Government watchdog John Marshall Lee shares his latest commentary about the job performance of Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas in districts he led prior to Bridgeport. General Lee gives Vallas passing grades.
Paul Vallas … Educational Leadership in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. (IL: 1995-01; PA: 2002-07; LA: 2007-11; CT January 2012-current)
Americans are familiar with statistics used to record performance of athletic teams, investments and levels of government. Over time the efforts of baseball teams, S&P 500 companies as well as political administrations, are compared and evaluated based on the numbers, whether they be recorded in dollars expended, numbers of people participating, or percentage gains relative to young people succeeding.
Much public discussion about Paul Vallas’ qualifications to successfully run a poor urban school district or his success in past assignments has occurred. Some commentators have talked about superintendents as either ‘sprinters’ or ‘marathoners.’ What is the average stay in poor urban districts in recent years? Do his terms above differ mightily from his contemporaries? More importantly, do reforms of school districts hold much beyond the term of a schools chief executive officer? I have attempted to research the duration of the Vallas experience and some basic data about improvements during and shortly beyond his tenure.
Chicago showed steady improvement in student graduation rates during the six-year period Vallas was present and for at least several years following with an Age 18 dropout statistic decreasing in half to 20.8% by the fourth year after Vallas’ departure. Evidence of steady improvement in math and especially reading scores during those years is seen. More than 400,000 youth were enrolled in public schools.
In Philadelphia on-time and 6-year graduation rates increased significantly through the Vallas years and reading and math scores almost doubled in both areas for all grades combined when looking at advanced and proficient student results. Vallas left the system with a surplus educational budget that was decimated by large deficits during the two-year tenure of his replacement.
The New Orleans story post Katrina is unusual in that there were actually two operating school districts that came into being after the storm:
• 19 schools with 11 charters and 10,500 students with 72% African American students and 66% free- or reduced-lunch students;
• 66 schools with 50 charters serving 28,148 youth with 95% African American and 90% free- or reduced-lunch students.
During Vallas’ tenure the statistics for both districts showed increases for ‘Basic’ and ‘Above’ scoring students on State assessments from 35% to 56%. School Performance Scores (K-12) below 65 dropped from 69% of the schools and 69% of students to 29% of the schools with fewer than 24% of the students. Drop ut rates in New Orleans dropped from about 11% in 2005 to about 4.1% in 2011, a number identical to the LA average for grades 9-12. The gap for at-risk students was narrowed and then reversed for African American students by 2011 and continues to narrow for economically disadvantaged and special education students.
The eye opener for me are the results of the Vallas-directed Recovery School District gains in students performing at or above grade level where unprecedented growth in gains compared most favorably with LA state results. Graduation rates and decrease in dropouts each made steady positive progress. There are many ways to compare statistics, but changes in these three communities are compelling in dispelling the steady display of only negative results.
What are Bridgeport stakeholders looking for? How will it be measured? And where will it be available to the public in an accountable and open manner? Who will ask good questions and listen to the answers? Isn’t that what members of a Board of Education are elected to do? What questions are being asked about our system of candidates for BOE, and even City Council candidates this year? Will Council candidates support “minimum budget requirement” funding for the schools this year if elected? Are candidate arguments and statistics put forward genuinely about the school age youth? Time will tell.