Friday, June 12, 2009

Top school reformer Paul Vallas addresses Peoria education leaders

UPDATE - Please see this excellent article by Dave Haney in the PJStar for some points that he grasped that I did not.

Paul Vallas drove through the night from New Orleans to Peoria as he rushed to keep a commitment made to his friend, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. The two friends greeted each other warmly as he breathlessly arrived at Weaver Ridge country club to address local education leaders about school reform.

Mr. Vallas has a diverse and proven career reforming troubled school districts around the nation. Currently he is the Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School district which includes schools in New Orleans rebuilding from the devastating consequences of Katrina. He has also successfully reformed, among others, Chicago Public Schools and Philadelphia Public Schools - districts that have demographics, poverty rates and academic challenges similar to Peoria. In short, it seems that Vallas has never met a district that he couldn't improve, and he is widely accepted as the "go to guy" for all the tough cases.

Mr. Vallas shared his insights with an audience of approximately 50 people including leaders, legislators, Board of education members and administrators. I was most likely invited as the token complainer, haha.

Vallas is very familiar with Peoria. He has often wondered why when wealthier suburban school districts perform well, nobody seems to notice. But when poorer, inner city school districts do well people are incredulous. "Poor school districts suffer from a racism of lower expectations", Vallas said. In other words, a community develops a complacent attitude towards poorer children and begins to believe and accept that poor children can't learn.

Mr. Vallas very much disagrees with that assessment, and has dedicated his career to demonstrating otherwise. "Sometimes you have to deconstruct before you can reconstruct", Vallas said. "Sometimes the reforms needed are so drastic that the only way to succeed is to dismantle, and then start from the ground up."

He feels that a big part of the systemic problem in the declining effectiveness of public education is the security blanket that surrounds public schools in the form of government funding. "A privately owned business that is failing must respond and change or go out of business". Public Schools on the other hand continue to be funded no matter what. There is no urgent need to change. "When you have repeated failures you must re-think your strategy."

Vallas attributes a large degree of his success in New Orleans to the fact that he was able to start "from scratch". "I had some buildings, the kids, the teachers, and the money that followed the kids, and that was it". I was able to leave behind the bureaucracy, the contracts and the establishment. Many of his early efforts in New Orleans simply focused on figuring out where he would put everyone. To his critics who have suggested that Mr. Vallas' success was due largely to an influx of federal disaster funds into the district he simply states that a majority of his funding went towards capital improvements. He feels that the dollar amount of educational funding available for each child is not the driving force behind the child's prognosis for academic success.

Mr. Vallas recommended six reforms that could be implemented immediately by any school district that would virtually guarantee positive results. They are:

1. Establish a superior comprehensive data driven curriculum that aligns with the next grade level. Provide a continuum of instruction from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

2. We must extend the school day and the school year. "The U.S. competitive advantage is deteriorating and we are getting our butts kicked abroad. We must restructure and lengthen our school day and school year to mirror the schedule of working men and women."

3. Parents must be given school choices. Poor families don't have the choices that affluent families have, and wealthier parents tend to vote with their feet. All parents should have acceptable choices so that they remain in their homes and keep their neighborhoods stable. School choice also creates competition and an entrepreneurial environment. School choice empowers parents, promotes innovation and naturally allows the school to attract a larger pool of talent.

4. Allow choice for schools. Allowing some schools to pick the best and the brightest students creates an environment of high expectations for everyone.

5. Every school must have a human resources strategy. The biggest struggle for public education is attracting the best and the brightest educators. The community should not fear alternative certified teachers. Many have extraordinary talent. They work like there is no tomorrow because they are used to a regular work day and work year. Many have unlimited energy, optimism and high expectations. Non certified teachers expand the talent pool and can be your top performing teachers. Put your best and brightest in superior instructional systems - just like the military. The better you perform, the more you get paid. He recommends Teacher Alternative Preparation Programs, or TAPP. The top performers also become your leadership team. HELLO SANITY!! According to Vallas, first teachers resist and fear these changes. They soon learn to welcome and embrace them as they see the benefits they deliver to students, the district, and consequently themselves!

6. Classroom modernization - In addition to reasonable class sizes, every classroom should be equipped with the latest in technology. At the very least the classroom of the inner city school should be equivalent to the classroom of the school in the suburbs. Smart boards, laptops - whatever it takes. I asked a question during the Q and A portion of the lecture about air conditioning in classrooms. Mr. Vallas feels that central air in our classrooms is indeed a necessity to expect peak performance from students.

If you think that these changes will cost exorbitant amounts of money, think again. Mr. Vallas says that it is entirely possible to implement reforms and cut spending at the same time. He said that as school choice emerges through the development of charter and choice schools, the schools become highly autonomous and the need for a central administration and the obstructions associated with it decrease. The central administration becomes lithe and effective, whose only purpose is to support the charter schools. No more micromanagement! He has seen districts that have central offices that are only 2% of their overall operating costs. Many districts could easily achieve a 60% reduction in their Administrative costs.

Finally, Mr Vallas noted that all of his recommendations were in line with the new directives of the Obama Administration. All of the reforms he noted would put the district in an ideal situation to qualify for the new stimulus funds. "I don't like to leave any federal money on the table when it comes to public education", Vallas said.

A lengthy Q&A session followed which was almost more revealing than the lecture itself. In addition, Mr. Vallas lingered behind after the program and addressed individual concerns. I was amazed at not only the depth of his knowlege, but also how willing he was to openly share his expertise. He told Board member Racheal Parker after the event that if the district needed anything or had any questions they should feel free to call him. What an amazing resource available to our community.

The only thing that bothers me about the whole thing is he makes it appear so easy. He speaks with such ease and confidance - oozing the common sense we have all dreamt about. Much of what he says falls into the "no-brainer" category. My neck hurts from my head bobbing up and down like a bobble head. As we look back over the past few years though, my heart sinks. How do you get this administration and this board of education to even begin making these changes? Personally, I vote for the do-over.


Jon said...

I've only followed your posts for the last few months, and while I understand your desire to "start over" I cannot help but think that you are dreaming as much as KCDad is about a socialist utopia. Ken Hinton is and will be the superintendent next year. The members of the board are set as well. Yes, things need to change and I believe many on the board recognize this as well. Change doesn't happen overnight and outside an unrealistic coup de tat, I think you would do far better to try and work with this group than to overthrow them. This is exactly the case with the current charter school proposal that you previously seemed to be against given the involvement of the current administration.

Diane Vespa said...

Jon- I couldn't disagree more. It's time to face the music. Hinton doesn't have what it takes. The sooner we make the necessary changes the better. A lot of damage can be done in one year as we've seen. As we sit on our thumbs, another year of education for our children passes us by, millions of dollars continue to be wasted, and more and more choose alternatives to District 150. There is no time like the present! Let's hire a change agent ASAP and get on with it.

EMERGE said...

I thought you were against charter schools. They invite you to one meeting and now you are a cheerleader for Vallas and spreading the word across the internet. They were smart to invite you.

This comment is not intended to offend you, but WOW Diane.

Diane Vespa said...

Emerge - why would I be offended? My statements and positions are always consistant. I have no opinion for or against charter schools. Paul Vallas as an education visionary is not a new topic in the Peoria blogosphere. See these links:
We have been discussing him for years, and many of us have been dumbfounded that his services and advice was categorically rejected by District 150. I am FOR a well thought out, data driven comprehensive plan for the district, whatever that may be. That plan should be constructed and executed by a proven agent of change- not Ken Hinton. Clear as mud.

Anonymous said...

Rod McKiminson

Ken Hinton is not really any good at his job, he had his chance and his report across the board is straight F's, 100 million 200 million in debt.

I don't think Jim Ardis really cares eithero you, otherwise jim would find a way to force a poor preformer out of his job.

Frustrated said...

#4 on Vallas' list is offering selective enrollment schools as part of the school choice mix. Diane, you and others, have seem opposed to that idea. How do you square your support for Vallas given this is one of his strategies for change?

Build it and they will come. Offer a selective enrollment anything and you will bring families back into the District 150 system.

Diane Vespa said...

Frustrated - I agree with you. The purpose of this post was to report on Vallas' presentation.

I was very impressed with him as an individual and an administrator, but I don't necessarily agree with everything he says.

I believe that we must address the issues that are causing most of our schools to fail first.