Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego

reviewed by Karen Hunter Quartz - 2006

coverTitle: Urban School Reform: Lessons from San Diego
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess (ed.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792571, Pages: 375, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

This edited volume of research reports was commissioned in January 2004 by the San Diego City Schools, with funds from private foundations, to provide an outside perspective on several facets of their recent reform history and weigh their success to date.  The contributors are primarily university-affiliated researchers, but they also include educational leaders, consultants, and a journalist.  Assembled as “the San Diego Review,” these review scholars were charged with providing “a point of view uncolored by local assumptions and one informed by knowledge of other reform efforts and other locales…to engage in honest, tough-minded discussion about the lessons to be learned” (p. 6).   Nine months later in September 2004 the review scholars met to present their analyses at a conference in San Diego. Because most of the scholars did not conduct local in-depth research over time, editor Fred Hess also bills the Review as a learning exercise for the research community—“a chance for scholars to learn to be a more useful resource” (p. 6).  Presumably much of this usefulness was realized at the conference where the analyses inspired debate among those engaged in reform.  In book form, however, the collection falls a bit short.

In his conclusion to this volume, Hess excuses readers “if they feel as if they’ve been trying to drink out of a hose.  There is a lot to keep in mind, and even the experts sometimes have trouble keeping track of how all the discrete pieces fit together.”  Urban school reform is indeed a complex puzzle, and the many pieces analyzed throughout the volume are thoughtful and probing.  Strung together, however, they make for an often repetitive and disjointed whole.  Most chapters, for instance, recite in various detail key elements of San Diego’s recent reform story.  We read over and over again about the features of San Diego’s Blueprint for Student Success, the focus on instruction, the political division within the school board, the clash between the district and union leadership, the intense pace of change, and so on.  Although there is some interesting variation to the storytelling, it would have been helpful to have the main outline up front, in one place, with sufficient historical detail to serve as reference for the remaining chapters.  

The reform story is indeed an important one.  Alan Bersin, former U.S. attorney, was hired in 1998 to transform the San Diego City Schools (SDCS)—one of a handful of nontraditional superintendents across the country whose aggressive leadership would, advocates hoped, stir up and radically improve failing public school systems.  July 2005 marks the end of Bersin’s tenure in San Diego, at seven years one of the longest-running urban school superintendencies, however not the longest as Bersin and Hess claim. Tom Payzant in Boston is in his tenth year.  Notwithstanding, the San Diego story recounted in this volume is certainly worth studying as one of the longest-running, continuously-led urban reform efforts in the country.  

The effort is portrayed in two phases, corresponding to the tenure and removal in 2003 of Chancellor of Instruction Anthony Alvarado.  Several of the chapters reflect on the top-down, one-size-fits-all nature of the first phase in contrast to the more decentralized and differentiated nature of phase two.  In particular, Hannaway and Stanislawski in chapter 3 suggest that “the advantages of centralized policies may lay the groundwork necessary for effective subsequent decentralization” (p. 54).  But it is a matter of interpretation whether the transition to phase two with its redistribution of people and resources depended on the radical “dictatorship” of phase one or marked its failure.  As Mehan, Hubbard, and Stein (2005) have documented elsewhere, “the SDCS reform changed course because the district’s centralized and fast-paced decision-making swamped the district’s commitment to form communities of learners.”  Although a few chapters in this volume recount resistant voices from the field, the magnitude of local unrest and perceived disrespect towards educators is not adequately captured.  Instead, there seems to be an overall tone of resignation that Bersin and Alvarado’s aggressive actions were necessary; as one set of authors proclaimed, “You have to hand it to the dynamic duo—they pulled it off” (p. 65).  But did they?

Gauging the success of any large scale social reform is sticky business, particularly in a context as politically mired as urban school systems.  Several of the chapters do provide careful analyses that contribute to the editor’s aim of transparent, public, systematic inquiry.  Predictably, the evidence of San Diego’s success is a mixed bag.  While there is some evidence of improved student achievement, primarily in elementary reading scores, there is also much frustration and disappointment.  The Instructional Leaders, once pillars of the original Blueprint, are back to their posts as Assistant Superintendents, the Board has cancelled all contracts with outside consultants, and local educators anxiously await news of who will take over the reins with Bersin’s departure.  Looking back at the reform’s legacy in the volume’s first chapter, Michael Usdan aptly suggests, “The fundamental question emanating from the San Diego saga is whether Alan Bersin, Tony Alvarado, and the majority of the board could have achieved their reform goals by employing more consensual strategies that might have elicited greater support from more members of the professional staff and the community” (p. 26).  

The volume consists of 16 chapters, roughly divided into seven sections:  (1) governance, leadership, and politics; (2) the Bersin-Alvarado instructional agenda; (3) efforts to overhaul the system’s infrastructure; (4) parental choice reforms; (5) reforms aimed at special student populations; (6) achievement data; and (7) concluding reflections by Bersin and Hess.   For a student of urban school reform, this is a comprehensive set of chapters that cover the main facets of large-scale systemic change:  the contrast between instruction-focused and structural reform, collective bargaining disputes, the role of the school board, appropriate accountability measures, staffing upheavals, budget crises, and much more.  The San Diego story—“or, more accurately, drama” (p. 26)—is certainly one worth watching.  


Mehan, H., Hubbard, L., and Stein, M. (2005).  When reforms travel:  The sequel.  Manuscript submitted for publication.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 115-117
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12079, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:34:47 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Karen Hunter Quartz
    University of California, Los Angelos
    E-mail Author
    KAREN HUNTER QUARTZ is Assistant Director for Research of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access where she studies two areas of urban school reform: teacher retention and the creation of small democratic schools. Her publications include several articles and two books, Becoming Good American Schools (1999) (with Jeannie Oakes, Steve Ryan, and Martin Lipton), and Creating New Educational Communities (1995) (edited with Jeannie Oakes.)
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue