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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Alan Bersin, Villified by SDEA, Vindicated by Student Test Scores

First, understand the problem, the Kids in San Diego were dropping out and failing to meet basic test score requirements. The district couldn't even institute state wide exit exams because more thatn 50% of kids were failing them. Not because our kids are dumb or less capable than the rest of the state or nation, but because we have a large Mexican immigrant community, due to our proximity to the US/Mexico Border.

This community chooses not to learn English, because they can get everything they need using Spanish: TV, Radio, Jobs, Shopping, etc. The only thing they don't have in Spanish is Education. Thus, San Diego, like other major border cities is cursed with low test scores in Reading and Written Communications, and this lack of ability affects student success in other areas and subjects, too. We were effectively creating an under-class of people illiterate in two languages.

Alan Bersin, not an educator, was called in to clean up the mess. He is a person with friends in high places (the Clintons, Kennedys, Governor Arnold), and keeps moving from one government reform job to another. He's a good Sherif not a politician, but he's an authoritarian, he gets the job done even if it doesn't make him popular. When he came to SDUSD he fired thousands of "Teachers Aids", mostly un-certified and under-qualified teachers helpers, who had provide translation services for non-bilingual Teachers in San Diego classrooms with mostly Spanish speaking parents.

Bersin then used the money saved to hire bi-lingual reading teachers, and lower classroom sizes. He instituted his plan for school reform, dubed “Blueprint for Student Success,” which included a one year intensive English Only introduction for non-english speakers, that sacrificed a year of academics to teach the child to learn in English.

“Change must be driven systematically and systemically for more satisfactory results in teacher practice and student gateway skills,” Mr. Bersin wrote in an e-mail. “We need to be open to new ideas and judge them based on results, not on ideology, or whether they threaten entrenched interests.”

The San Diego Education Association (SDEA) Teachers Union and others didn't like being told that they were failures, or the top down, outsider approach that Bersin imposed. They fought, kicking and screaming with all the "Teachers Assistants" and elected a new School Board, that ousted Bersin. It was tragic to watch, and I'm not even involved. The Kids suffered, but they learned.

Now, 10 years after reforms, and 5 years after Bersin left, the San Diego Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has released a report (by authors Julian R. Betts, Andrew C. Zau, and Cory Koedel) that shows Bersin's program succeeded. This report was supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation.

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Reading Reform: What Works

Some claim that the reform didn't work at the High School level and above, but this data is a reflection that such language arts reform must take place in the lower grades, because once a student is in High School they are too old to save. The other major critique of the "Blueprint for Student Success" is that it failed to get teacher buy-in.

Some district officials say that a few of the blueprint reforms survive in “bits and pieces” in schools.
“It’s not that one [approach] was better that the other; this is an evolution based on some foundational work that was done,” said Nellie Meyer, San Diego’s deputy superintendent for academics.
“It really has been five years since the Bersin superintendency, and we are still working constantly to build trust,” she said. “We’ve definitely recognized that trust is a component that triggers academic success.”

In other words, the teachers union is more powerful than the Superintendent. As the front line educators, not only do they have the Kids and Parents in the palm of their hand, they have more voters and more money than any school board member. I've seen the power of the Teachers Unions first hand. They have infiltrated the State Democratic Party and control the state assembly. I've no doubt that they are in control, and have been for generations. Which begs the question, "why ain't our kids being educated?" (sic)

Since the Bersin "Blueprint for Student Success" (which I believed in), I've talked to former teachers, principals, and students who say that the plan was hard on them, that it didn't work. They claim that it takes 7-10 years for a person to learn a new language. I don't doubt that to master a new language, like a native, you need a long period of time. I only know English, and I still struggle after 40 years, but I also have no doubt that a pre-pubescent child has a unique chance to learn language quickly, and that by MAINSTREAMING children in all ENGLISH courses they will eventually master English. The ONE-YEAR intensive reading and writing English programs, give immigrants a chance to compete.

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