A new study has found that a controversial batch of school reforms under former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin worked well in elementary and middle schools, but did little in high schools.
The findings echo an earlier study by the same researchers that only delved into two years of the hotly debated reforms. They are likely to reignite the debate over Bersin and his impact years later, as the school district embarks on a very different, decentralized model of school reform.
The Public Policy Institute of California studied the Blueprint for Student Success, a set of reading reforms championed by Bersin from 2000 to 2005. It found that adding more reading time for struggling students helped boost student achievement, especially in middle school. Lengthening the year at ailing schools also helped — a finding that could spell trouble as California districts shorten the school year.
“Additional time on reading really can make a difference,” said Julian Betts, head of the economics department at the University of California San Diego and one of the authors of the study. “Intervening late just does not seem to work.”
Betts believes the gains could be linked to widespread, consistent teacher training as well, but is unsure because all teachers got the training, making it impossible to untangle its impact.
Some of the most common criticisms of the Blueprint: that it would cause students to burn out or make it harder for them to rack up the classes needed to apply to California public universities. Those were not borne out by the study. But researchers did find that Blueprint reforms had much weaker effects in high schools than in the earlier grades and sometimes even seemed to hurt student achievement.
“The money looks like it was well spent at the elementary levels,” said Tyler Cramer, an attorney and business community leader who supported Bersin. “But this poses the question — do we want to do this at high schools?”
The researchers speculated that the high school reforms might have been less effective because high school English teachers were more resistant to the reforms, seeing themselves as literature teachers rather than reading instructors. Betts said it was also possible that high schoolers targeted for extra help saw it as a sign they were stupid, and underperformed because of it.
Alberto Ochoa, professor emeritus at San Diego State University and a Bersin critic, theorized the Blueprint reforms might have failed in high schools because they put too little emphasis on writing.
“It’s one of our downfalls in education — we deemphasize the most critical skill,” Ochoa said.
Though Bersin left San Diego Unified five years ago, his name is still invoked in schools, often as a cautionary note. Teachers complained that his reforms were forced down from the top without their input. That history still rings through discussions of how to fix schools here: The last superintendent, Terry Grier, joked that he had never met Bersin, but he felt like Bersin was living in his closet.
“The Blueprint was good. It was what we needed,” said Sue Braun, a former school board member. “But there wasn’t enough input on the part of the people who had to do it.”
The programs stopped when Bersin left. But some teachers who were trained then continue to use the strategies in San Diego classrooms.
The study also offers some recommendations for school districts that want to learn from the Blueprint. Researchers believe the Blueprint was especially strong because it was comprehensive and consistent between schools. That could be an especially important point for San Diego Unified, which is now embarking on a decentralized model of school reform in which each school comes up with its own ideas. And many of the reforms took years to bear fruit, researchers found.
“Everyone wants immediate results today,” Betts said. “But it takes a lot of patience for things like reading reforms to unfold. It’s not easy.”
Researchers also said that the federal government should consider easing restrictions on how federal money for economically disadvantaged students is spent. Bersin had to get permission from the federal government to use the money on some reforms because the programs weren’t exclusively for students from poor families; the Public Policy Institute of California said the government could make that easier. Doing so was controversial at the time and would likely be controversial again.
“These moneys are already spread thin,” said parent committee leader David Page. “Doing that spreads it even more thinly, so that it’s less effective for the students of need.”
— EMILY ALPERT