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Tilting at Windmills

School Reform, San Diego and America’s Race to Renew Public Education

 Book Review - Tilting at Windmills

by Richard Lee Colvin, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013, 237 pp., $29.95 softcover

Reading books about school superintendents and their educational reform efforts is a little like watching reality TV. The producer/author seems to stage events to make a predetermined point. The superintendent is usually portrayed as the hero with the teachers’ union, the school board or a politician as the villain.. Tilting at Windmills has the same casting, yet the plot is real.

Richard Colvin,a formerly an education reporter, executive director of the Education Sector and director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, is currently a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. He keeps his readers informed and grounded without taking sides.

The focus of the book is San Diego superintendent Alan Bersin, who gave freely of his time and documents. Consequently, the final product incorporated the superintendent’s perspective on every issue. Difficulties included a divided board,. skeptical parents and the news media. It turns out the parents were probably right with some of their criticism about curriculum changes and the superintendent may not have properly cultivated and communicated with the media. Yet the author cites the San Diego news media as overly interested in controversy.

An entire chapter is devoted to the news media. When Alan Bersin was appointed superintendent, he had a public image as a tough U.S. attorney; this was used against him after his very brief honeymoon in his new role. His opposition contended that he would use his newfound educational credentials as a stepping stone to line his pockets and build political power. The teachers’ union was convinced the new superintendent was out to turn the school district over to corporate interests. Journalists focused on his non-traditional background, abrasive style and personality, rather than describing in-depth the educational reforms he was promoting.

Bersin acknowledged his status as a public figure in San Diego, but criticized the media for accepting attacks as newsworthy events in and of themselves. He said there was little effort by reporters to assess independently validity of their sources or criticism and tended to make school reform about him instead of about the condition of teaching and learning in the district.

The superintendent also acknowledged mistakes he made with the media -- providing insufficient access to schools, requesting reassignment of an education reporter and sending out incoherent, reactive news releases. .

Internally, Bersin also had communication problems. He had five different communications directors in seven years and hired an East Coast PR consultant for $60,000 which backfired in the media as paying for spin. All communications expenditures were criticized by the teachers’ union who called for these dollars to go into classrooms, even showing up with contrary picket signs when Bersin went on speaking engagements.

Eventually Bersin concluded that the communications problem related to principals speaking to parents.” But he did nothing to improve that situation

There were some student achievement successes during his tenure, particularly in elementary schools. In 2004 San Diego met all of its adequate yearly progress targets under No Child Left Behind. When Bersin left, he cited a litany of accomplishments balanced out by 10 weaknesses.

Bersin, as an outsider, had been hired as a major reformer and change agent and it will be against that template he will judged.

Some educational leaders may have already dismissed Bersin as ineffective in winning the battle in the court of public opinion. They would do well to read this book to broaden their outlook on the challenges he confronted. Current or aspiring superintendents would benefit from seeing this as a case study, demonstrating what works and what does not. Board members, teachers’ union leaders and those in the news media could certainly harvest new tricks to play. The most astute readers will grasp the nuances and interaction of change, collaboration and communications. All in all, Tilting At Windmills is one of the best books on superintendent-led change this reviewer has read.

Reviewed by Art Stellar, vice president, National Education Foundation


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