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

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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.

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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Explainer: Does AFT Really Have 1.7 Million Members? How The Union Uses Accounting Tricks To Inflate The Numbers

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On Friday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced its membership had risen to over 1.7 million members, surpassing the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to become the largest union in the AFL-CIO.

According to union officials, the milestone was reached last month when the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which represents the U.S. territory’s 40,000 teachers, voted to affiliate with AFT.

However, as Education Week pointed out, the pact concluded between AFT and AMPR comes with several caveats. To start, the agreement only establishes a three-year “trial affiliation,” after which the two unions will decide whether to extend their relationship. Plus, although AMPR teachers will be considered full AFT members during this trial period, they will initially pay $12/year in dues to the union – far less than members of AFT affiliates elsewhere.

AMPR got a good deal from AFT: all the benefits of membership at a fraction of the cost.

But AFT’s 1.7 million claim is dubious for a more fundamental reason: the union uses creative accounting when tallying its membership. For example, in AFT’s 2016 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, they claimed to have 1.54 million members in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, but a closer look reveals only 675,000 of those individuals were actual full dues-paying members. A significant portion of the rest belonged to a hodgepodge of special membership classes: one-half members (204,344), one-quarter members (93,047), one-eighth members (34,104), associate members (49,984), and laid-off/unpaid leave members (1,808).

Their count also included nearly 357,000 retiree members and approximately 128,000 members of affiliates – in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and North Dakota – that have merged with NEA.1

In short, as is often the case with AFT, there is a huge gap between their rhetoric and reality.


Read AFT’s 2016 DOL annual report:


  1. Note that these are self-reported numbers and therefore subject to AFT’s interpretation. In a piece in The 74 earlier this year, Mike Antonucci claimed, “more than 600,000 working AFT members belong to merged NEA/AFT local and state affiliates” in 2016. 
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Willful Blindness Official Pushing NYC's ATR Plan Has A History Of Giving A Pass to Bad Teachers

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The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) is planning to move as many as 400 teachers out of the district’s Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) and into full-time classroom positions at schools this fall, regardless of whether those schools want to hire them.

Principals have had control over staffing at their schools since 2005, when the district officially adopted “mutual consent” hiring. That shift resulted in the creation of the Absent Teacher Reserve, which is comprised of teachers who were forced out of their jobs or lost them due to school closures, but have not found new positions.

UFT president Mike Mulgrew, Mayor Bill deBlasio & Chancellor Carmen Fariña at a press conference in 2014.

Thanks to NYCDOE’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), individuals in the ATR pool continue to receive full salary and benefits, even though nobody wants to hire them. According to data obtained by Chalkbeat, the district spent nearly $152 million last year to compensate ATR teachers.

District officials have been trying to shrink the size (and expense) of the ATR pool for years, leading some to wonder whether they would resort to forced placement to accomplish their goal. When New York City Council members posed that question directly to Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014, she emphatically stated: “There will be no forced placement of teachers.”

However, NYCDOE reneged on that promise last month when it was announced that principals will have until mid-October to fill vacancies at their schools, after which the district will place teachers from the ATR pool into any remaining openings.

The new policy has gotten an icy reception from principals and parent advocacy groups, who say the district is simply putting bad teachers back into classrooms. As evidence, they point to NYCDOE figures showing that a third of the teachers in the ATR pool ended up there due to legal or disciplinary problems and half have been there for two or more years.

“There is not one parent in New York City who would willingly accept one of these ATRs into their child’s classroom,” StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a blog post on the ATR plan. “It is unconscionable to put the worst teachers into the classrooms of the neediest students.”

NYCDOE’s Absent Teacher Reserve by the numbers.

In an effort to allay those concerns, NYCDOE issued a statement noting that “DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past.” Nevertheless, the department has not explicitly ruled out the possibility that teachers with disciplinary records could be used to fill vacancies.

That fact is especially troubling when one considers that Randy Asher, the NYCDOE administrator overseeing the Absent Teacher Reserve plan, was accused of letting bad teachers run amok in his previous role as principal of Brooklyn Technical High School.

Randy Asher, who formerly served as principal of Brooklyn Tech High School, now oversees the Absent Teacher Reserve for NYCDOE.

Asher served as principal of Brooklyn Tech for nearly eleven years before assuming his current role in January. During that time, the elite public high school was racked by a series of sex scandals involving faculty members, including the widely-publicized case of Sean Shaynak, a Brooklyn Tech math teacher who victimized seven female students.

According to a lawsuit filed by the victims, Asher and his fellow Brooklyn Tech administrators knew about Shaynak’s sexually suggestive antics (such as the time he showed up to a school dance wearing a skimpy schoolgirl’s uniform), but did nothing to address them. For his part, Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s devious behavior, but was “horrified and disgusted at the allegations.”

NYCDOE eventually settled the victims’ lawsuit for $450,000 and Shaynak was sentenced to five years in prison.

Although Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s sexually inappropriate behavior, photos of Shaynak in drag appeared in the school’s yearbook.

In light of Asher’s history, it’s hard to see how the public can trust that officials will use their discretion to keep the least desirable ATR teachers out of the classroom. That’s why parents and community members should fight to prevent NYCDOE from implementing its forced placement plan and call on city leaders to solve the district’s ATR problem by demanding a phase-out in contract negotiations with UFT next year.

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