by John Ritter ------------------------------------- Side bar:
Districts desperate to boost achievement are hiring noneducators as superintendents
Newcomer's touch: San Diego schools Superintendent Alan Bersin says he brings a fresh perspective to improving student achievement. Until July 1 he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California -------------------------------------
SAN DIEGO -- One of Alan Bersin's first acts as superintendent of public schools in this sunwashed melting pot was to trim what he calls "the flow of babble."
Bersin saw a river of memos and paperwork diluting the focus on teaching and learning in the nation's eighth-largest urban school system. He ordered strict limits on the amount of communication from the central office to teachers and principals in the district's 170 schools.
To the new superintendent with no previous experience in education, the move just made sense. "It's the kind of perspective change that comes from being a newcomer and an outsider," says Bersin, who until July 1 was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. "If you've lived inside this culture, the data overload becomes routine."
A fresh outlook -- thinking outside the box -- is a key attribute noneducators like Bersin bring to the top job in a school district, experts say. And as school boards across the country search for ways to boost student achievement, they are increasingly likely to include nontraditional candidates in searches for new superintendents.
"A good deal more districts, particularly large ones, are looking at outsiders than they were 10 years ago," says Jerry Floyd, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. Floyd says up to 2,000 of the nation's 15,000 school boards have superintendent vacancies at any one time, and at least several dozen of them now interview noneducators for the job.
So far, only a few districts have hired noneducators -- Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., and now San Diego -- but that could change if dissatisfaction over school performance grows and the pool of superintendent applicants from the educator ranks keeps declining.
Susan Moore Johnson, assistant dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New Superintendency, says an obvious but elusive key to success is a superintendent's ability to motivate principals and teachers to change their practices.
"Noneducators certainly can assume leadership roles in districts," Moore Johnson says. "They just have to think very carefully about where their perceived expertise on teaching and learning is going to come from." But Moore Johnson says any "generic search for the all-purpose superintendent to come in and fix everything is a recipe for disaster."
The records of outsider superintendents are mixed so far. Two former Army generals have had starkly opposite tenures: John Stanford is credited with turning around Seattle's schools and is revered citywide, while Julius Becton left after two mostly ineffective years in Washington D.C., citing exhaustion.
In Chicago, the nation's third-largest system, both the academic demands of students and test scores have risen under superintendent Paul Vallas, the former city budget chief appointed by Mayor Richard Daley after the state Legislature gave him authority over schools in 1995.
A former Navy commander running Boulder schools, Tom Seigel, saw the back-to-basics school board majority that hired him in 1997 voted out of office a few months later. He appears to have won tepid support of the new majority midway through his contract.
Peter Hutchinson, head of an education consulting firm that took over Minneapolis schools in 1994, was out three years later. He solved the district's financial crisis and instituted academic standards and a new testing system but couldn't overcome opposition from minority groups. Test scores rose only marginally.
What makes San Diego's experiment unusual is that Bersin was not hired to be a savior. Except for Boulder, the other districts that brought in noneducators did so virtually out of desperation: Their schools were in a shambles and needed a radical fix.
San Diego has its problems: Black and Litino test scores lag far behind those of whites. The district's 136,000 students are 28% white, 17% black, 36% Latino, 7% Indochinese, 8% Filipino, 3% Asian and 1% Pacific Islander, creating challenges under the statewide referendum passed last month limiting the amount of bilingual education schools can offer. Many school buildings have deteriorated to the point that one of Bersin's first priorities is to sell voters on a $1.5 billion bond issue in November.
Under Bersin's predecessors, the district had started creating academic standards and toughening high school graduation requirements. But school board president Ron Ottinger says neither the business community nor the city's ethnic groups were satisfied with student achievement.
"There was a sense that we needed someone dynamic to deepen the reforms that are on paper," Ottinger says.
Though not steeped in education theory, Bersin had impressive credentials. A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar classmate of Bill Clinton's, he earned a law degree at Yale, and as a civil litigator in Los Angeles he kept in touch with the Clintons.
Clinton appointed Bersin U.S. attorney in 1993, and by most accounts he built an impressive record prosecuting drug smugglers and professional rings that were bringing illegal aliens across the border. Attorney General Janet Reno designated Bersin, who is fluent in Spanish, her "border czar." After Clinton's re-election, there was speculation that he aspired to replace her if she left the Cabinet.
He says he applied for the superintendent's job partly because he thinks circumstances -- a good economy, a lower crime rate and stability in foreign affairs -- are putting public education atop the national agenda and creating opportunities "to make a difference."
Bersin, 51, has a four-year contract, the maximum allowed under California law, and a $165,000 annual salary with bonus incentives. His sole mandate is to raise student achievement. He says tough academic standards must be entrenched in the classroom, teachers must be trained and committed to teaching them, and students must be held accountable to mastering them. It is a goal attained by few school districts.
About his lack of experience in education, Bersin says, "I know what I don't know." But he has garnered early praise for luring Anthony Alvarado away from a New York City school district to be his chancellor of instruction.
Alvarado gained a reputation as an innovative reformer by dramatically raising reading and math scores in a low-achieving district stretching from working-class Chinatown to the Upper East Side. He pledged that test scores would improve in San Diego within two years.
But most educators are wary of promises mounted on quick timetables. Lasting public school reform is measured in decades, yet the tenure of the average big-city superintendent is less than four years.
And high turnover breeds cynicism in the schools -- this too shall pass, teachers and principals eventually conclude. At the same time, the politics and fishbowl nature of a superintendent's life make the job less attractive. The pressure to raise scores, graduation rates and college matriculation is intense.
Big-city districts are more heterogeneous, more bureaucratic and harder to manage than smaller rural and suburban districts. Low minority achievement typically is a festering issue. Declining populations and tax bases shrink school resources. School buildings are decaying in many cities. Higher rates of urban crime and poverty inhibit learning. The buck always stops with the superintendent.
"It's not a job people are wanting anymore, so it's getting harder to find good strong candidates," says Kathy Christie, senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "The assistant superintendents who are making almost as much money are asking, "Is it worth it?"."
Floyd, of the school boards association, says the caliber of noneducator that a school board wants as superintendent often has no interest. "The pay package is just not competitive with private industry, particularly at the CEO level," he says.
Seattle's Stanford, on the other hand, turned down a $500,000 bonus pledged from anonymous donors if he'd agreed to stay on through June 2002. He urged the donors to spend the money on school programs.
The retired general, who has presided over steadily rising test scores, is on leave battling leukemia but is expected to return in the fall. His former deputy, Arlene Ackerman, replaced the beleaguered Gen. Becton as superintendent in Washington.
The challenge facing Bersin is a far cry from the chaos of fiscal mismanagement, academic dysfunction and federal oversight that Becton walked into. Before he was hired, Bersin visited schools, unannounced and without revealing his interest in the job, to see what he could be getting into. He came away impressed with the teachers and principals and convinced they could rise to the next level.
Perhaps because he's a lawyer by training, not an educator, he has no illusions. "Our sole mission is to improve student achievement," he says. "Anyone who thinks significant progress is going to happen in less than two to three years seriously underestimates the complexity of the task."
But he can't help adding: "Come see us again in a year."
************************************************************ Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU