Windmills in San Diego

Tilting at Windmills is Richard Lee Colvin’s account of Alan Bersin’s struggle to remake San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005.

“San Diego became notorious for the fierce resistance of its teachers union, abetted by school board members, to any and all efforts at change,” writes Nathan Glazer in an Education Next review.

Like Joel Klein in New York City, Bersin left a law career to become a big-city superintendent. He persuaded Tony Alvarado, the former New York City schools chancellor, to become his director of instruction.

Alvarado clashed with the union over literacy coaches. He wanted coaches trained in method he’d found effective. The union wanted peer coaches to help teachers use whatever method they preferred.

Alvarado believed principals should observe classes. The union wanted advanced warning of a principal’s visit.

Teachers denounced Bersin as a “dictator.” While a 3-2 school board majority backed him, one board member called him a “gauleiter” when he proposed letting charter organizers run the worst-performing schools. (Glazer notes, she inaccurately said gauleiters were “Jews who worked for the Nazis [to shepherd] their own people into the trains” to the concentration camps.

Bersin persisted for six years, in time gaining the support of some teachers and principals. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found the improvement in reading “so definitive that San Diego’s efforts are well worth a look by other school districts in California and the nation.” Achievement gaps were narrowed significantly. But this was for elementary schools: similar efforts in high schools did not show the same results.

“If this is what it takes to make modest improvements in achievement levels and reduce achievement gaps, how often can we expect it to happen?” asks Glazer, a professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard.

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  1. There are two answers.

    The first answer is more school choice. Charters, vouchers, magnets…whatever.

    The second is tracking. It worked. Bring it back. College Prep for all isn’t working.

    • The second, in a sense, is implicit in the first.

      As the number of charters increases there’ll come a point where the charters will no longer have the luxury of just having to be better then awful district schools, they’ll be competing with each other.

      When that day arrives tracking, as practiced in district schools, won’t be enough.

      Tracking, being the stiff-necked response to demands that schools treat kids more like individuals and less like raw materials going through an industrial process, is coarse-grained. Typically there are three tracks – dumb, average and smart – which is about all anyone could hope for from the public education system.

      But three big, convenient bins will no longer do when the charter school down the street’s treating each kid as if they matter. But that’s the direction competition will inevitably drag education since schools that fail to address the differences among children will suffer at the hands of those that do.