Education historian Diane Ravitch zoomed in on San Diego Unified in her recent book, examining the battles over school reform under former Superintendent Alan Bersin.

She concluded that Bersin had chosen the wrong way to change schools, imposing changes from the top. We did a Q&A with her this summer about that book and her thoughts on San Diego.

Now that San Diego Unified has opted for a different, grassroots model of school reform, Ravitch visited San Diego for a talk last night with teachers, parents and community members.

I sat down for a quick chat with her beforehand.

On critical thinking, a pillar of the school district’s new reform plans:

These things are not easily measured. A month ago I spoke at an event in Los Angeles and a teacher told me that she gave students word problems every September, saying, “Give me strategies to solve the problem.” The kids would say, “You start by eliminating the wrong answers.”

What that suggests and symbolizes is a lack of critical thinking, an inability to think creatively or originally. We’re not encouraging those things.

On what to keep in mind as San Diego Unified takes a bottom-up approach to reform:

The dangers are things can be so decentralized that there’s no sense of direction. It’s important to keep a clear sense of academics.

Most urban districts are obsessed with getting their test scores up. San Diego seems to have stepped back from that and that’s a good sign. What we have now is a false accountability. We think we have accountability when in fact we have a numbers game. (As an example, Ravitch pointed out that some seemingly successful students end up having to take remedial classes in college.)

On getting good teachers:

Edwards Deming, the guru of American business, said you should recruit good people, support them and let them do their work. In schools we have no selective recruitment and we have bad conditions.

This idea that we can fire our way to excellence is crazy. We have to work on the human resources side of education. We need room to help and support people. The union doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Massachusetts is the highest performing state and it’s unionized. So is Finland.

Management and teachers are collaborating here. That’s what I think is impressive about San Diego. This works better than confrontation.

On the election:

The federal Department of Education has been so heavy handed since 2002. My hope is Republicans will want the feds to step back.


Want more of Ravitch? Check out my Twitter feed of her talk last night.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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