Zig's Commentary on Bersin's Article
"Making Schools Productive"

by Siegfried Engelmann
June 8, 2005

I think that Bersin's article describes some of the problems with education quite wellon the political level. The real problem, however, is tying the political level to the picky details that have to go on in a school (and district) for any substantive reform to occur. Global talk, self-blame for failure, and appeals to goodwill have abounded in education for years. Bersin's statement of the problems are certainly better than most critics'. For example, he recognizes that it's harder to teach lower performers than higher performers and that the top personnel should be assigned to the lower performers. He also vaguely refers to the need for teaching teachers.

He offers what is presented as a paradigm shift "centered on productivity that evaluates everything we do and every change we consider from evidence of its impact on improving the quality of instruction, and hence student achievement."

That is a good starting point as a given for any sensible reform, but for Bersin, it seems to be the terminating point. He talks about focus on productivity, but nothing he says gives the slightest clue that he knows much about achieving it. There were studies in the '50s and '60s which showed that schools do not maximize output as measured by student performance. But the gap between this level of discourse and the details of sensible reform is gargantuan.

Let's look at a different way. Let's say we have a superintendent of a large school district, like San Diego, that believes all of the above and that wants to make a change for the students who are victims of the unshifted paradigm. What would this sensitive superintendent do-given his strong commitment to productivity, data, and students?

  1. He would check the records to see if anything had been done in that district earlier that produced positive results.
  2. He would find out which teachers or supervisors are effective with lower performers, starting with those who are or have been in his district.
  3. He would conduct controlled experiments to determine whether any approaches identified are "authentic" and disseminable.
  4. He would get facts about specifically what is needed to train teachers to be effective.
  5. He would then expand those approaches that consistently lead to higher achievement to all schools in need.

It might have taken Bersin a little detective work to do all of the above in San Diego. But if he commissioned any kind of serious search, he would have discovered that the University of Oregon Direct Instruction Follow Through model worked effectively with six of the lowest performing schools in San Diego and had very impressive results with continuing students. Before implementing the DI model, several of these schools had no students in any grade performing above the 10th percentile on standardized measures. After the program had been implemented three years, nonEnglish speaking kindergartners were fluent in English by the end of the first grade. The first graders scored at the 50th percentile in reading and math.

Further investigation would disclose that at least two of the trainers employed by San Diego for that project are still around and doing good things. Bonnie Nelson is principal of a DI school in Chula Vista. Even though she has to ward off the entropy created by the district and the state, she persists (even teaches in the classroom). Rita Colton is a retired teacher in the San Diego area. Both these women were, and are, superior trainers and teachers.

The superintendent would probably also have identified the project manager who worked for six years on this implementation—Phyllis Haddox, who has boxes of information about the project. This information would be very valuable for validating the approach and for creating a possible replication.

If our enterprising superintendent found these people, verified that they were capable of training and teaching rookies to be highly effective, he would have enough information to turn an ethereal paradigm shift into substantive reform.

How much would this investigation cost, and how much would it cost to set up three or four schools as dissemination and training centers? Peanuts. It would be possible for the project to pay for itself in six years on the basis of reduced special-ed referrals.

Nothing within the current paradigm would militate against the enterprising superintendent taking these five simple steps.

How many of these steps did Bersin take as superintendent of San Diego? Apparently none. So even though there has been incredible monetary inflation in other areas, in education talk remains cheap on the paradigm-shift level; however, if an enterprising superintendent can't uncover this kind of evidence, and take these five simple steps, the paradigm shift better start right there.




© 2012 Siegfried Engelmann. All rights reserved.

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