A lightning rod takes on California schools

Schwarzenegger's choice, Alan Bersin, is well-known for bluntness, controversy, and change.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Faced with the difficult task of reviving California's ailing education system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned to perhaps the most controversial reformer in the state - a prosecutor-turned-schools-superintendent whose battles with parents and teachers have divided this city.

Critics say that Alan Bersin, one of several outsiders appointed to superintendent positions nationwide in the late 1990s, sapped morale by ignoring his employees and making teacher education a top priority. But supporters, including the local business community, applauded his efforts to bring radical change to one of the nation's largest school districts.

Now Mr. Bersin is heading to a much larger stage. As Mr. Schwarzenegger's education secretary, the Brooklyn native and former Harvard University football player will take on a bully pulpit in a capital roiled by the governor's new brand of politics.

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Bersin "is probably going to make things even more lively than they have been," says Julian Betts, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego who specializes in education issues. "He will not be a wallflower in Sacramento."

Dictator or diplomat?

The new job will certainly test Bersin's diplomatic skills. He will be taking over an education reform agenda for the governor that is both ambitious and controversial.

In San Diego, Bersin didn't have a record of building harmony. Opposing sides warred over his reforms from the moment he took over the school district of more than 140,000 students in 1998.

At the outset, teachers complained about the appointment of a noneducator to the superintendent position. Bersin had been serving as US attorney for California's Southern District, a post he was appointed to in 1993 by Bill Clinton, an old Yale Law School buddy. Both Mr. Clinton and Bersin were Rhodes Scholars and attended Oxford University in Britain.

As Bersin's tenure began, union officials balked when he began hiring consultants to educate teachers about better ways to teach subjects like reading.

"He blamed teachers for any failure in student achievement and in the school," says Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego teachers union. "He came in and pretty much said that everything had to change, no one was doing it right. It was his way or the highway."

Bersin gained a reputation as a staunch advocate of change, unwilling to back down even as the local school board dissolved into acrimony over his reforms.

Still, he was hardly without support. Some observers agree that teachers need to be more willing to adopt new approaches to education.

"Professional development and teacher learning are absolutely crucial to the success of schools," says Paula Cordeiro, an education dean at the University of San Diego. "There's hardly a week goes by that I'm not reading a study about how to do a better job of teaching a kid from Korea how to speak English. But this is not an idea that's found in the majority of districts in the United States. They have a notion that once a person is prepared, they go into a district, they teach, that's the end."

She thinks his blunt style was a key reason teachers rebelled at his calls for more professional development. "But I honestly believe that no matter how carefully it had been packaged, there would have been great resistance," she adds. "It's a sea change for some people in my profession."

The merits of Bersin's reforms draw just as much debate as the way they were implemented. Mr. Pesta, the union chief, says that while some test scores rose during his tenure, others remain "abysmal." Mr. Betts, the economics professor, has a brighter view. "The growing consensus is that his reforms really did boost reading achievement in elementary schools. But it's less clear that there were similar gains elsewhere."

Bersin's critics eventually mustered a majority on the school board, and he will depart this year and start his new job in July. Until then, Jack O'Connell, a Democrat, remains in the elected position of state superintendent of public instruction.

Clash with teachers union

Bersin will face a huge swath of challenges, from pushing Schwarzenegger's agenda for reform to addressing the low test scores that have undermined the state's reputation as an education leader.

The California Teachers Association, a union representing some 295,000 teachers in the state, responded to the appointment by criticizing Bersin's record. It's also airing TV commercials criticizing Schwarzenegger.

"What's lacking now ... is a sense of trust and a sense of long-range planning," says Brian Stecher, a researcher with the Rand Corporation who studies education. "All sides have become distrustful of each other, and it makes it hard to negotiate and compromise."

In such an environment, Betts says both sides need to reach out. "It would be a shame if the minute Alan Bersin gets to Sacramento, he and the CTA start lobbing bombs at each other," he says. "They need to start working together at the outset."

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