“The Vallas Manifesto”—Peddling Fear, and Weather-Beaten Ideas

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“The Vallas Manifesto”–Peddling Fear, and Weather-Beaten Ideas

In an earlier post, I wrote about the discontent brought on by Paul Vallas’ article published in the AJC telling Georgians that  Governor Nathan Deal did the right thing in proposing his Opportunity School District (OSD). I wondered out loud if Vallas is looking for a job in Atlanta as the new superintendent of the Georgia OSD.

But in this post, I want to look at ideas that he posted on Maureen Downey’s blog, Get Schooled which was a response to many comments received about his first article.  So, two posts in a row, Downey gave Vallas the pulpit to voice his ideas,  which are nothing more than talking points of the neoliberal “reformists, and frankly nothing new.

Vallas makes the claim that if five suggestions (which he outlines and I’ve listed below) are implemented then improvement will happen in failing schools, regardless of poverty and other social problems. He used these ideas in New Orleans and Bridgeport in separate failing school turn around projects. Educators are reeling in New Orleans and Bridgeport from his superintendency.

And to be sure, if he comes to Georgia, he will bring with him the debris of these failed attempts to reform schools, and in so doing, ignore educators in local districts as if they didn’t know how to do their jobs.  For more information on Vallas and his work as superintendent in Bridgeport, you should follow this link to Jonathan Pelto on Twitter or at his blog.  You should also link to Hanna Hurley on Twitter who is a voracious supporter of public education, and a voice in Georgia from whom I learn.

Vallas’ ideas are nothing more than talking points for corporate and philanthropic privateers such as himself, and a handful of others, most notable, Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of the D.C. School District.  Their ideas are built upon the “manufactured crisis” that they have concocted about American schools.  To these peddlers, our schools are in crisis, failing, and sure to cause calamity and economic depression if they don’t come to the rescue.  That’s right, we are waiting for the arrival of superman.  These ideas represent a kind of manifesto that is carried around from one district to another, and in the end not much happens in terms of improving the lives of students and their teachers.

Lets take a look at these ideas.

Idea 1. The Proven Curriculum: A comprehensive K-12 curriculum and instructional plan that is aligned to standards and provides continuity of instruction. Critical is the selection of proven curriculum and instructional models, sufficient quality instructional time-on-task and classroom modernization.

Vallas is a standards’ supporter and believes there is such a thing as a proven curriculum. This is nonsense. Curriculum is not proven, any more than ideas in science are proven. We have curriculum theory, not a proven curriculum. If anything is true about curriculum, it is that it hasn’t changed very much in more than 100 years. Indeed, Vallas is simply telling us that we should stick with the standards and curriculum that have been around for decades.

People like Vallas actually believe that teachers should use the same standards, even though they never had a hand in designing them. Rigid standards are impediments to innovative teaching and learning. Then, when combined with aligned high-stakes tests, a perfect storm is set motion that reduces teaching and learning to mere mechanics.

Idea 2. “Effective” use of data: Simple, time-efficient formative assessments give teachers almost instant data needed to measure student progress. Such data also gives the school’s instructional leadership team information to measure teacher effectiveness, which is critical to instructional improvement. “High stakes” testing, with results delayed for months, as well as “over-testing” is an impediment to students’ educational experience and school improvement.

Collecting data on kids is another idea that privateers like. In this case Vallas relishes collecting formative data, but tells us that high-stakes testing and over testing is an impediment to learning. Formative assessments have been shown to improve student learning and here we agree. But be careful. These formative assessments will be used as part of massive data collection efforts which will be used to measure teacher effectiveness.

Furthermore, the bottom line for these reformists is student scores on summative assessments in mathematics and reading. Schools around the country are being graded on an A-F scale based on student performance on these tests. And teachers are being rated based on the value they add to student learning using a complex algorithm (Value-Added Model) that has been shown to unreliable and invalid.

3. Intervention and support. Selection and early-in-the-school year implementation of the most effective interventions based on student academic and behavioral needs. Additional teacher supports should be provided, based on teacher effectiveness.

Don’t be fooled here. Notice the terms used here. Interventions. Academic. Behavioral needs. Teacher effectiveness. The idea of intervention is linked to data collection as outlined in Idea 2. Instead of relying on professional teacher’s decision-making, Vallas tells us that student test scores (academic needs) can be used to select interventions, and also be used evaluate teachers.

4. Training: There is no substitute for ongoing teacher and support-staff training and mentoring. It must be task oriented, site-based, designed to meet the individual teacher’s needs and it must not cut into the instructional day.

I guess this means after school training. But it will be based on Vallas’ conception of a proven curriculum. This means that teachers will be on the short end the stick, and in most cases no stick at all.  Teachers are required to follow a standards-based curriculum, and are given little to no flexibility to deviate to meet the specific needs of their students.  In such a context, ongoing training and support means little, and does not promote professional leadership that is the hallmark of being an educator.  As long as we continue to hold teachers and students hostage to state mandated tests tied to an inflexible curriculum, we will see very little in the way of innovation, problem-solving and creative relationships.

5. Leadership: Local school-based instructional leadership teams to drive instruction. Led by the principal and comprised of the school’s most effective teachers the leadership teams not only provide instructional benefits, they also provide opportunities for teacher recognition, promotion, additional responsibilities and additional pay for performance.

There is little doubt that leadership is important. But the problem here in any of these reforms is context. If there is a “leadership” team as described by Vallas, it will have little impact on school improvement because it will be hamstrung by a bottom line or test score mentality. Unless targets (established as percentage increases from one year to the next) are met, the leadership team will have to disregard innovative, creative, collaborative, and interpersonal goals.

If Vallas, or another reformer of the same brand are brought to Atlanta as superintendent of the Opportunity School District, it will not be an opportunity for school improvement, but rather an opportunity for privateers and neoliberal reformers.

It will be more than one step backwards for Georgia students and their parents if the Governor goes forward with the Opportunity School District.

The General Assembly of Georgia has approved a law that is based on fear and weather-beaten ideas. It’s time they realize this.

If they don’t, we would arrange a series of seminars designed to improve legisla knowledge of teaching and learning.  It would also provide tools to help them understand the falicy of the manufactured crisis in American education.

What do you think?

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About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

…and I’M STILL FOR HER.

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