Lessons from San Diego

In 1998, San Diego City Schools launched one of the nation's most ambitious efforts at urban school reform. Superintendent Alan Bersin, former U.S. District Attorney for Southern California and President Clinton's "border czar," sought to reinvent the teaching and organization of the nation's eighth largest school district. In June, Bersin's stormy tenure will draw to a close. He departs as the longest-serving of the nation's big-city superintendents.

When first hired, Bersin named Tony Alvarado, former superintendent of District #2 in New York City, to serve as head of San Diego's instructional and curricular program. They moved aggressively to promote a strategy of coherent, uniform instruction drawn from Alvarado's work in Gotham. That agenda sparked sharp conflict with the San Diego Education Association, reflected in a persistent 3-2 split on the school board.

Bersin's administration enjoyed some visible successes. Between 1999 and 2004, the percentage of San Diego elementary schools scoring at the top rung of the statewide Academic Performance Index increased by more than a third, the number of schools in the bottom category fell from 13 to one, and the racial achievement gap narrowed. However, more disappointingly, middle school and high school achievement stubbornly failed to improve and some observers questioned the rigor of the district's curriculum, Alvarado's approach to teaching, and Bersin's handling of the union.

Bersin's departure provides an opportunity to ask what we have learned from his highly visible and often contentious tenure. To explore that question, and with the district's full cooperation, last year I assembled a team of analysts to examine the San Diego reform push. For me, five key lessons emerged from their appraisal.

First, the centralized, "managed instruction" model of improvement depends critically on the presence of a personnel and managerial infrastructure and on quality curricula. Alvarado gave unstinting attention to his centerpiece "Institute for Learning" training program for principals and faculty, and to building a corps of "peer coaches" to assist teachers. But his single-minded focus on these activities resulted in a lack of attention to infrastructure and curricula. As a result, the coaches, the Institute, and attempts to assign faculty where needed most ran afoul of the collective bargaining agreement's provisions on professional development, staffing, and teacher transfers. A balky human resources operation reliant on outdated technology inhibited district efforts to speed up hiring or promote more flexible staffing.

As for curriculum, despite seven years of diligent work developing a carefully calibrated professional development model for literacy, by 2004 the district still had not promulgated a coherent curriculum for reading and English. Consequently, while teachers were using the prescribed methods, there was too little attention to the quality of content. Some critics believe that the absence of a rigorous, clear curriculum helps to explain the district's apparent successes in elementary reading and accompanying failure to produce similar results in the more content-centered middle school and high school grades.

Second, Bersin strengthened his hand in pursuing reform by embracing statewide accountability (and later NCLB) metrics. He welcomed the "imposition" of the California Academic Performance Index, using it to identify troubled schools and target professional development and resources. However, Bersin's reforms on this front never reached their full potential. Moves to transfer or remove staff were stifled by work rules, while a 2002 fiscal crisis sapped funding intended for low-performing schools. The San Diego effort on this front is less a "success" than an example of what it will take to develop a focused strategy for improving chronically troubled schools.

Third, San Diego shows how dramatic efforts to improve high schools may conflict with other popular reform strategies. In 2004, when the district adopted a high-school reform model that featured a "portfolio" of smaller, more personal schools, it created tensions with the district's six-year-old emphasis on centralized, managed instruction. Allowing faculty to modify curricula to fit the mission of "specialized" high schools and giving them a voice in curricular choices, and the resulting inability to standardize content, means that mentor-coaches encounter math, English, or science teachers in a dozen small schools who may teach a dozen different curricula in a dozen ways. Coaches could mentor all of these teachers on pedagogical technique yet encounter great difficulty applying uniform, consistent guidance on instruction or content.

Fourth, relentless political leadership is part and parcel of being an effective district leader. Some thoughtful observers have asked if Bersin's style was unduly confrontational. What such critiques tend to downplay is that an effort to reimagine radically the way a district does business is bound to spark conflict. One could argue that Bersin would have been more apt to forge a cooperative relationship with the local teachers' union had he proceeded more slowly. But even in his unusually extended seven-year term, Bersin didn't accomplish all he had hoped. Moreover, his approach threw a spotlight on board votes and helped him hold together his 3-2 bloc for nearly seven years. So, we should be skeptical of suggestions that he could have fared much better merely by being kinder and gentler.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson from San Diego is how limited the prospects are for radical improvement in urban public education absent structural change to personnel systems, technology, accountability, leadership, and compensation. For all their sweat and struggle, Bersin & Co. found their efforts to build the workforce they wanted stymied by statute and contract language. An outdated information system meant the district had to try to build on the fly the tools it needed to enable serious improvements to school accountability, human resource management, and budgeting. Bersin began his tenure with multiple advantages, including dazzling local and national contacts, personal charisma, a facile mind, polished negotiating skills, impeccable public service credentials, and a deft fundraising touch. If the legacy of his seven-year run is in doubt, the San Diego experience illustrates, above all, that even the boldest attempts to overhaul urban schooling are today undermined by the same institutional and organizational failings that they are intended to address.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego, published in April by Harvard Education Press.

More By Author