Have you ever had an experience that you felt really opened your eyes to the world - one that you found so utterly groundbreaking given your own life experience that you wanted to share it with everyone so that they could glean some of the knowledge that you took from it - only to discover that that same experience already happened to thousands of people before you, that you're really nothing more than one of a long line of people who just happens to be among the most recent people to experience such a situation. On one hand, it kind of makes you feel like your experience was less significant than you originally thought (although it probably shouldn't when you consider that pretty much any lesson you learn in life has already been learned by billions of people who've come before you), but on the other hand, it kind of makes you feel more a part of some sort of universal human experience. Well, this is exactly what happened to me when I read Ravitch's fourth chapter, "Lessons from San Diego."
Unbeknownst to me (a complete amateur in the world of education history, policy, and practice), many of the things happening in DC today played out in a similar fashion in San Diego between 1998 and 2005. Ravitch tells the story of San Diego's choice to make a federal prosecutor, Alan Bersin, superintendent of San Diego's public schools. Apparently, Bersin believed that democracy and educational reform don't go together. He took a top-down approach and immediately downsized central office staff, fired principals, and created a culture within the public schools that minimized trust and maximized conformity. According to Ravitch, Bersin sent instructional coaches to schools that most teachers felt were there not to help them improve, but rather to "catch them" teaching the wrong way. From the book:
"The coaches sowed animosity, especially among experienced teachers., The coaches made teachers feel less competent, not respected. Teachers saw them as policemen and did not trust them. They came into classrooms to inspect the 'word walls,' and the 'leveled libraries,' and the mandatory student-made posters..."Later on:
"A National Board-certified teacher who was a former Teacher of the Year for the district spoke contemptuously of the regimented language, the scripted talk, such as 'I am a reflective practitioner.' Teachers were not allowed to question the leaderships' strategy. 'We bonded, we spoke in code words. They spied on us, videotaped staff development meetings, with the camera pointed at the audience, not the presenters. Sometimes we agreed that no one would talk. We would sit quietly, in a form of passive noncompliance. It was a totalitarian atmosphere. We were subversive. We knew what they wanted to hear. We would be punished if we didn't parrot the words they wanted to hear,' she said."I felt like I'd taught with these teachers. I know exactly what it means to work in a school that feels like a totalitarian dictatorship and mentioned it in my blogging multiple times, especially here when I said I felt like Winston from Nineteen Eighty-four. It also reminded me of a something a colleague e-mailed our department when we still thought there was something we could do to stop the constant teacher turnover. I shared this quote in my blog when I finally decided I was Checking Out. Referring to teacher turnover, my former colleague said:
"Here's the problem..no matter what we think, I bet the administration doesn't think this is a crisis. I think there has been a very conscious decision made which is something like this: 'We have a program which is designed to lift the average test score by X%. The program penalizes teacher creativity and risk-taking, while it rewards conformity and not thinking or asking questions. Above all, we value obedience. We accept that a lot of people will not like this program and will leave. They can be replaced."Ravitch also mentions that teachers in San Diego flocked "to the clinic 'in droves' with 'work-related depression and anxiety due to a hostile work environment,'" (see my post on Abused Teachers Syndrome) and that Bersin was backed by "more than $50 million from foundations, including the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Broad Foundation. Several foundation grants had a specific contingency: The money would be available only as long as Bersin and Alvarado remained in charge of the district." If that doesn't sound familiar, go here.
So it seems DC's story has been played out before, the only thing different about Rhee is the attempt at IMPACT and merit pay. In San Diego, Bersin left after having alienated and disenfranchised too many of the stakeholders, only to be replaced by a superintendent with an actual background in education, imagine that.
Well, you know what they say: wait it out and it'll all go away soon enough. Ugh - I don't know. I have no conclusions to draw here. Just making a comparison.