As President Barack Obama has unveiled many planned school reforms, San Diego Unified has steadily steered in the opposite direction from many of the controversial changes the feds seek.

San Diego Unified didn’t join in when California competed against other states for more school stimulus money — partly because the federal contest required reforms. Obama wants to beef up teacher evaluations and include student test scores in how teachers are judged; San Diego has made evaluations less frequent for senior teachers and wants to deemphasize tests. Obama has praised experiments that pay teachers more for boosting scores or working in disadvantaged schools; San Diego has avoided them.

The school district wants to put tremendous trust in teachers and principals — the same people the Obama Administration wants to oust when test scores drag. The district prizes gradual change; Obama wants big shakeups for failing schools.

School board President Richard Barrera called San Diego’s example a competing “community model” of school reform that stems from small classes and cooperation between school staff. Barrera rejected some Obama reforms as a “corporate model” stressing standardized tests and change from the top.

Many of the federal ideas are unproven. Almost all are controversial. And teachers are deeply tied into almost all of it. While the Obama Administration goes one way and pulls many urban school systems along with them, San Diego Unified is going in a completely different direction.

Some argue it’s backwards.

“The mindset is back in the Paleolithic ages in some ways,” said Arun Ramanathan, a former San Diego Unified official who now leads the nonprofit Education Trust West. “They all claim to be Democrats on the school board. Is there one aspect of the Obama education agenda they’ve aligned with?”

Community reform is a popular vision that plays well in San Diego, still suffering whiplash from a revolving door of three very different superintendents. Alan Bersin, Carl Cohn and Terry Grier were all criticized for importing ideas used elsewhere. In a recent speech, Barrera spotlighted Euclid Elementary and its homegrown reforms. The hope is that if schools are encouraged to innovate, more will follow Euclid.

“What Barrera outlined in his speech is exactly what teachers have been saying,” said teachers union President Camille Zombro. “There isn’t a magical program. It’s about time and relationships.”

Barrera said schools will still be accountable to the district for results, but will be judged on a wider array of student achievement including creativity and critical thinking — something Obama has praised. How to do that is still undecided. While teachers applauded the philosophy of freeing schools to go their own way, it isn’t that different from the status quo. Since Bersin tried to change what happens in classrooms, San Diego Unified has largely backed off of sweeping reforms that drive how teachers teach, leaving that up to individual schools, for better or worse.

Cohn focused on other changes such as making schools friendly to families; Grier was criticized for introducing tests that teachers said intruded on their time, but never actually delved into teaching. While teachers face pressure from individual principals, San Diego Unified hasn’t pushed systematically to change teaching since Bersin. Budget woes have consumed the school board instead.

Along with retreating from the classroom, San Diego Unified has long shied from reforms that focus on figuring out which teachers are good and which are bad — and reassign, reward or remove them accordingly. Such changes are touchy because they judge teachers at least partly on students’ test scores. Unions and other critics have called the approach simplistic and unfair, blaming teachers for factors outside their control, such as students’ home lives or how often they come to school.

Yet Obama is a believer and many school systems are testing the waters: Long Beach uses student scores to assess teachers. San Francisco offers higher pay to teachers in hard-to-staff schools. And Los Angeles is weighing merit pay and new evaluations. Proponents argue that knowing which teachers are best could help schools link them with the neediest kids.

But tinkering with how teachers are evaluated or paid is a radioactive idea in San Diego since Bersin, said former human resources chief Sam Wong. Cohn backs some of those reforms but never pursued them here. Grier tried teacher pay experiments at another district, but not in San Diego.

Disagreements over those reforms were one reason the district sat out on Race to the Top, a competition between states for federal stimulus money. Board members said they didn’t want to sign up for reforms that could impact their employees without more detailed information. Many California school districts snubbed the race, but San Diego was the biggest.

Race to the Top is rooted in the idea that schools need to figure out how effective individual teachers are, said Rick Miller, deputy superintendent at the California Department of Education and an architect of its Race to the Top bid. “There’s a movement here that San Diego doesn’t seem to be as intimately involved with.”

Most school board members believe pay experiments and evaluation changes are an unproven fad. That allies them with the teachers union, which helped usher several new board members into office. Interim Superintendent Bill Kowba hasn’t sought those changes. And the new superintendent is being chosen for how he or she fits into the same community reform philosophy that puts stability over shakeups.

“It’s a different way of doing reform,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. “But if the district doesn’t agree with what’s happening at the federal level, what is our plan for putting more experienced teachers in our lowest-performing schools?”

Barrera said increasing pay and easing teacher workloads through new labor rules would help ensure that the best teachers are at work in San Diego Unified. But those perks would go to all teachers, unlike the incentives Obama has pushed, which are targeted at teachers deemed to be better.

And Race to the Top was only the first hint of pressure to change from Obama. Federal education officials plan to tie more and more school funding to the controversial reforms Obama wants. San Diego Unified may not be able to avoid the issue for much longer, said Libia Gil, a senior fellow at the American Institutes for Research who has studied San Diego Unified schools.

“I believe some of the pushback (from school districts) is very reasonable,” Gil said. “But real soon it’ll be hitting every district. Nobody’s going to be immune.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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