Commentary

San Diego City Schools: Evidence Suggests Bersin Reforms Working


By Julian Betts, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on October 14, 2005

At times of leadership change, it is tempting to focus only on the promise that lies ahead and to dismiss the past. It's an understandable tendency, but it's usually a mistake and would be one in the case of the San Diego Unified School District.

The district has the choice of disregarding all that former superintendent Alan Bersin tried to accomplish with the Blueprint for Student Success because of the controversy it engendered or of building – selectively – on the reform efforts undertaken during his tenure. With the arrival last week of nationally renowned, innovative educator Carl Cohn as the district's new superintendent, San Diego Unified is well positioned to take advantage of past lessons and future possibilities.

San Diego's course should be guided by whether or not the reforms worked – and evidence from a new study published by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that with a couple of notable exceptions, they did.

Formally implemented in summer 2000, the blueprint sought both to improve literacy generally and to close stubborn gaps in literacy among ethnic groups. Among the strategies the blueprint introduced – many of them controversial and since abandoned or curtailed – were additional teacher training, teacher peer coaches, assessments to identify students lagging behind, and a broad array of interventions for these students. The interventions included after-school, summer school, and double-and triple-length English classes, as well as a longer school year for the bottom-ranked elementary schools.

Using data from fall 1999 to spring 2002, the PPIC study indicates clear improvement in reading at the elementary and middle-school levels. The study, which went well beyond the typical examination of test-score trends, indicates that blueprint interventions shifted more than 10 percent of participating elementary students out of the bottom 10th of reading achievement into higher levels. For middle school students, blueprint participation appeared to shift about 4 percent of students out of the bottom fifth.

The main reason for the higher gains in elementary schools relative to middle schools was the elementary Focus program, which included a longer school year. After the reforms were implemented at these Focus schools, students began to increase their reading achievement by an impressive 35 percent above district averages.

The data also indicate that between spring 2000 and spring 2002, blueprint programs directly reduced the Hispanic-white achievement gap in reading in elementary school by about 15 percent, and reduced the black-white gap by 12 percent. At the middle school level, racial gaps in reading achievement also declined as a direct result of the blueprint, but by a lesser extent, about 2 percent for the Hispanic-white gap and 3 percent for the black-white gap.

However, blueprint reforms evidently did not extend to the high-school level. In fact, double-and triple-length classes seem to have diminished high school students' achievement, aggravating ethnic achievement gaps.

What about cost effectiveness of the various reforms?

The peer coaching program was quite costly; and we found that in the first three years, typically, the number of peer coaches at a school did not affect student achievement growth. In contrast, the summer school and especially the Extended Day Reading Program increased reading achievement immediately and in a relatively cost-effective fashion.

What should board members and the new superintendent make of these results? It would be naνve to expect that the district will stand still. With a prominent education innovator such as Carl Cohn at the helm, we should all both expect and welcome fresh innovations in the years ahead.

But we now have evidence that at least some of the blueprint elements worked – and rather well – in the first few years of the reform. The implication is that perhaps we should build on and improve upon the past, rather than starting from scratch.

Publications

From Blueprint to Reality: San Diego's Education Reforms

Determinants of Student Achievement: New Evidence from San Diego

High Expectations, Modest Means: The Challenge Facing California's Public Schools