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Feature                                                       Pages 36-40

 

Undone by the Media 

The story of a superintendent’s promising instructional reforms in San Diego being sabotaged by an inability to communicate

BY RICHARD LEE COLVIN

Alan Bersin was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California when, in 1998, he was tapped to become one of the nation’s first nontraditional superintendents. As one of his first decisions, he hired Tony Alvarado, a tough, fiery New York City educator who, despite some well-publicized lapses in judgment, had achieved a national reputation for improving a swath of schools by investing heavily in coaching and professional development for teachers and principals.

Bersin gave Alvarado free rein to do the same thing on a larger scale in San Diego, and the two men also put in place a comprehensive, ambitious plan designed to narrow the district’s enormous achievement gaps and reduce its dropout rate.

The seven years Bersin led the San Diego schools, according to Jonathan Freedman, writing in San Diego magazine, represented “the most comprehensive, combative and closely watched test of standards-based school reforms in America.” Major foundations invested tens of millions of dollars to support his efforts, which were documented and analyzed by prominent researchers and think tanks. Graduate students in education studied San Diego as a rare example of a serious effort to improve instruction and increase student achievement. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor and Education Week all came calling to cover the story.

But that’s not the story San Diegans read about in the pages of the daily or weekly newspapers, heard on local talk radio or saw play out on television. Instead, the local media served up to its various audiences a nonstop narrative of conflict. Within a month of him taking office, the teachers union’s leaders started accusing Bersin of carrying out top-down, morale-sapping, professionally offensive reforms at too rapid a pace. And the media was all too happy to serve as a megaphone for those complaints.

San Diego’s five school board members separated themselves into camps — three aligned with Bersin and two with the union — and their fighting and sniping was a consistent theme in the news coverage. The plan Bersin and Alvarado put in place came to be known as the “Blueprint,” and it required the -reallocation of tens of millions of local, state and federal dollars, which, not surprisingly, incited opposition among various constituencies who feared they’d lose out. Their voices also were heard.

Discussed far less frequently were the problems Bersin was trying to address, the research behind his policies, the funding devoted to them, or the quality of the training and coaching teachers and principals received.

Proponents for Change
This is not to say that the bitter disagreements in San Diego, or in any community where school system leaders are trying to put in place sweeping changes, were irrelevant. While it’s a cliché, it’s also true that there is no natural constituency for change. Community support and understanding are critical to the success of any plan that affects children, costs a lot of money and requires that adults acquire new skills or gain new knowledge. To build that support, superintendents must be able to communicate their goals and strategies to build support internally and externally. If they don’t, they can’t expect to succeed or even be around very long.

But journalists also have to recognize there always will be opposition to any proposals that upset the established order. The opposition is part of the story; it’s not the whole story.

Plus, in the case of San Diego, Bersin believed there really was something worth fighting about. One point of view, held by his opponents, was that the school district had been doing just fine before he arrived. By contrast, his view was that achievement gaps were growing, the dropout problem was shameful and students in affluent parts of the city were getting far better educations than others. The media could have been helpful had they scrutinized both sides of the argument. Instead, by focusing on the conflict, reporters made it seem like Bersin and his opponents were just fighting to fight. That drew attention away from the substance of what Bersin and Alvarado were trying to do.

All of this is still relevant today. The nation’s focus on preparing students for college and career success by implementing the Common Core State Standards and assessing student achievement and progress represents one of the highest-stakes, most complex and most ambitious set of changes to education policy ever attempted.

Also, starting this school year, many states are piloting or launching controversial teacher evaluation and support systems based in part on how well students handle the more rigorous expectations. Opponents of the Common Core have become ever more vocal over the past year and, while some of the arguments they make are factually wrong and border on lunacy, others are understandable and should be addressed.

Moreover, the challenges involved in implementing all of these changes successfully are enormous, and the news media should monitor them closely as they unfold.

Superintendents have an important role to play in helping their various constituencies understand what’s going on. They need to be communicating through multiple channels directly to teachers and principals to make sure they understand the Common Core and its relationship to new evaluation systems. They also need to communicate honestly and openly with parents and business leaders to be deserving of their support.

Customized Tools
Fortunately, today, superintendents have many more ways of communicating than Bersin did. They are not just limited to press releases and interviews with reporters and writing op-eds. They can show people, for example, what a good Common Core lesson looks like, using video that can be posted on YouTube. They can blog and tweet and customize their messages to meet the informational needs of different audiences.

But whatever tools they use, today’s superintendents need to make sure communications are central to the process of change. Communications are not ancillary and cannot be left to functionaries.

That is something Bersin was not able to do. One reason was that the district’s communications office, like many school districts and state education agencies, always had been reactive rather than pro-active. Its leaders were accustomed to churning out press notices and answering queries from reporters only when necessary and thus were unequipped to put together the communications strategy that a multifaceted reform effort required. It was so bad that, in the beginning, Bersin was line-editing all of his own press releases. The district’s inability to communicate a coherent reform message plagued him throughout his superintendency. In seven years, five different people would be in charge of the district’s communications.

“The opposition beat our brains out most of the time in the communications battle,” Bersin said. “Theirs was a well-orchestrated campaign. They were constantly there, hammering home their message. They worked the press. We were getting damaged from the start in the first year, which was so critical, when so many changes were being introduced.”

Peri Lynn Turnbull, whom Bersin hired as his communications chief in 2002 and would later go on to serve in that capacity in the Fresno, Calif., school district, agreed that the union, in particular, outgunned the district. “The myths started very early on and they had their own lives, and we were unable to get rid of most of them,” she said.

Admitted Shortcomings
Regarding the role of the media, James Harvey has written in The Urban Superintendent: Creating Great Schools While Surviving the Job, a publication for the Council of Great City Schools, that “you have to initiate, not respond, and you have to be as willing to accept criticism and share bad news as you are to issue press releases about awards or glowing reports on student achievement. You will find that reporters will respect you if you respect their intelligence and don’t try to pretend there are no problems.”

Even when talking to reporters, superintendents must remember, first and foremost, they are educators and they must lay out their reform strategies clearly and repeatedly to multiple audiences, recognizing their differences.

Joel Klein, the former chancellor in New York City, and Michelle Rhee, who briefly led the District of Columbia school system, also struggled with the challenge of telling their story effectively to the local media. Klein told the website Big Think.com he did not think he had worked hard enough to personally share the story of the reforms. “It’s a lesson that I wish I’d learned sooner,” he said.

Klein added: “We let other people characterize the changes in ways that were both inaccurate and harmful. These things are controversial, and you’re running up against people who have very sophisticated media machines … who can be counted on to mount an effective defense.” To be sure, Klein had his own sophisticated media operation. Reporters who cover the school district say the communications staff did all it could to control the flow of information from the district and made it difficult to do independent reporting on the reforms under Klein.

But blocking reporters’ questions is not the same as communicating important ideas.

Rhee made enemies right away for seeking to close 23 schools and then battling the teachers’ union over performance pay and tenure rights. She cultivated a ruthless image, appearing on the cover of Time magazine, jaw set, dressed in black, holding a broom, suggesting she was ready to sweep aside all who stood in her way. She also fell into a rocky relationship with the main beat reporter at The Washington Post and for a while refused to talk to him. Rhee came to regret these choices; they assisted those who wanted attention to be shifted away from the desperate need for change.

Shaping Messages
No matter what districts and superintendents do to try to bring the media along, they cannot completely control the message. Journalists always are looking for stories, and they will never limit themselves to those that a superintendent wants to tell. But if school district leaders can effectively communicate their broad approach to reform, unpleasant news will at least occur against that backdrop.

Bersin considers his inability to get across the substance of the changes he and Alvarado were trying to make to teaching and learning to be one of his biggest failures. Even his allies raised questions. “Eli Broad called me once and told me that I needed to work on my bedside manner,” Bersin later said with a rueful smile, referring to the often-brusque Los Angeles philanthropist who was an early backer of Bersin and Alvarado and their ideas for reform.

Bersin attributes some of his shortcomings in this regard to his training as a lawyer. “Because of my training and experience as a litigator, I mistook what I saw happening with the school board and the union as something I had experienced before. Parties in litigation sometimes would take positions that were not responsible, not based on facts and not based on law,” he said. “I believed in the ‘court of public opinion.’ I thought that if we could make our case, the community would be able to make the proper judgment about what was the right view.”

But, he added, “This outcome depends upon a full record, deliberately and accurately presented. This was almost entirely lacking in the public school context by reason of the ineffective coverage but also because of our own communication failures. There simply was no framework for analysis by or on behalf of the public.”

Richard Lee Colvin is a writer and communications consultant in Washington, D.C. He is author of Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America’s Race to Renew Public Education (Harvard Education Press, 2013). E-mail: rleecolvin@gmail.com
 

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