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Paul Vallas’ “Nixon Goes to China” Moment? Not quite.

Former Recovery School District superintendent, Paul Vallas, has been in the news recently for comments he made during a May 10th panel discussion, “An Agenda for Public Education: Challenges and Possibilities,” at CUNY Hunter’s Institute for Education Policy.

Over the course of the discussion, Vallas, along with the College Board’s David Coleman, NY State Education Commissioner John King, and AACTE CEO Sharon Robinson, addressed a wide range of education policy topics. Early on in the conversation, moderator David Steiner asked panelists whether education reformers had failed to effectively communicate their message to the public. Vallas, who is currently Superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, responded, “We’re losing the communications game because we don’t have a good message to communicate.” He then went on to criticize complex teacher evaluation systems, like the one currently being piloted in Connecticut, which he fears could collapse “under the weight of how complicated we’re making it.”

While those of us who lived through his tenure at RSD learned to “expect the unexpected” whenever Vallas gets in front of a microphone, his remarks surprised many education policy observers given his long-held reputation as an advocate of education reform. Vallas even acknowledged that his comments might take some by surprise when he quipped, “Me criticizing standardized testing is like Nixon going to China.”

When it comes to the Gospel According to Paul, you never know what you're going to get.
When it comes to the Gospel According to Paul, you never know what you’re going to get.

As would be expected, several reform critics seized upon (and took out-of-context and twisted) his remarks as evidence that, in the words of Diane Ravitch, “reformers are cracking up.” Ravitch’s parrot at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, also took note of Vallas’ comments, if only to use the opportunity to take a few cheap shots at the usual suspects (i.e., “privatizers,” charter schools, Teach For America, etc.). However, these misrepresentations led others to raise the question of whether the episode signaled a change-of-heart on the part of Paul Vallas. In short, was one of the pioneers of the education reform movement now turning against the very policies he once championed?

Not quite. As Vallas himself made clear during the panel, he still believes in the reforms he implemented in districts like Philadelphia and New Orleans, even declaring, “I’m an accountability freak. I’m a strong proponent of school choice.” Nevertheless, the basic point that Vallas was trying to make – and was lost in the ensuing media coverage – was an important one: In our efforts to improve public education, we can easily go overboard if we allow ourselves to lose sight of the big picture.

Although Vallas cited Connecticut’s teacher evaluation pilot to illustrate his point – “I’ll tell you, it is a nightmare” – there are plenty of examples that could just as easily fit the bill. When we establish excessive testing requirements like those imposed on high schoolers in Texas (that is, until this past Sunday), we provide ample ammunition to those opposed to standardized assessment. When we bungle the transition to the Common Core and alienate allies in the process, as is happening right now in North Carolina, we provide undue credibility to those seeking to delay (i.e., derail) the adoption of higher academic standards. In both cases, had reformers taken a moment to step out of the weeds to consider whether the costs of their policies outweighed the potential benefits, problems could have been avoided.

In sum, the rumors of Paul Vallas’ about-face on education reform have been greatly exaggerated, but his message is one that those of us in the education reform community would be wise to keep in mind.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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