The Vallas Prescription: Notes from CUBE

This morning was the final keynote of the CUBE summer issues forum, delivered by Paul Vallas, the head of New Orleans’ Recovery School District and former Superintendent of the Chicago and Philadelphia public schools. There are strong feelings about Mr. Vallas — either he is the savior of urban public education or a self-promoting privatizing windbag — and though I haven’t decided whether he is either or both I will say he is an engaging and energetic speaker with many interesting observations; I was glad to have an opportunity to hear him.

His talk centered on the seven essential ingredients of school reform, based on his experiences in Chicago, Philadelphia and now New Orleans. Whether you buy into the necessity of any or all of these ingredients depends on whether you agree that Mr. Vallas brought true and lasting reform to any of these cities. And with respect to New Orleans, well, what can you say? New Orleans, pre-Katrina, was easily the nation’s lowest-performing and most dysfunctional school system. Mr. Vallas is starting with a clean slate (a fact he readily acknowledges),  and intense interest, support and financial investment from school reformers all over the country (something he doesn’t as readily acknowledge, at least in today’s talk).

So with those caveats, here are the seven essential ingredients of urban school reform, as prescribed by Mr. Vallas:

  • Put into place a data-driven instructional plan: In New Orleans, teachers assess students’ learning every five weeks, so that no one can fall further behind. These assessments catch struggling students as well as struggling teachers, according to Mr. Vallas — once the assessments indicate a problem, intervention and supports for students and teachers begins immediately. I do feel we need to be more data-driven in San Francisco — I don’t feel we have enough of a “culture of data” in our schools and we need to retrain ourselves to continually look back at student data to check on whether we are being as effective as we believe. Then again, we don’t have good benchmarking or data collection and analysis systems at the moment, so we need to improve there, too, before this “culture of data” can truly take root across the district.
  • Create leadership teams within schools: Be sure your best and brightest teachers are working as part of a team with principals to look at student data and determine which teachers need support. Principals cannot do this work alone, Mr. Vallas says,  and by creating leadership teams you are both rewarding your best teachers and grooming them for additional administrative responsibilities.
  • Increase instructional time: This is one I wholeheartedly agree with, and would push for immediately if I thought we could swing it practically or financially. In New Orleans, schools are in session 11 months of the year, and for eight hours a day, putting New Orleans way ahead of San Francisco, which provides 9 months of instruction, six hours a day (a total of 180 instructional days).  It makes no sense to me that American schools still operate on a calendar that was originally created to allow children to help their parents in the fields every spring and summer. Especially when we know that students — particularly those who are academically at risk in the first place — lose a lot of ground during the long summer break.  In New Orleans, every student gets 60 to 90 minutes a day of intervention focused at their specific level of performance, something that makes me drool. High achieving students get accelerated curriculum, and students who are behind get intervention at their level. Mr. Vallas says he accomplished the longer year largely by diverting funds he was already spending on summer school and after school programs to give teachers a modest raise in base pay. Then, he told teachers that if they weren’t happy with the extra hours in exchange for a modest raise, they could go teach somewhere else.  I’m sure that ultimatum went over really well, but as Mr. Vallas told us, “I have 1,000 applicants for teaching positions . . . I can do that.”
  • Broaden your pool of talent. This prescription echoes a meme I heard throughout the weekend, basically that teacher preparation programs are not turning out teachers who can cope with or excel in the realities of today’s urban schools. Probably the most controversial thing Mr. Vallas told the group today was that he no longer looks at teaching as a career, and is actively seeking out young, idealistic college graduates who see this work as a temporary, albeit meaningful, stopover on the way to other thingsWhy? Because they are enthusiastic and very hard workers who embrace changes like a longer school year and longer school day.  Most of the board members I talked with over the weekend don’t go this far, but many of them complained that the intern teachers they are seeing are not prepared to meet the needs of urban students. I think there is a genuine conversation to be had with institutions offering teacher preparation programs, especially around multicultural competency and uniformly high expectations, but I don’t buy into the idea that teaching isn’t a career. Some of the most effective teachers I know are those who embrace the profession and see it as their life’s work.
  • Create relevancy for students by connecting school with work and higher education: This one is kind of a no-brainer to espouse and yet very hard to put into practice. Students need to see a true connection between the schoolwork they are being asked to do and future goals and rewards. In New Orleans, Mr. Vallas has made work study a part of the curriculum and students have many options to earn college credit and/or money by completing internships or other service-learning projects.  And because of the longer school year, motivated students can complete high school credit requirements by the end of their junior year; the school system will then pay for their first year of college.
  • Foster school choice: Giving students the option of moving from school to school creates competition, Mr. Vallas says. In addition,  he advocates giving schools a choice of staff based on qualifications rather than seniority.
  • Embrace technology: By embracing technology, Mr. Vallas says, “we can create learning environments that are equal to anywhere else.” He spoke of smart boards in every classroom, of issuing laptops to every high school student (and eventually to every 6th grade student), and about workstation-based intervention services like Read 180 or Fast Forword that allow every student to have intensive and individualized intervention at an 8 to 1 student to adult ratio.

All of those prescriptions sound great in the abstract, right?  In a lot of ways, Mr. Vallas is right on — we need to innovate if we are not to become increasingly irrelevant. Certainly in New Orleans, where 85 percent of the students enrolled are more than two years behind grade level, drastic measures are in order.  But I’m not seeing the whole picture when Mr. Vallas tells me, on the one hand, that he’s improved achievement, maintained class sizes of 25 students for every teacher,  and offered 11 months of instruction at eight hours a day, while on the other that he’s cut central office from 250 employees to 12o employees and cut central office expenses from $3,000 per pupil to $750 per pupil, and cut the overall budget by 40% this year.  How does that all add up? I’d have to spend time I don’t have poring over the Recovery School District’s operations and budgets to figure it out.


One response to “The Vallas Prescription: Notes from CUBE

  1. Daphne Powell

    Envision Schools are doing some of these things–such as a data-driven instructional plan & frequent assessments, leadership teams, increased instructional hours, and creating relevancy to work & higher ed–in their charter SF high schools, Metro and CAT. They have had some real successes, but on a small scale. It’s hard for me to see how to implement all these things across an entire district. About teaching as a career vs. temporary stopover, I would add the teacher who comes to teaching later in life, from another career. These teachers bring life experience and years in another profession to their teaching. Thanks for the report!