OP-ED | Once You Get Past the Tweets, School ‘Turnaround’ Shortcomings Abound
In case you missed it, Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s controversial part-time Superintendent of Schools, has joined Twitter. His first tweets were . . . revealing.
As was previously reported, Vallas has partnered with Dallas-based Cambium Learning Group to form Vallas Turnaround. Vallas makes strong claims: “Within one year your school district can see significant results in academic performance and budget stability.” The new firm’s website points to “Proven and lauded success in Philadelphia, Chicago, post-Katrina New Orleans, post–Earthquake Haiti, and Chile.”
But let’s go into the Wayback machine and review some of these “proven and lauded successes” of the Vallas Model, shall we?
First of all there’s Chicago, where Vallas was CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001. While it’s true that Vallas was lauded for his success, most notably by then-President Bill Clinton, he also has many critics.
As for the lasting impact of his reforms, a study last September from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that while graduation rates have “improved dramatically” and high school test scores have risen, math scores have improved incrementally in the elementary/middle grades, while elementary/middle grade reading scores remained fairly flat for two decades.
The most disturbing part of the study was that racial gaps in achievement have steadily increased, with white students making slightly more progress than Latino students, and African American students falling behind all other groups.
As Vallas protégé Arne Duncan, the current U.S. Secretary of Education, continues to promote Chicago-style reforms as part of national education policy, activists in eight cities (Chicago, New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Boston, Atlanta, Wichita, Kan.; and Eureka, Miss.) have filed a civil rights complaint against the Department of Education, alleging that school closings and other reform policies have disproportionately impacted minority students and therefore infringe upon their civil rights.
Here in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy passed his education reform bill on the basis that it was an effort to close the achievement gap. Based on the Chicago study, it would seem that the Vallas Method fails on that count, and that the proven method of equitable funding, which was key to the success in Massachusetts, is the real solution.
Vallas ended social promotion and was an early proponent of high-stakes testing. Yet as far back as 2000, the Chicago Tribune highlighted the problem of ambiguous conclusions from standardized tests. A pioneer in more ways than one, Vallas had his own version of “Pineapplegate” back in 1999, when Chicago teacher George Schmidt published flawed pilot questions from the Chicago Academic Standards Exam. The city sued Schmidt for $1.4 million, which was the cost of developing the exam. Although Schmidt lost his job, the damages were reduced to zero and Arne Duncan, Vallas’ successor as chief of Chicago Public Schools, abandoned the tests after teachers at one of the city high schools refused to administer them, even at the cost of losing their jobs.
From Chicago, Vallas moved on to his next “success” — Philadelphia. It’s clear that as early as 2005, Vallas already had the idea for marketing himself as a turnaround specialist and “partnering” with favored companies, the concept that earlier this year finally went public as Vallas Turnaround. I’m not entirely sure of the basis upon which Vallas judges his time in Phildelphia as a success, but I’m not sure how many people there would agree with him, either.
In particular, I think they would dispute his claim of having brought “budget stability” when members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission declared themselves “betrayed” and “disappointed” by a surprise $73 million deficit that required mid-year cuts in an already underfunded school system.
And was it really such a big success? Philadelphia education blog, The Notebook, summed up the Vallas legacy:
“Through all this activity, he convinced many people, locally and nationally, that the District was making progress. The firmest evidence of improved academic achievement has been a steady climb in third through eighth grade test scores for reading and math.
At the same time, he is leaving a district in tumult, with the same deep financial problems that he inherited — running a large deficit, and still without stable, reliable funding that meets the extraordinary needs of the city’s students.
The movement at the elementary level has not extended to the higher grades. Dropout rates and achievement at the high school level have barely changed — admittedly a hard nut to crack in any urban district. The percentage of schools reaching federal academic improvement goals has leveled off.
Though he gave increased attention to teacher hiring and retention, students in the highest-poverty schools are still far more likely to face under-certified teachers or a revolving door of substitutes. . .
The academic achievement of African American and Latino students, who make up four-fifths of the District’s enrollment, continues to lag behind that of most Whites and Asians, and the gap is not noticeably narrower.”
Once again, it’s that nagging achievement gap. I wonder if the “Powers That Be” actually did any reference checks.
After Philadelphia, it was on to New Orleans, where the Katrina-ravaged school system was in dire straits. Success? Again, a mixed bag. Vallas left a system that predominantly consists of charter schools, even though that wasn’t necessarily what the communities wanted:
He also made changes to the length of the school day and year in order to raise test scores, but a report from Tulane University’s Cowen Institute points out that with one-time federal disaster funds coming to end, these changes are financially unsustainable. In addition, the institute wrote that “a majority-charter district creates certain cost inefficiencies, as each school or charter network must replicate services typically provided by a central office such as food services and transportation. Economies of scale are lost and per-pupil costs rise. There are concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of a majority charter system.”
Bridgeport residents have many reasons to be concerned by the recent extension of Vallas’ contract by the illegally appointed Board of Education. But in particular I draw attention to two revealing comments he made in an interview with PBS’ John Merrow at the end of the New Orleans tenure.
Merrow discussed criticism of teacher turnover in the Recovery district, because many any of Vallas’ new teachers came from programs like Teach For America, which only requires a two-year commitment. Yet despite research indicating that turnover has a harmful effect on student achievement, particularly in low performing schools even after controlling for different indicators of teacher quality, Vallas responded to criticism thusly:
“Turnover doesn’t bother me at all. I submit to you that part of the problem in education is, there is not enough turnover. I’m very comfortable. I’m running a district where half of my teachers are the university elites and the college elites from programs like Teach For America, and the other half of my teachers are veteran teachers. I think there’s a very healthy balance.”
Maria Pereira, a member of the elected Bridgeport Board of Education that was illegally disbanded by the State, ran as a Working Families Party candidate in 2009 after nine math teachers were cycled through her daughter’s classroom in one year without the school notifying parents. I would imagine that she begs to differ on the turnover issue. I do, too.
The other item of note, particularly in light of Vallas’ history of software purchases with long-tail expenditures, was his comment about the permanency of his model. “You can’t turn back . . . The great thing about this system is, it’s really going to be hard to dismantle what’s been created.”
Vallas will undoubtedly drive off to his next lucrative assignment, but his words could well come back to haunt Mayor Bill Finch, Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, and Gov. Malloy.