June 29, 2001

Teachers Have No Confidence In Bersin

By Yvette tenBerge

The San Diego Education Association (SDEA) recently released a teacher survey, the results of which even the San Diego Unified School District will have a hard time attempting to camouflage.

Marc Knapp, President of the SDEA, presents survey results.

At a Monday, June 25 press conference, complete with passionate speeches from district teachers and colorful pie charts, members of the SDEA announced the findings of a very direct, six-question survey. The poll aimed to assess the level of teacher satisfaction with the current district administration, their practices, their programs and their policies.

Contrary to district claims that the majority of teachers support Mr. Bersin's reforms and the methods used to implement these reforms, 93 percent of those who responded gave Mr. Bersin a "Vote of No Confidence."

Along with questions about the level of teacher influence, the effectiveness of reforms and the performance of board members, teachers were asked to submit one word that "best describes the Superintendent and his administration's attitude toward teachers and parents in the district."

Forms of the word "dictator" topped the list with a noteworthy 789 teachers responding in kind, which seems to indicate one of the major issues at stake in the district: teachers feel that they have no control over what they were hired to do - teach. Other responses ranged from "closed-minded" to "pond scum," but all reflected the common theme of powerlessness.

Survey responses indicate that 60 percent of the teachers feel they have no influence over district decisions regarding curriculum, spending priorities or school reform efforts. Of the teachers polled, 78 percent do not believe that the Blueprint and other reform efforts instituted by Mr. Bersin will improve the overall quality of education in San Diego. As for teacher morale within the district, 64 percent describe it as "poor." And finally, 94 percent have no confidence in the current school board majority, which is made up of Sue Braun, Ed Lopez and Ron Ottinger.

District teachers and librarians backup survey results in person.

Of the association's 8,500 members, 5,500 educators returned the anonymous questionnaire. According to Robin Whitlow, Executive Director of the SDEA, not all the missing responses were from abstentions or would necessarily indicate support of Superintendent Alan Bersin. Hundreds of association members are itinerant and are, therefore, difficult to reach. Hundreds of other ballots were received after the June 14 deadline and were thus untallied. There were some schools that chose not to respond.

Rather than work with the teachers to ameliorate their responses, the district, in its now-common "end-run" style of operation, has chosen to attack the survey, itself. The district's June 25 response blames the "leadership of the San Diego Education Association" for "resort[ing] to a cheap political stunt" and claims that this leadership, which is put into place by teachers, themselves, has attempted to "use district teachers to poison dialogue" and to "tarnish the magnificent work" of so many teachers. The district, then, proceeds to ignore the actual responses in publishing a list of what the district "believes" the teachers really think.

The press release reads, "We believe that these teachers approve of the… paid professional development that they have received under Blueprint reforms. We believe that these teachers want students to succeed academically… that they approve of tens of million of dollars of new books and equipment, that they approve of having more children able to read and write at grade level… . We believe that these teachers understand that Superintendent Bersin cares about their work and their concerns, and that he listens… ."

While the idea that teachers support increased levels of professional development, educational spending, student literacy and administrative care-giving is a valid one, it is also a moot point. For all its excess verbiage, the district response to the survey still leaves the two actual complaints coming from area teachers and parents unaddressed: that the implementation of the Blueprint for Success is an academic failure, and that district administration has come to assume all the characteristics of a military state.

Marc Knapp, the president of SDEA, dismissed district claims that the survey was conducted to "paint a mean, distorted picture of San Diego City Schools" and instead reported that the questionnaire was circulated only after hundreds of teachers approached the union demanding that something be done.

"We resisted doing this. Sometimes it can be inflammatory and antagonistic, but these [reforms] have been going on for three years and we are still looking for the miracle," says Mr. Knapp, referring to the promises of skyrocketing student performance that were given by Mr. Bersin and Chancellor Anthony Alvarado more than two years ago. "The people who have to do the work and who actually make the Superintendent and the Board look good are unhappy."

Douglas Coe, Director of the Social Science Research Laboratory at San Diego State University, is a survey expert who had no association with the actual study. "In a self-administered survey, it is not unusual to get back only 10 to 15 percent of the responses. Given that, a 65 percent response rate is very good," says Mr. Coe. "There seems to be no bias in the way the questions were worded, and I would say that the data accurately represents feelings of disenchantment with the administration; I have no major criticisms of the survey."

This survey has come at a time when many frustrated San Diegans are gearing up for next year's board elections. Although the Braun-Lopez-Ottinger board majority will undoubtedly extend Mr. Bersin's contract in July, teachers and parents throughout the district are preparing themselves for March 2002, when board members John de Beck and Sue Braun are up for reelection.

Ms. Whitlow confirms that the association will actively support John de Beck for reelection. Although it is not known whether Sue Braun will run for another four-year term, Ms. Whitlow expects interested candidates to begin lining up in the fall.

"We are not even sure who is running. People are still out there shaping themselves, but we expect to begin interviewing officially in September or October," says Ms. Whitlow. "We invite every single person who is interested in running, and we are eager to interview every single candidate."

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