When school reform made teachers sick -- literally
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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| 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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