the time to pussyfoot around and soothe ruffled feathers.
Patience is needed for the adults, but urgency is required for the kids. And adults should remember why they are there – to provide the kids with a decent education.
In the last two months, I’ve also learned a bit about charter schools – their need, their appeal, and the hope they offer for a better future. I am seeing the fervent passion parents have for their schools and their children’s education. They refuse to give up. They exhibit remarkable determination and dedication, and are willing to work hard for solutions to save their schools.
However, I’ve also seen data questioning the success of charter schools, data that brings a sobering perspective to the new movement. Charter schools might not be the perfect solution, and there is mounting evidence that suggests the idea may not have merit in every situation. Experts estimate that 10 percent of all charter schools are forced to close, up from four percent four years ago.
Nonetheless, they are a viable option for the present, for schools where all other alternatives have failed, because they are free from union rules and allow for complete accountability. So districts like SD Unified should either reject the option completely or provide all the resources the district can muster when granting charter status to schools meeting strict criteria.
Give them everything they need to succeed. Then the school’s ultimate success or failure cannot be blamed on anything other than the validity of the charter school ideal.
And that means not ousting successful school principals on the verge of transforming their schools into charters, as trustees did Feb. 9 when they removed Vince Riveroll from Gompers Middle School in southeast San Diego. They kicked him out unceremoniously in the face of vocal opposition from parents, students, and teachers who are working desperately to turn Gompers around. Forging ahead with their charismatic leader to guide them was a crucial component in the parents’ plan for success.
The action, widely regarded as unwarranted and counter-productive, also seems like micro-managing just a tad, wouldn’t you say? The principals in the district, as explained to me by district staff, report to instructional leaders, who report to deputy superintendents, who report to the superintendent, who reports to the board. Going down four levels seems a bit like the president of IBM firing an engineer.
Maybe there is a secret plan to turn these low-performing schools around that this board has developed in private – one that entails abandoning new models that offer hope for increased student success. If so, constituents would love to hear of it.
When people look back in 10 or 20 years, how will the Bersin era be viewed? Will it be seen as a failure for not meeting its objective of raising academic performance across the board? Or will it be viewed as a partial success, given that test scores have risen slightly in segments of the district’s student population?
Adopted in 1999, the Blueprint is an incomplete, now interrupted, experiment that has hardly been given the chance to succeed. Not enough time has passed to judge conclusively one way or the other, although it will be regarded as a disaster by those who view the current dismantling as proof of the plan’s failure.
What is failing, clearly, is the school board’s ability to unite all parties under one roof in the name of student advancement and to convince education leaders to stay the course and separate the ideas in the Blueprint from the Blueprint’s champion and the force of his personality.
The union and its backers should be careful about gloating over the end of Bersin and his policies. If their goal was to oust one man, then yes, they can claim success. If their goal was to preserve the sanctity of union rules that protect senior teachers and reward them with higher pay for simply hanging in there the longest, then they were successful at that also.
But if their goal was to find a new way to improve student achievement, well, they need some guidelines, a new map. Some might say they need a blueprint.
But who knows? These are just my first impressions.
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at