Who is Paul Vallas and why is he coming to Madison?

Photograph by AP/Worldwide Photos

As Jim Anchower says, “I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya…” Sometimes you need a break; expect more soon.

Paul Vallas will be featured at a “school reform town hall meeting” this Saturday, May 26, 1:00 PM at LaFollette High School.  The announcements feature “Madison Metropolitan School District, Verona Area School District, United Way of Dane County, Urban League of Greater Madison & Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County” as “collaborating” hosts, but as reported by Matt DeFour the United Way  “has requested that our name be removed from all upcoming communications related to the event, but will attend to hear the conversation from all those involved.”

Attempts to clarify MMSD’s role have not yielded a response.  You can try yourself:  Board of Education: board@madison.k12.wi.us, Supt. Dan Nerad: dnerad@madison.k12.wi.us.  I’ve been told unofficially that MMSD is donating the space, which would mean that your tax dollars and mine are being used (see the district facilities rental policy here).  It would really be a shame if our district collaborated in bringing Vallas here, there is very little in his version of school reform that our community, or any community will benefit from.

I can’t answer why he is coming to Madison.  I presume that those who are bringing him would like to see Madison adopt the policies Vallas favors.

I can and will say some things about who Vallas is.  As is common with these things, it depends on who you ask.  The Koch and Bradley funded Manhattan Institute anointed Vallas with their Urban Innovator Award for 2006 (other recipients include Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush and somewhat inexplicably Jerry Brown).   The (also Bradley funded) Heartland Institute has had consistently good things to say about Vallas.  You might recall that they are the ones with the secret “Operation Angry Badger” plan to “help defend and secure” the rule by the FitzWalker gang.   On the other side, at the Daily Censored, Danny Weil called Vallas “”vassal and executioner of public schools.”

The Wikipedia entry provides a fair if spotty overview of his career.  Here’s a short version.  When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was given control of the Chicago schools in 1995, he appointed then City Budget director Vallas as CEO.  Vallas served till 2002, when disappointing progress the defeat of a Vallas friendly slate in the teacher union election led to his resignation (and here).  He ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for Governor losing to Rod Blagojevich. From there it was to Philadelphia, where he served under the State appointed School Reform Commission from 2002 to 2007 and oversaw (among other things) what was then “the nation’s largest experiment in privatized management of schools.”  He flirted with other Illinois Gubernatorial runs in 2005 and 2008, and the Cook County Board President in 2009 as a Republican (prompting the question, what kind of person became a Republican between 2008 and 2009).  Vallas then became head of the State administered and Charter dominated Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), where he served from 2007 until 2011.  The RSD is now unquestionably the largest school privatization effort in US history (see this great video of a parent complaining that when Charters are the only choice, there is no choice, more here). More recently he was tapped by an illegally appointed Board as interim Superintendent in Bridgeport CN.  His $228,000 salary is being paid for by the private Bridgeport Education Reform Fund.  Not surprisingly, Vallas’ plan for Bridgeport includes extensive blurring of the line between public and private.  It should probably be mentioned that Vallas’ resume also includes well compensated activities in Chile (leading to mass protests against the reforms he brought) and Haiti on behalf of the Inter-American Development Bank.

A couple of things stand out in his career.  One is that he’s never worked with a locally elected education authority (ie an elected School Board); the other is that privatization is prominent in his toolbox.  He explained the former to New York Times reporter Paul Tough:

When I asked Paul Vallas what made New Orleans such a promising place for educational reform, he told me that it was because he had no “institutional obstacles” — no school board, no collective bargaining agreement, a teachers’ union with very little power. “No one tells me how long my school day should be or my school year should be,” he said. “Nobody tells me who to hire or who not to hire. I can hire the most talented people. I can promote people based on merit and based on performance. I can dismiss people if they’re chronically nonattending or if they’re simply not performing.”

On the latter, a quote from an article Vallas wrote for the aforementioned Manhattan Institute:

We also have flexibility when it comes to work rules, which are decided by the board rather than the state. This has allowed us to do a lot of privatization. Our alternative schools are private schools, as are many of our special-ed schools. Our vocational education programs are also privately run to some extent. And we have contracted out for custodians, lunchroom attendants and the trades. In our system, schools have a choice. If they are not happy with their in-house services, they can privatize them. There’s competition.

It should be added that privatization also includes extensive pinstripe patronage contracts, something Vallas himself is now taking advantage of via his consulting company, winning a $1 million dollar contract that brings him back to the Chicago scene and raising some questions of transparency and conflicts of interest in Rockford).

From these quotes, it is also clear that Vallas would prefer not to have to deal with unions either.  In Chicago and Philadelphia, Charter School expansion helped limit the union presence and Vallas also moved to replace other union workers — such as custodians and food service employees — by contracting with private companies, resulting in lost benefits.  Like many of the market-based school reformers, Vallas talks a good game about addressing the impacts of poverty via education while making it harder for the working poor in his employ to provide for their families.

Vallas also likes tests, a lot.  As in Philadelphia, One of the first things Vallas did in Bridgeport was to institute an extra round of standardized tests and the reason given was that “Traditionally, instruction wanes after the administration of the state tests.  Unfortunately, this “lull” in teaching and learning deprives our students of much-needed academic support.”  This echoes what Vallas said about test-based accountability in Chicago:

Vallas does not see fear as a negative. “My first reaction is that we went for decades of no fear, and where was the creativity then?” he asks, irritation rising in his voice. “Fear is a consequence of poor performance.

“People who are afraid may not have the makeup to move schools forward,” he adds. “A majority of teachers and principals have a lot of confidence in what we are doing and are delighted that we are focusing on raising student achievement.”

The use of fear was part of the picture in Philadelphia for educators and for studentsVallas is also a fan of test (and fear) based evaluations as a basis for teacher employment.

Fear, tests and transparency all came together in Vallas $1.4 million lawsuit against Chicago teacher and Substance reporter George Schmidt, who had published flawed test items from the Vallas initiated Chicago Academic Standards Exams.  Well before Pinapplegate, Schmidt was blowing the whistle on bad tests.  As he details here, his reward from Vallas was the loss of his job and years spent fighting the suit (and to keep Substance going), but was ultimately vindicated when the monetary damages claim was reduced to $0.  Substance is still going strong.

Discussion of testing inevitably leads to discussions of test scores and much of Vallas reputation rests on his reported gains in this area.  Leaving aside the limited utility of standardized teats as a measure of learning or teacher or school or district (or CEO) quality a closer look at Vallas’ record in Chicago does not indicate marked improvement and it is likely that a similar analysis for Philadelphia would also deflate the grandiose claims.  The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) report “Trends in Chicago’s Schools Across Three Eras of Reform”  This report”addressed the problems in the public statistics by carefully constructing measures and methods to make valid year-over-year comparisons…to create an accurate account of the progress made by CPS since the early 1990s.”  Some of the problems addressed had to do with changes in tests and cut scores, others “not only other changes to the test format, testing conditions, and scoring methods, but also changes in school policies—grade promotion standards, testing policies, and eligibility around bilingual and special education services—and shifts in the types of students being served by the schools.”

I want to point to the “grade promotion” or retention policies as a particular area of importance.  In both Chicago and Philadelphia, Vallas instituted test-based retention policies (an idea so bad that even Scott walker was convinced to abandon it).  Retention’s positive impact on test scores is akin to CEO’s concentrating on quarterly profits and not the big picture of long term health.  Students in third grade the second time around will post higher third grade scores, but the gains are temporary and they are more likely to drop out and suffer other negative outcomes (you can read about the Chicago Civil Rights action on retention here and here and more from Philadelphia here.).

What the CCSR found in general was that “Many of the findings in this report contradict trends that appear in publicly reported data. For instance, publicly reported statistics indicate that CPS has made tremendous progress in elementary math and reading tests, while this analysis demonstrates only incremental gains in math and almost no growth in reading.”  The same pattern is true for the Vallas years, some slight improvement in some reading scores, and slight but more pronounced improvements in math scores.  Large racial gaps grew, Chicago continued to lag behaind the state and “Despite progress, the vast majority of CPS students have academic achievement levels that are far below where they need to be to graduate ready for college.”  It should also be noted that graduation rate improvements slowed under Vallas.  The whole report is worth a read, especially the section on “Changes in School Climate and Organizational Supports,”

No equivalent analysis has been done for Philadelphia, but there is reason to doubt the reported double digit and even 20%+ increases in students meeting standards over Vallas’ tenure.  With the latter there is some apples to oranges going on, the 2002 numbers cover grades 5.8 and 11; but by 2007 grades 3,4,6 and 7 have been added.   Philadelphia did not participate in NAEP during the Vallas years, but the performance on the Terra Nova were not as impressive as it was on the state tests and even here there were  problems.  Still, it is likely that scores did rise significantly in real ways under Vallas, but also needs to be noted that when he left only 47.0% of tested students were proficient in math, only 40.7 in reading and that that the schools turned over to outside Educational Management Organizations were below these dismal numbers.

Post Katrina New Orleans is a classic “not the same students, not the same schools” case that makes comparisons over time difficult, but there is reason not to believe the hype there either.  The Miracle Schools Wiki has lots of links that raise doubts and more.  Of particular concern are allegations made by the Louisiana School Board Association. of “scrubbing” low performers.

There is lots more out there on Vallas,  if you are interested I’d suggest clicking the links in the post, the links below and skipping the event.  If you care about schools and students, your Saturday would be much better spent working to get Scott Walker out of office (contact United Wisconsin to volunteer).  I know mine will be.

For further reading and viewing:

Diane Ravitch, “The Very Rewarding Job of Saving Schools.”

PBS coverage of Vallas (extensive on New Orleans).

Martha Abele Mac Iver and Douglas J. Mac Iver, “WORKING PAPER – Privatizing Education in Philadelphia: Are Educational Management Organizations Improving Student Achievement?”

Edward Hayes, “The man, the myth, the continuing nonsense.”

Debra Vaughan, Laura Mogg, Jill Zimmerman and Tara O’Neill”Transforming Public Education in New Orleans:  The Recovery School District.

Two takes on the fate of the Philadelphia School, now slated for dissolution:

Daniel Denvir, “Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools? Underfunded. Overburdened. About to be sold for scrap.

Doug Martin, “In the City of Corporate Love and Beyond: The Boston Consulting Group, Gates, and the Filthy Rich.”

and since these were mentioned in the Matt DeFour story

The Washington Times, “Military Schools on the Rise.”

Don Feder, “Book covers breach wall of separation.”

Jeffrey Felshman, “The Ten Commandments According to Paul” (parody).

Thomas J. Mertz

7 Comments

Filed under Accountability, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, education, Elections, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Who is Paul Vallas and why is he coming to Madison?

  1. Jim Santulli

    Thanks for coming back, we missed you. Please keep on commenting.
    Sincerely, Jim Santulli-Madison Memorial High School graduate 1977

  2. Mike Johnson

    To the Editor (AKA) TJ Mertz,

    Paul Vallas is coming to Madison to reform your blog like he has reformed many school district’s during his tenure!! Mr. Mertz I’m struggling with the comments you have left on several face book pages and other sites and your claims are not coming from credible sources. Paul Vallas is a mentor of mine and awarded me my first professional assignment working in the public school sector and he is a great guy who is making a difference for kids, Here is a guy who is coming to Madison on his own dime to give our community advise on how to close the achievement gap and you don’t want to hear him speak. A guy who was mentioned in two presidential state of the union addresses and you don’t want to hear him speak. A guy who was invited by the government of Haiti and Chili to reform their schools and you don’t want to hear him speak. A guy who was invited by elected officials in Louisiana to reform their schools and a guy who has been featured in New York Times, Education Week, CBS World News, CNN and hundreds of other publications and other news outlets and you stated “his advise is not needed.” Really?

    Paul Vallas has accepted awards from people like President Clinton, the United Negro College Fund, the Manhattan Institute, several college and universities and so many others for his work in urban schools. A guy who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for public education without any teachers strikes or contracts delays during his tenure. I would be happy to have you talk with the presidents of each teacher union Vallas worked with. He provide me their names this afternoon and I would welcome the opportunity for us both to talk with them. So please stop misleading the public.

    Not to mentioned you failed to mention on your blog that he has closed achievement gaps, raised student test score and built hundreds of schools. Mr, Wetrz I cant believe you think we don’t need his advise.

    Just like Vallas, I invited you to speak at the town hall meeting to challenge his record and you stated that you are busy. I invited you to meet with me one-on-one to talk about education reform and you stated that you are busy. I was willing to have you meet Vallas at another time and you stated that you are busy. However, you have time to talk to the newspapers reporters and create blogs about Vallas record but don’t want to come before the public to address your position. I respect your decision but please help be part of the solution and lets stop this divisive behavior. If we cant be united and cant respect each other opinions and be willing to meet and talk. Our kids will suffer because of this behavior. Again, I hope you will find time in your busy schedule and speak up and challenge Vallas record and offer solutions that can help our community kids. Thanks for all you do and thanks for highlighting a different view point! Vallas record is well documented and find another urban school district chief that has an the array of government, education and international education experience that he brings and I will personally finance your blog for one full year.

    Michael Johnson, MBA
    CEO for Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County

    • I want to respond to correct and clarify some things in Michael Johnson’s comment. I’m going to start at the bottom.

      He wrote:

      “Just like Vallas, I invited you to speak at the town hall meeting to challenge his record and you stated that you are busy. I invited you to meet with me one-on-one to talk about education reform and you stated that you are busy. I was willing to have you meet Vallas at another time and you stated that you are busy.”

      Here is the relevant exchange (I’m not comfortable posting private conversations, but am making a partial exception here in order to correct. If anyone would like to see the entire conversation, please contact me):

      One response becomes multiple refusals,; an assurance that if I attend I won’t be stopped from participating becomes an invitation to participate (in what is supposed to be an open Town Hall), a willingness to to arrange a meeting with Vallas at another time that I first heard of in this comment brings another imaginary refusal.

      One other thing. Michael Johnson also wrote that:

      Not to mentioned you failed to mention on your blog that he has closed achievement gaps, raised student test score and built hundreds of schools. Mr, Wetrz I cant believe you think we don’t need his advise

      Here are some excerpts from the post he is commenting on, addressing two of the three things that I supposedly failed to mention:

      What the CCSR found in general was that “Many of the findings in this report contradict trends that appear in publicly reported data. For instance, publicly reported statistics indicate that CPS has made tremendous progress in elementary math and reading tests, while this analysis demonstrates only incremental gains in math and almost no growth in reading.”The same pattern is true for the Vallas years, some slight improvement in some reading scores, and slight but more pronounced improvements in math scores. Large racial gaps grew, Chicago continued to lag behaind the state and “Despite progress, the vast majority of CPS students have academic achievement levels that are far below where they need to be to graduate ready for college.” It should also be noted that graduation rate improvements slowed under Vallas. The whole report is worth a read, especially the section on “Changes in School Climate and Organizational Supports,”

      And on Philadelphia:

      No equivalent analysis has been done for Philadelphia, but there is reason to doubt the reported double digit and even 20%+ increases in students meeting standards over Vallas’ tenure. With the latter there is some apples to oranges going on, the 2002 numbers cover grades 5.8 and 11; but by 2007 grades 3,4,6 and 7 have been added. Philadelphia did not participate in NAEP during the Vallas years, but the performance on the Terra Nova were not as impressive as it was on the state tests and even here there were problems. Still, it is likely that scores did rise significantly in real ways under Vallas, but also needs to be noted that when he left only 47.0% of tested students were proficient in math, only 40.7 in reading and that that the schools turned over to outside Educational Management Organizations were below these dismal numbers.

      No, I didn’t write about school construction and I didn’t write about achievement gaps in Philadelphia. There are lots of things I didn’t write about, the Special Education lawsuit in New Orleans filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center being the biggest one in my mind.. On achievement gaps in Philadelphia, numbers aren’t easy to come by, but for the record it appears there has been some overall progress. From the 2002-3 and 2007-8 District Report Cards the district-wide African American/White Gap in % proficient or above for Reading went from 27.2 to 24; in Math from 27.3 to 26; the White? Hispanic-Latino gap for Reading went 32.8 to 26 and for Math from 22.8 to 24. To me what is more important than gap movement is that for all sub groups there is evidence that (as I said) “it is likely that scores did rise significantly in real ways under Vallas, but also needs to be noted that when he left only 47.0% of tested students were proficient in math, only 40.7 in reading.”

      The last thing I want to address is this statement:

      I’m struggling with the comments you have left on several face book pages and other sites and your claims are not coming from credible sources.

      Credibility does seem to be an issue here, but references to unspecified sources lacking credibility doesn’t help. If Michael Johnson, or anyone else wants to raise issues about the credibility of any specific sources I’ve cited, I’d be glad to have that discussion and maybe I’d end up agreeing. But without specifics, I don’t find the reference credible.

       

  3. Ted Lewis

    No, we do not need Mr. Vallas’ advice. Here is the letter I wrote to the Madison School Board, with a copy to Mr. Johnson. For full disclosure, while I live in and have children about to enter the Madison school system, I am employed by the educators’ union in Rock County. I fear that, like in school districts led by Mr. Vallas, Madison could increase segregation, educator turnover, de-unionize to a large degree, and attach even higher unwarranted stakes to testing. I want my kids to be in a district that embraces real reform (including reducing class sizes and segregation) rather than the free-market model that has placed novice educators in the most challenging classrooms and undermined the stability and collaboration upon which successful education relies.
    To the Madison School Board:

    I strongly object to the District donating resources for hosting Paul Vallas, a prominent privatizer of public education. He and his approach to education (privatizing public schools; de-unionization of employees; increased emphasis on testing; and reliance on private sector models) while lacking any credible evidentiary support, already has the backing of wealthy foundations and hedge fund managers. With backing not from the education community, but instead the rich and powerful, he needs not additional assistance from the Madison school district or legitimate non-profit organizations.

    Vallas has left trainwrecks behind in the Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago school systems. These school districts have increased segregation, increased staff turnover and instability, and rendered no measurable credible improvements. While some attribute negligible increased test scores to Vallas’ tenure, it is quite likely that these questionable improvements are more from test “scrubbing” (see, e.g., http://washingtonindependent.com/110519/louisiana-school-group-alleges-new-orleans-scrubbed-testing-scores-to-inflate-results-state-officials-deny-claims) and weeding out challenging students (see e.g., http://americanindependent.com/190386/new-orleans-schools-a-nexus-of-poverty-high-expulsion-rates-hyper-security-and-novice-teachers) than real progress. Even cursory research about Chicago and Philadelphia will reveal widening achievement gaps, increased segregation, and other deteriorations either under Vallas’ tenure, or under systems he put in place.

    Vallas’ approach is generally disdained by the education community, that sees the value in measures such as de-segregation and smaller class sizes. However, folks who lack an actual background (as does Vallas) like the “quick fix” idea that Vallas purports. If installing novice educators, increasing segregation, privatizing public schools, increasing staff turnover, and de-unionizing workforces actually rendered benefits, then the proponents would not be limited to wealthy groups without education experience. That is why the NAACP has taken a strong stand against the privatization of public education.

    It is not just that Vallas’ ideas are wrong and destructive that disturbs me about the May 26 forum. The school district and Boys and Girls Club are giving voice to an idea that already has overhwhelming financial support. As parent groups and educators across the country seek to protect and improve public education, CEOs and privatization-friendly foundations push an agenda that has neither succeeded anywhere nor has credible evidentiary support. Vallas and other “reformers” already have resources on their side–I object to my taxpayer dollars or my school board giving more aid. That’s kind of like Microsoft passing the hat for donations.

    I hope that in the future the Madison School District does not use its resources to disseminate a message that already has billionaires’ backing and that undermines public education.

    Sincerely,

    Ted Lewis
    1910 Keyes Ave
    Madison WI 53711

  4. Mark Hazelbaker

    I applaud Tom Mertz for putting so much effort into this analysis. This kind of information-based dialogue moves issues forward.

  5. Mr. Mertz, this information is very helpful and important. I appreciate your writing and all the links.

  6. SEA

    What a disappointing sop to the charter school proponents if MMSD did indeed support Vallas’s appearance here. Only those with these eyes, ears, and minds firmly closed to the failures (and the lack of morality) of corporate charter reform movement could read all those facts about Vallas and still support him.

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