- Paperback: 296 pages
- Publisher: Harvard Education Press (April 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1612505643
- ISBN-13: 978-1612505640
- Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,808,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America’s Race to Renew Public Education
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From the Back Cover
A book that draws equally on Richard Lee Colvin’s deep acquaintance with contemporary education reform and the unique circumstances of the San Diego experience, Tilting at Windmills is a penetrating and invaluable account of Bersin’s contentious superintendency. At the heart of Colvin’s research are years of interviews with Bersin, who granted Colvin unprecedented insight into his experiences and thoughts about the reforms he initiated. The result is a detailed and nuanced narrative of the reform process in San Diego and its relationship to comparable school reform efforts throughout the country.
The definitive account of the San Diego story, Tilting at Windmills is also a crucial contribution to our more general understanding of the education reforms that have swept the nation during the past fifteen years.
“Change is complicated, especially when it involves power politics, a defensive status quo, and a bona fide attempt to significantly transform teaching and learning throughout an entire school district. Richard Lee Colvin looks at the reforms unleashed by San Diego Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin from the perspective of the change-agent leader. It is a fascinating vantage point that sheds tremendous light on how things really work within public education.” — Joe Williams, director, Democrats for Education Reform
“Anyone interested in knowing what education reform and the struggles to achieve it actually look like at the ground level should read this book. Most everything else I read is baloney; this is the real deal.” — Michael Casserly, executive director, Council of the Great City Schools
Richard Lee Colvin is the former executive director of Education Sector and a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
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Top customer reviews
Alvarado had been a respected innovator in NYC's Harlem area, instituting choice and raising expectations. Principals were expected to become instructional leaders (not just 'campus managers'), and massive investments were made to select, recruit, train, motivate, and retain them. Some hadn't been in classrooms for years and years, except to do the perfunctory teacher evaluations prescribed by statue and limited in scope and impact; 13 principals were fired the first year. Between 1998 and 2005, about 90% of the principals remained at their same schools; about 80% were new people who had come into the system, bringing innovation and leadership with them. Teachers also received extensive training - from less than .1% of the budget spent on teacher training in math and literacy skills to 6.5%, and totaling over $250 million during those years.
Teachers, however, resented and resisted peer review, peer coaching, and principal evaluation. Bersin, rather than slow down, felt pressured to move even faster - the average school superintendent in urban America at the time lasted no more than 30 months. Thus, the teachers' union simply had to wait him out and saw no need to cooperate. Bersin knew he needed to achieve results before public patience wore out. Unfortunately, he was hobbled by the union requiring that faculties would pick a peer coach, that selectee would then go through a San Diego State literacy course, and their instructors would determine whether they had sufficient skills and knowledge for peer evaluation. Bersin contends that only about half actually did.
Meanwhile, in the 2000 election, Bersin also secretly helped raise funds from San Diego business leaders and L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad for a $500,000 advertising campaign to defeat his harshest board critic.
This was no low-cost, low-turnout, low visibility school board election.! Had Bersin succeeded, his supporters would hold four of the five board seats. But it didn't, and for the next five years he had to fight to hold that one-vote majority. Not surprisingly, the targeted board member became even more committed to getting rid of Bersin, frequently even calling him a Nazi, and two years later the teachers' union followed with an $800,000 campaign to elect another Bersin opponent. Fortunately, their candidate was a weak one who lost.
Bersin lost his 1-vote majority in 2004, and resigned in 2005.
America's schools need major changes - since the early 1970s we've more than tripled per-pupil inflation-adjusted spending, with very little, if anything to show for it; meanwhile our competitors' (mostly economic, but increasingly political as well) pupils have left ours far behind in international pupil achievement comparisons while spending far less AND having higher graduation rates. Bersin's experience in a politically conservative area documents that major changes are not possible without conflict.
His 'Blueprint for Student Success' emphasized literacy and math skills, and was attacked by many as doing so at the cost of arts, music, and other electives. California's Public Policy Institute found that his adding more reading time and lengthening the year at ailing schools helped - at the elementary and middle schools; however, high-school results did not improve. (To be fair, this pattern has been replicated across America for decades - encouraging results at the lower grades, stagnation in the upper grades.) At the same time, his directive style, seen as a virtue by hiring board members, alienated many teachers - including retired teacher and board member John de Beck. Shelia Jackson, one of the three newly elected members in 2004, was another teacher opponent.
On the other hand, I'm not aware of any large school-district that has successfully moved away from the failed self-serving union-dominated model of the early 1970s. Rather than wait forever for consensus, Bersin took his best shot with the support he had. And for that, he's to be commended.
As for the rest of us, we too should not wait forever for consensus. There is a huge gap between what people think is happening in our schools and what needs to happen. One of the basic lessons herein is that school boards are no longer viable today, especially when most voters know nothing about any of those candidates 'at the bottom of the ballot.' A new model of education management is needed - the most promising, though still very combative and problematic, is that of mayoral control. A second basic lesson is that today's unionized teachers bear little resemblance to our mental images of them.
The subtitle of this book could have been 'Understanding Resistance To Change'. Colvin does a solid job of describing Bersin's challenge in that every innovation was met by fierce pushback from the entrenched special interests. If the teachers union comes off as the bad guy in these pages, it's because they truly were the bad guys during this period. Bersin stepped into a highly dysfunctional school district with a high minority/poor population. He felt the fierce urgency of change and pushed hard and the Status Quo pushed back harder. Reading this, it's amazing he hung in there for 7 years. Lesser men would have quit after one or two (Bersin's successor bailed out after two years)