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 A balky human resources operation reliant on outdated technology inhibited district efforts to speed up hiring or promote more flexible staffing.
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 An outdated information system meant the district had to try to build on the fly the tools it needed to enable serious improvements to school accountability, human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.