A major school reformer’s ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment

Paul Vallas
Paul Vallas

A discussion on school reform in New York took a surprising turn this week when Paul Vallas, a pioneer of the current era of school reform, said, “We’re losing the communications game because we don’t have a good message to communicate.”

That’s something for Vallas, who is now superintendent of the public schools in Bridgeport, Conn., (earning $234,000 a year, according to this article). As a reputed expert in turning around failing school systems, he led the school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans and was a champion of many of the reforms that critics believe are leading to the privatization of public education and doing nothing to actually improve schools.

Vallas has been at the forefront of modern school reform. For example, back in 2002 when he was in charge of Philadelphia’s schools, he oversaw what at that time was the largest exercise in allowing private managers — including for-profit companies — to run public schools. In New Orleans, where he was hired after Hurricane Katrina to supervise the reconstruction of the ravaged school system, he oversaw the creation of a collection of charter schools. Many of them were staffed with Teach For America recruits, who are given five weeks of summer training before being sent into classrooms with high-needs students.

But at an event held this week at the launch of a new think tank, the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, Vallas said that the very reforms he has supported could collapse “under the weight of how complicated we’re making it,” GothamSchools reported. The story quoted Vallas as saying:

“We’re working on the evaluation system right now. And I’ll tell you, it is a nightmare.”

 

and

 

“We’re losing the communications game because we don’t have a good message to communicate,” he said.

In separate comments, Vallas criticized evaluations as a “testing industrial complex” and “a system where you literally have binders on individual teachers with rubrics that are so complicated … that they’ll just make you suicidal.”

Vallas admitted his comments were unusual considering his reputation. “Me criticizing standardized testing is like Nixon goes to China,” he said, alluding to the former president’s 1972 trip that was seen as shifting the tone in the Cold War.

Vallas, of course, wasn’t repudiating every reform he had undertaken. But his talk of suicidal and nightmarish evaluation systems and his ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment is certainly out of the ordinary.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch wrote a post about this on her blog with the title: “More Evidence The Corporate Reformers Are Cracking Up.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 11, 2013