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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/15/2010

When school reform made teachers sick -- literally

By Valerie Strauss

There is a small story in education historian Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” that policymakers should be forced to read whenever they are imposing yet another school reform plan on a school district.

It is about school reform implemented so forcefully that teachers got sick. Not sick and tired of being told what to do by people who had never been in front of a classroom, but actually, physically, sick.

In the chapter called “Lessons From San Diego,” Ravitch, a New York University professor, tells the story of reform in that urban district from 1998 to 2005, when the school system was under the control of Superintendent Alan Bersin. Bersin had been a federal prosecutor and was President Clinton's border czar-- and now holds essentially the same job under President Obama-- but he was never an educator.

(That was a period when policymakers thought non-traditional schools chiefs would be just the thing to turn around troubled systems. It wasn't.)

Bersin went into San Diego with a sweeping plan to force change in a top-down approach, telling teachers how to teach reading and ordering the programs they had to use. He stifled dissent and made a point of keeping teachers outside of his decision-making circle. Getting buy-in from teachers was not important to him. They would just have to follow.

The pressure was so great that teachers began to get sick. Ravitch discovered this when she interviewed San Diego educators, who kept telling her "about stress-related illnesses among teachers, which they called ‘Bersinitis.’”

She called the San Diego office of Kaiser Permanente and learned that from 1999 to 2005, the clinic was deluged by public school teachers with depression and anxiety related to their work environments. When Bersin left the district and a superintendent with a different approach came in, teachers no longer came to the clinic.

The results of Bersin's reforms were less than stellar. Some test scores went up, others didn't. That's it.

This story makes me wonder if policymakers think or care enough about the effect they are having on the people charged with carrying out the reforms. I also wonder when they will understand that keeping teachers out of major decision-making is a mistake.

In the long run, reforms can’t be sustained without teacher buy-in. That’s what a report by the American Institutes for Research concluded in 2003 about San Diego’s reforms, and it's what anybody who has watched school reform over the years knows, too.

It’s a pretty simple psychological principle: You get more out of people when they feel invested. How many school reform plans have to fail before decision makers take this to heart?


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 15, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  Diane Ravitch, San Diego school reform, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, school reform  
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"This story makes me wonder if policymakers think or care enough about the effect they are having on the people charged with carrying out the reforms. I also wonder when they will understand that keeping teachers out of major decision-making is a mistake.

Judging from what is going on in my large school system right now that would be a resounding "NO" and teachers are kept totally out of the loop. There have been major reorganizations at the administrative levels and no one has bothered to inform us. Not even our union has informed us. Do they think we are ignorant? However, the rumor mill is alive and vibrant and causing huge amounts of stress just waiting for the axe to fall.

I don't have the skills to do this, but someone should do some data mining to see the real time health effects because it sure seems as though there are a lot of people taking a lot of sick leave lately for some serious health issues.

Posted by: altaego60 | April 15, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

So teachers get stress-related illnesses. Has it ever occurred to anybody that the students do too?

In school I came down with several severe colds a year, not to mention any virus that went around. In college my colds dropped to one a year (plus a severe case of laryngitis, but that came from having one summer class in an ice-cold campus television studio and the next one in a building in which the air-conditioning never worked). When I got out of college and worked in a retail store, in spite of being in constant contact with the general public, I went several years without any illness at all.

Education can be hazardous to your health.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 15, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Well that's half of the story. You have left out the strong connection between Bersin and the Broad Foundation. You have left out that Broad backed Bersin with significant funding and political muscle to the point of attempting to control the School Board.

Why is this relevant? MCPS just got a "Broad prize". Suddenly, MCPS is an "urban" school district and "selected" by the Broad Foundation for a scholarship award. The award is new and can only be given to a district once every so many years. MCPS is an early winner. Is it because MCPS is "urban" or is it because the MCPS Superintendent follows the Broad philosophy?

Superintendent Jerry Weast subscribes to the Broad philosophy of top down CEO management and eliminate the power of the Board of Education. That's what Broad preaches, and that's what we have in Montgomery County. With the help of former Board member Sharon Cox, Superintendent Weast successfully stripped the MCPS Board of Education of much of their power by moving decision making on major policies from the Board to the Superintendent. That shift also stripped the public of their right to appeal many decisions.

You can read more about Broad in lots of articles, here's a quote from an Chicago article:

~Fran Zimmerman, the school board member Broad wanted ousted from San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times, “He’s dabbling in social policy with all his money, and affecting change with it, but it’s not necessarily good change, and it’s not really school reform.” She emphasized, “It’s basically a business agenda for reshaping the public school system.”

On April 6, 2003, Eli Broad put out a call for school boards to stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. The Broad Foundation supports what it terms leadership capacity-building initiatives, promoting corporate-style school management in cities from Seattle to Atlanta to New York.~

Posted by: jzsartucci | April 15, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

The problem with corporate style school management is that schools are not really corporations. Possibly the most important aspect of education is the teacher-student bond. The teacher motivates, teaches and shows they care for the students who are in their classrooms for a big portion of their day. Somehow the teacher has to convey that they care about the students as individual learners in the classroom. The teacher has to convey this and a love for learning about the subject matter or grade level. This caring includes consistent enforcement of rules and providing a structured, predictable routine.
For some reason, corporation style leaders dismiss the importance of the "I care about you" part of teaching. They can't measure it. There are no numbers to go along with it. Everything is being measured by test scores and numbers. The test scores and other data teachers get from their own assessments can help the teachers to get the subject matter across, but most students need to be encouraged as well as taught.

When the total emphasis is on test results, also known as student achievement, then the "I care about you" bond is seen as secondary or in some cases totally unimportant, even "soft". Then the teachers who DO care are torn. They want their kids to score well, but suddenly there is no time to listen to the students. "Sorry, but we have to move on."

The teachers who are getting sick really care about children and the art of teaching. They don't fit in because the business model doesn't recognize that the "emotional stuff" is important. It is important to respect and support teachers because working with huge numbers of young people requires strong emotional skills.

Most people who stay in the field figure out how to work with the contradictions in education. Teachers are often told,"Just covering material is not good enough, students have to master it. Rushing through the curriculum doesn't make sense." Then they are told, "Make sure you have covered everything, it will be on the test." If leadership has never tried to teach and don't understand what it is about, then they will continue to make unfair, contradictory demands on teachers (and students).

The student who is well cared for, who has good relationships outside of school, confidence and an interest in learning doesn't need any "emotional" help from the teacher. But many students don't have "perfect" lives or confidence in every subject area. so, they need teachers who care.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 15, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Policymakers who embrace a business model as it is being implemented in the system you described don't "get" teaching. Of course they don't care about the kids, and much less about the teachers. They care about polls, public opinion and numbers (usually test scores, sometimes drop-out rates) that will boost housing prices or get them re-elected.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 15, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I think you would find that there are a lot of stress-related illness in DCPS right now. It would be interesting to do an assessment like the one done in San Diego.

Besides, this is another well know and documented fact - stress causes physical illnesses.

But Michelle Rhee says:

“People feel a little stressed out. They feel a lot of pressure. But that's good. Pressure is good.” PBS, 1/13/09

“If they're [teachers and principals] feeling pressure--good! I feel pressure every day because I have the education of 49,000 kids in my hands" WSJ 12/22/07

“I want every educator to feel that pressure. What we are doing is incredibly important, and if you are going into a classroom, you need to produce for the kids.”

Posted by: efavorite | April 15, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I am reading Diane Ravitch's book right now and just got past the part about the San Diego schools. The teachers there were terrorized by the regime of Alan Bersin and many became physically and mentally ill. This was documented by the Kaiser Hospital that treated many of the teachers.

One problem is that teachers, especially those in elementary schools, are generally very gentle souls who do not fight back. When I was in a similar situation my final year of teaching (Boy, did that give me courage!) I explored every opportunity to fight back and discovered that school superintendents fear lawyers, the police, the sympathetic journalists at the local newspaper, the state and the federal governments. I complained to all these people and agencies about every little transgression and was very satisfied with the results. And then I retired!

Teachers in DC: Seek out your about-to-retire teachers and ask for their help.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 15, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Linda, I agree with you. Often the elementary teachers are gentle souls who don't want to fight back, even though they know more about education than the supposed leaders.

She seems to thrive on pressure and competition. That is how she got that 275,000 dollar position. People like that drive people like me away. Not because I can't stand a little pressure, but, I don't like it when they assume that I am motivated by pressure. I became a teacher (I'm not teaching now, obviously, or I wouldn't be able to write comments all day)because I like to teach other people how to learn and I care about kids. All that, "Pressure is good" talk is total turnoff. The pressure is inherent to teaching. You have a child who can't read or write or do a math problem sitting right there in front of you. You want to help that kid. You figure out whatever "best practices" work to teach that kid. You don't need somebody putting more pressure on you. That kind of talk just rubs me the wrong way. There is an underlying assumption that without the boss "pressuring" me I wouldn't do my job. True teachers WANT to teach.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 15, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

celestun100 excellent description of different types of pressure and waht motivates different types of people.

More should be written on this.

Posted by: efavorite | April 15, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

celestun100 and efavorite--I think you have both addressed a major problem with the climate in today's classrooms. The pressure gets passed through every layer of public school administration--from the superintendent to the area superintendents to the school based administrators to the teachers and even to the kids. So many times teachable momenets are simply lost because we can't take the time to satisfy a child's curiosity. Talk about destroying the love of learning! I've been teaching 34 years and I still love being in the classroom. Every so often, I feel the pressure start to creep in and I have to take a step back and put things in perspective so I don't lose the sense of joy that I have when I'm engaged with my students. Parents know how exhausting it is to emotionally nurture their children. Imagine how tiring it can be to nurture literally hundreds of kids who may not have the same level of emotional health that you have! I want to collapse at the end of the day sometimes, yet I can't imagine doing anything else.

Posted by: musiclady | April 15, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, musiclady - as I read, I'm starting to develop another theory -- that people in lots of other jobs never get to experience the joy in their work that teachers feel -- and that for some reason (research needed) they resent teachers for that and want to change teachers' jobs so they suffer as much as everyone else.

Posted by: efavorite | April 16, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse


You are right the comments show they resent teachers. But I don't think the comments I read show that they understand the joy of teaching that you mention. I think they look at student hours in school and assume it is the same for teachers.

Every time there is a teacher professional day, my neighbors and my kids' friends' parents act like it is a day off for the teachers. They simply don't want to believe the hours teachers work. They also have a tendency to think the teacher only has to teach one child, theirs. (This (my child is the only one in the classroom) attitude seems to be correlated to higher income, more educated parents)but, maybe I am stereotyping.

It is true teaching is great and rewarding. But, I wouldn't give the average "I hate teachers" commenter that much credit. They don't know about the work involved and don't want to know. They just like to spew blame and criticize.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 16, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Obama’s education reform blueprint brings us full circle, as it itself is an innovation built upon knowledge gained during NCLB (in fact, growth-model testing was piloted during NCLB after the Bush administration observed the negative effects of over-emphasis on standardized testing). That sort of wisdom learned the hard way is intrinsic to American resiliency: it began as a “great experiment” and it continues towards "a more perfect union." We experiment with new policies, and the content of those new policies remembers the value of our innovative, creative spirit.

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | April 16, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

As I commented in comment on another post--the growth model is oversimplified. Students no longer spend all day with the same teacher. I watched the third graders at my school "switch" for math. There are 3 third grade classes and they were divided among 6 teachers: 3 classroom teachers, 2 math academic support teachers and special ed/resource. The groupings change throughout the year as needed. This is done for reading as well. How does anyone know which teacher might be responsible for the growth or lack of growth experienced that year? We are better equipped to deal with students' individual needs than we were in the past but this complicates using standardized test scores as a means for determining teacher quality. There are just so many things that go on during the course of a school day.

celestun100--you are right about the work. People just think we walk in with the kids and leave with them. They seem to think that lessons plan themselves. I've always said that it takes more time to plan a really effective lesson than it does to teach it.

Posted by: musiclady | April 16, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

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