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Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America's Race to Renew Public Education

reviewed by James H. Nehring - September 06, 2013

coverTitle: Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America's Race to Renew Public Education
Author(s): Richard Lee Colvin
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612505643, Pages: 296, Year: 2013
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Author Richard Lee Colvin provides the reader a front row seat to the very colorful and troubling drama that is the American urban school superintendency.  His profile of Alan Bersin’s leadership of the San Diego School System from 1998 to 2005 brings to life many themes that populate contemporary policy discourse.  But what policy discourse reduces to a word or phrase (“choice” “school climate” “accountability”), Colvin illuminates in vivid detail, such that anyone who has not seen the ugly inside of urban school politics may have more than one moment of awakening in which to declare, “okay, now I get it.”  This is a very, very useful book; however, it is also limited considerably by the author’s stance and sourcing.

But first, a bit about the book.  Bersin came to San Diego with no training or experience as an educator.  This striking fact set the stage for what was anticipated, by those who advanced his candidacy, as a true shock-and-awe campaign against a system mired with dysfunction.  The centerpiece of Bersin’s superintendency was a major school district overhaul called “The Blueprint for Student Success.”  The impetus for it was a California law that went into effect near the beginning of Bersin’s tenure requiring school districts to develop a policy for student promotion that was standards-based, in order to avoid “social promotion.”  In California, as elsewhere in the United States, there was growing concern over students who, despite the absence of academic progress, were being promoted simply because they were aging out of their grade level.  At the time, about 40 percent of ninth graders in the San Diego schools were academically far behind and 75 percent of graduates who entered community college or the state university system required remedial coursework.  At the same time, however, approximately one third of San Diego’s high school students dropped out before graduation and in San Diego’s highest poverty high schools, approximately 4 out of 5 African American and Hispanic students did not graduate in four years.  Research is clear that retaining students promotes dropping out.  Raising standards would likely increase retention, which would in turn increase the dropout rate.  However, maintaining the status quo would ensure a steadily rising percentage of illiterate high school graduates.  The plan, which was the outcome of conversations mainly among Bersin, his chief lieutenant Anthony Alvarado, newly hired instructional leaders, and the principals, called for reallocation of Federal Title I money in order to add a fifth year of high school for students who needed it, add instruction during vacation time, create smaller classes for struggling students, extend reading and math instruction, and invest heavily in teacher and principal training for math and literacy instruction.  This reallocation meant that more than six hundred teacher’s aides would be laid off and more than 200 teachers would be hired to staff the new classes.  It was a very big shakeup, producing tremors across the system and, predictably, opposition grew like a tsunami from the board of education to the teachers union to parent groups to the media.  Colvin describes the circus-like atmosphere at one board meeting.  “On a videotape of the meeting, Knapp [teacher union president] can be seen in the front of the room negotiating with Lopez, the board president, about how to choreograph the spectacle about to take place.  Then, several hundred protesters, many of them teachers and most of them white, began trooping through, dropping petitions opposing the Blueprint into a large box.  Meanwhile, Knapp was being interviewed at the front of the room by a television reporter.  Soon, Lopez had to ask everyone who was not seated to leave the room, at the order of the fire marshal” (p. 89).

The book is full of such close-up description that sheds light on larger issues.  Another example focuses on the nature of change.  “How do leaders make change happen without imposing it?” (p. 70), Colvin asks at the beginning of a section about Bersin’s attempt to shift the professional culture of the schools.  Early in his tenure, Bersin hired Anthony Alvarado, whose leadership of New York City District 2 had won recognition for its relentless focus on instructional improvement.  Upon his arrival in San Diego, Alvarado created a leadership academy for principals and hired instructional coaches for teachers.  The district made a significant investment in formal training for the professional staff.  While the goal was to create a culture of collaboration, data informed decision-making, and continuous improvement, the means were often quite prescriptive in both the principals academy and the literacy program taught to classroom teachers by the instructional coaches.  Bersin was caught in a dilemma:  School boards want quick results, which requires a command and control approach to change.  This, in turn, leads to quick gains on shallow metrics and a culture of compliance.  The kind of change schools need is deep.  Instruction needs to shift from a focus on recall and procedural skills to creative problem solving and collaboration.  The professional culture needs a similar shift from a bureaucratic mindset (Hey, I’m doing my job) to a professional mindset (How can we improve student learning?).  But this sort of change requires time, and school boards, for a variety of reasons, are not inclined to wait.

After several chapters describing seemingly intractable dilemmas, the title of the book starts to feel about right.  Like Don Quijote, Bersin stands no chance against an opponent that makes no sense.  But the literary allusion suggests, unintentionally, another aspect of Bersin’s difficulties.  In Cervantes’ tale, Quijote imagined he was under siege, when, in fact, what he thought were giants wielding great swords across a battlefield were, in reality, windmills benignly milling grain.  Colvin creates a drama of a superintendent under siege, in which Alan Bersin, noble in intent, faces an array of opponents whose motives range from self-serving to villainous.  Colvin picks off Bersin’s foes one at a time in chapters about the school board, the teachers union, and the media.  About the media, Colvin summarizes, “The reaction to Bersin was more sustained, bitter, and scurrilous than even the dirtiest political campaigns” (p. 140).  On the union, Colvin quotes Bersin, “their positions had nothing to do with the educational needs of children” (p. 108).  Colvin casually knocks off practically every player in the field of education, even those to which he does not devote a full chapter of excoriation.  About higher education, he writes, “university-based leadership programs are weak.  So San Diego created its own leadership academy . . .” (p. 59).


What becomes apparent after fifty pages is that the book, overall, is taking a defensive stance.  A second look at Colvin’s Introduction and Acknowledgments explains why.   In the introduction, Colvin writes, “the story has never been told from Bersin’s perspective.  The purpose of this book is to do just that . . .” (p. 6).  In the Acknowledgments, we read that a main source for the book is “forty boxes of documents and videotapes that Alan D. Bersin provided”  (p. 235).  Given the author’s espoused purpose and his main source, it is clear that there is little critical distance afforded the reader from which Bersin’s work may fairly be assessed.  It is an open question whether the urban school district per se is a viable organizational approach.  It is possible that it is too complex, too politically driven, too bureaucratic, and too entrenched to ever work.  But one cannot know the answer from this account, in which a command and control leader—despite Colvin’s argument to the contrary—became, unsurprisingly, mired in a politics of hostility.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17237, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:22:19 PM

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About the Author
  • James Nehring
    University of Massachusetts, Lowell
    E-mail Author
    JAMES NEHRING is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. During 2013-2014, he is a Fulbright Scholar at Queens University Belfast where he is learning from schools serving low income communities that outperform their demographic peers on state tests while also teaching a wide range of skills beyond the test (the “whole child”). He is the author, most recently, of The Practice of School Reform: Lessons from Two Centuries.
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