California Crash Course

, Larry Scholer, Leave a comment

San Diego’s school reforms pitted a new superintendent, Alan Bersin [pictured], against the entrenched employers’ unions. Bersin, a lifelong Democrat and former border czar under the Clinton administration, was unprepared for the criticism he would face from labor unions.

“I was certain I could quell that division,” he said on May 18 at the American Enterprise Institute.

A new book, Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego, chronicles the comprehensive reform over the past seven years in the Southern California district. While it is still too soon to determine whether the reforms have proven effective, the struggles that the reformers faced are relevant to future reform efforts, the book’s contributors say.

“San Diego reflected the different philosophies of change,” said Michael Usdan, former president and current senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, at the American Enterprise Institute on May 18.

Labor unions typically control large urban school districts and often obstruct comprehensive reform, particularly top-down reforms.

“[San Diego] was skeptical of Alan Bersin,” said Joe Williams, an education reporter for the New York Daily News who contributed to Urban School Reform. Teachers spoke harshly of Bersin, and, alongside parents and unions, attempted to force his ouster.

“My basic contribution was surviving,” Bersin said.

“I never responded to any of the personal vilifications,” he said.

The reforms in San Diego sought to change the culture of the schools and “win the hearts and minds of teachers,” according to Bersin. Without improvements in teacher quality, student achievement will remain stagnant. There is an opportunity to close the achievement gap in a generation, but only with comprehensive reform, he said.

“Unless teaching is superb, you cannot overcome social and economic barriers of poor kids.”

San Diego’s reforms were teacher friendly, said Williams, but teachers resisted Bersin’s calls for accountability and performance-based incentives.

“If we are going to become a real profession, we’re going to have to act like other professions,” Bersin said.

Bersin will step down from his post as superintendent to become the California education secretary, a position to which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named him.

Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.