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OP-ED | Once You Get Past the Tweets, School ‘Turnaround’ Shortcomings Abound

by Sarah Darer Littman | Jun 29, 2012 3:50pm
(24) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

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.

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(24) Comments

posted by: brutus2011 | June 29, 2012  5:00pm


I served with the Yale-Bridgeport Gear-Up program several years ago.

It turned out that I was to tutor-assist a long term sub teacher.

This teacher had zero experience and could not handle the class. I would sit in the back of the class waiting for my students to be selected to accompany me to another room for tutoring. Stuff would be whizzing around my head! I was primarily taking the worst behaving kids out of the room to give the teacher a respite.

It was chaos until I got my kids alone and things calmed down.

Teacher turnover is not good for our kids—and by that I mean our inner-city kids as suburban kids don’t experience the teacher turnover city kids do.

Mr. Vallas, Mr. Adamowski, Mr. Pryor, and all other superintendents and upper level managers of our urban districts must solve the problem of poor learning environments in many of our schools.

More money is not the answer.

Our schools are not under-funded and teachers are not under-paid.

It is the administrators, bolstered by their astute bargaining units, that are over-paid and as such, operate to protect their interests at the expense of every one else.

It is astonishing that people do not turn to the bosses to ask why things are not going well.

Unfortunately, they are the foxes that are guarding the chicken coop.

And the chickens are furiously clucking amongst themselves to no avail.

What to do?

One thing is to demand legislation that provides information about where tax dollars are spent.

Another thing is to legislate that districts staff the classrooms of underachieving schools with at least one paraprofessional to assist the certified teachers. I’d settle for this in K-3 to start.

There is so much that could be done by eliminating the bureaucratic “fat” that corruption has wrought.

posted by: Linda12 | June 29, 2012  9:09pm

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah:

I have read bits and pieces, but you have done a masterful job of putting this all together.

Guess how you know it is a disaster? Paul Vallas is there.

One more thing I noticed.  Duncan, Vallas, the new Rahm Emanuel plant in Chicago…..There is a revolving door of reformers reforming each others’ reforms while cashing in and fooling the citizenry. 

Bridgeport (like Chicago, New Orleans and Philly) will be digging out from this disaster for years.

posted by: Linda12 | June 29, 2012  9:20pm

To Brutus,

The problem is we have to many at the very top that either taught for a very short time or never taught all. You know, the TFA types from elite schools who taught for two years and then became educational experts and then created charter management companies to ensure themselves a hefty salary.  No more slumming as a lowly teacher. They are too intelligent for that job.

We have too many administrative types: supers, principals, vice principals, literary coaches, numeracy coaches, curriculum specialists, consultants, talent coaches, assistants to the assistants. They are falling all over each other and usually contradicting each other with totally opposite directions. They are so removed from dealing with kids they are clueless.

We need more professionals, real teachers, working directly with childen every day. We do not these quasi-reformers who engage in group think and repeat edubabble buzz words ad nauseum and who couldn’t handle a group of children, which is why they don’t teach.

What’s that saying?  The higher the monkey goes up the tree, the more he shows his ____.
Fill in the blank.

posted by: Speak up | June 29, 2012  10:08pm

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.

We know Paul.  Just ask Chicago, Philly and New Orleans…they are still digging out from your “reforms”.  It looks like they only one that benefits is you and the carpet bagging cronies you bring along.  Not to mention all the textbook, software, and educational consulting groups who wait for your call once you set up your traveling circus. 

You seem to folllow the same play book. Just wondering….do you find all minority children and their families to be the same?

posted by: Speak up | June 29, 2012  10:28pm

Get to the very end and watch Vallas smacked down….that’s it, you’re done…

Also, a New Orleans parent tells Vallas that he offers them no choice…watch as she tells him a thing or two…

posted by: Querculus | June 29, 2012  10:37pm

Modern corporate and banking disasters have centered around short term boosting of results with disregard for long term quality and sustainability.  This is what folks ought to be looking at with these corporate turnaround models. 

Solving urban schools’ problems in one year sounds pretty shaky.

To commenter Brutus, I’d say that we teachers are indeed a bit underpaid.  After 13 or 15 years, most will not see any appreciable raises or chance for advancement, and are even then only $12 or 15K above the median household income of their county—even with multiple degrees. 

You should see what I drive and I’ve been teaching and living conservatively since sometime in the Clinton administration.

You are right to ask about administrators, though.  Few do in this conversation.  Everything is the teacher’s fault apparently.  The issues are organic—it’s not quite so simple as overpaid administrators either.  They too need a system that is set up to support them in their work and ensure that it is the most capable who are hired onto these positions.

And they should get pay that is commensurate with their education, skillset, and demonstrated ability (and no, not their test scores).

But you are 100% right to look at the role of quality administration as part of school success. 

It’s just that oversimplification of the problem is an easy sell, just like the rosy sales pitch of Vallas Group, Inc.

posted by: Linda12 | June 29, 2012  11:01pm

Sorry for typos. I do know the difference between to, too and two…A bit irate while responding.

Quote read in the NY Times by acting Atlanta superintendent after cheating scandal (similar to DC and Michelle Rhee):

“Education is the only industry in our nation that blames failure on the workers and not the leadership.”

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 30, 2012  2:06am


It’s good you meantion the Chicago Tribune. They’ve been advocates of school reform for a decade. Voucher Envy some call it. Others call it freedom.

Free Illinois!

posted by: Bronx | June 30, 2012  8:23am

I have an immense respect for Ms. Littman. She is one of the few voices in this state not intimidated to paint many of these reformers as the snake oil salesman they are…But I do disagree with one point…I believe Mr. Malloy, Mr. Finch, and Mr. Pryor will not be haunted at all by the impending destruction of the Bridgeport school system at the hands of Paul Vallas. That would imply these men have a moral conscience, which I believe they do not…Pryor is dreaming of a national charter school movement, Malloy has aspirations in Washington, and Finch is simply their lackey.They will not look back for even a moment. Paul Vallas, after all, is an illegally appointed Superintendent, appointed by an illegal Board of Education, appointed by a Mayor and Governor who decided not to follow a supreme court ruling. It’s nice to see these men believe the law doesn’t apply to them in the interest of using public tax money for private gain or ingratiating yourself with the right people to rise higher in the political arena…

posted by: CONconn | June 30, 2012  9:51am

Check out this video of Vallas in Bridgeport last week. In this clip, you’ll see him saying to “trust him” that money cannot be made in education. He also “dispells rumors” about Stefan Pryor. And this is all within his superintendent’s report. He uses the time to talk about himself instead of the district and the students. How sad.

If that link won’t work for whatever reason, google: “youtube reformerreform” and it will be the first hit.

posted by: mbracksieck | June 30, 2012  10:02am

You can measure motives by outcomes.  One party comes in to a community, stays for a year or so and then leaves with a lot of that community’s money and does not have to live with the consequences of his decisions.  Another party comes to a community, spends 20-30 years in that community and lives daily with the consequences of his or her decisions.

Guess the motivation of each party.

posted by: Linda12 | June 30, 2012  10:07am

To conncon. Check out the bps website. His
Face is plastered everywhere. Sorry for
Typos. iPhone

Don’t forget. It’s all about the kids.

posted by: Jeff Klaus | June 30, 2012  2:56pm

“If you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target” - Unknown USAF

posted by: jenand | June 30, 2012  3:54pm

Is VallasTurnaround the Bain Capital of Public School Districts? How much cutting and dealing has been done, prior to this man’s exit, and how much $$ has been paid, without long term accountability? I could not find much about his educational methods per se in his “company” info. Mr. Vallas’ efforts in Haiti and Chile -what is that about? Charity begins at home, Mr. Vallas. Nice work, when you can work on other projects, while turning around a huge school district - how is that even possible? Mr. Vallas, who is not concerned about high turnover for teachers in troubled schools doesn’t know much about the emotional needs of children in poverty, as it relates to learning readiness. I am sure that we have the brains in this state to accomplish our goals - I think that we just talk too much, and don’t stay on task.

posted by: Linda12 | June 30, 2012  4:44pm

To Klauss, Vallas, Pryor and the rest of the vultures….here’s the alternative.

You’re way off base and no where near the target, but you are too arrogant, egotistical, and self-absorbed to realize and/or admit it.

Known teacher

posted by: Speak up | June 30, 2012  4:54pm

Catch Vallas in Haiti where he calls the earthquake “disaster as opportunity”. Opportunity for him alone, and a disaster for everyone else.  He is able to tell you how easy it is to take over a school system.

To Vallas, education is a simple matter that shouldn’t be made more complicated by considerations about students being multifaceted individuals with different learning styles, backgrounds and passions. Vallas summarized his educational philosophy at a May 2010 symposium on schools in Haiti:

Education is not a complicated business: you diversify the management models [read: move away from public management towards private management], you expand your pool of qualified teachers, you develop superior curricular instructional models with the training that goes with it, you come up with basic classroom modernization designs that can be implemented regardless of the condition of the facility, and you create a delivery system to go and implement these things—and believe me this is not rocket science.

So I guess all minorities in poor cities are the same according to Paul. In other words…easy to manipulate.

posted by: brutus2011 | June 30, 2012  5:23pm


And if you are catching flak, that means you are the enemy.

posted by: CONconn | June 30, 2012  7:02pm

At the Bridgeport BOE meeting a man stood up in the public comments and said he was married to someone in Vallas’ staff, for full disclosure. He then went on to say that while no teachers could make it to the meeting who felt this way, he spoke to many teachers who like what Vallas is doing. I guess we’re going to have to take his word for it that there’sa whole ton of teachers out there who agree with them and are just not speaking up, no matter how unlikely it sounds. I wonder if his marriage had anything to do with his public comments.

posted by: saramerica | July 1, 2012  12:44am


It’s one thing to “catch flak.” (And to spout cliches). It’s another thing to say your “model” works and have the long term evidence show that it doesn’t.

posted by: Linda12 | July 1, 2012  7:48pm

To ConnCon,

This man married to someone on Vallas’s staff spoke in favor of Vallas, correct? 

Was he speaking about Bridgeport teachers or some teachers somewhere?

Does his wife presently work with Vallas in Bridgeport now?

Also, if so, how would the spouse of someone who works with Vallas have the opportunity to speak to teachers?  We are quite busy during the school day and I don’t usually have time to speak to my co-workers or admnstrators’ spouses while working. So really how could this have happened?

And this was supposed to be an example of teacher support? If these fictional teachers loved him so much, wouldn’t they have shown up?

What a crock of _____!

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | July 1, 2012  8:25pm


What to do about the increaasing nunber of University Education schools that are partnering with turnaround and Charters and professors getting their undergrads involved in failing schools (see below)?

What about the parents who are happier in these school choice and voucher programs? Do they count?

Does Sara’s happiness become more important than theirs? That seems to be the Sharon Palmer and Mary Loftus Levine measurement of satisfaction: The NEA and AFT are happiest when their reps are happier than the parents and taxpayers.

“Andre Perry, associate dean of the University of New Orleans’ education school and CEO of the UNO-Capital One charter school network”.

posted by: CONconn | July 1, 2012  9:56pm

Goatboy, the problem is that those parents are being mislead and bamboozled. They think their kids are getting a better education because these companies actively advertise a shiny product. What they are really getting is resegregation in a test prep factory.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | July 2, 2012  12:10am


Speaking of Andre Perry, who has since moved on to Loyola Chicago to help them form a ‘reform’ school at the university and gather some of the loot surrounding education these days, isn’t that the American way? Choose a side, write polemics, publish books and blogs and solicit funding from friendlies supporting either unions and the public sector or from the privateers?

Two sides of the same coin.

Vouchers. A pox on them all.

posted by: mbracksieck | July 2, 2012  6:59am

The other problem is that the rest of society (myself included) have stood by for years while these schools have struggled without making meaningful changes which would ensure an equitable education for students in urban areas.  Many of those parents are frustrated and see the charter movement as someone sympathetic to their plight.  My personal belief, based on history, is that these charlatans are just smooth talking a community hungry for change, so they can make some money, and they are not really interested in the community itself.

The fact of the matter is that we as a society need to recommit to the ideal of a high quality public education for all of our kids, whether they are in Westport or Bridgeport.  Once we begin working toward that end, I think you’ll see parent support for charter school begin to wane.