Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America’s Race to Renew Public Education

Tilting at WindmillsThis is the brave tale of Alan Bersin, superintendent of San Diego Unified School District from 1998 to 2005, and his aspiration to bring about rapid, systemic reform across that sprawling district. At attorney by training and experience, Bersin was new to school administration. But he moved swiftly, replacing the bloated, inefficient bureaucracy he had inherited with three distinct branches focused chiefly on improving instruction through centralized curricula, direct coaching, and observation. San Diego’s teacher union, however, viewed such moves as power grabs rather than legitimate reforms. Relations only got worse when Bersin implemented a prescriptive plan to curtail social promotion and increase instruction for high-need students—without teacher input. The union, upset at his top-down management style and his simultaneous embrace of charter schools, set out to change the composition of the school board and stock it with anti-Bersins. Never mind that overall student achievement had gone up and achievement gaps had significantly narrowed during his tenure. Bersin’s successor was then chosen to make peace between the union and the school district, and of course this peacemaking process undid just about all of his significant reforms. And the wheels keep spinning.

SOURCE: Richard Lee Colvin, Tilting at Windmills (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

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