Alone among policy heavyweights, Vallas conveys reform fears

On a night when education leaders offered a spirited defense of the policies they are trying to implement, an unusual voice emerged as the dissenter: Paul Vallas.

The Bridgeport, Conn. superintendent — who has served stints in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans and earned a reputation as a turnaround consultant for struggling districts with big budget gaps — said reforms he backed were at risk of collapsing “under the weight of how complicated we’re making it.”

“We’re working on the evaluation system right now,” Vallas said of Bridgeport. “And I’ll tell you, it is a nightmare.”

The peripatetic schools chief’s self-proclaimed “Nixon goes to China” moment came during the high-profile panel at the launch of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, a think tank that former New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner is directing.

Steiner said one of his goals for the institute was to encourage guests at his events to speak candidly, and panelists warmed to the invitation from the start of their 75-minute conversation Thursday evening. The other panelists at the Roosevelt House on the Upper East Side were College Board President David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core standards; Steiner’s successor in Albany, John King; and Sharon Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Coleman acknowledged the growing scrutiny over New York State’s rollout of the Common Core standards, which students were tested on this year despite teachers saying they felt unprepared to teach to the new standards. New York is one of 45 states (along with Washington, D.C., four territories, and Department of Defense schools) that have adopted the standards, but its implementation is further along than most.

The timeline has drawn fierce criticism for months and seemed to peak two weeks ago when AFT President Randi Weingarten called for a moratorium on consequences for Common Core-aligned tests in a much publicized speech.

“These are hard times for New York City and New York State,” Coleman said. “The vultures are out. There is a culture in our city and state right now of trying to take people down, including the commissioner to my left.”

Coleman then implored the mostly friendly audience, which included former superintendents Harold Levy and Jean-Claude Brizard, “to stand up for this man for his courage in not backing down.”

After the event, Coleman said his comments were meant as a defense of King, not a response to any specific criticism. He said he was not responding to Weingarten.

Coleman was perhaps the night’s most outspoken panelist, at one point suggesting that those who believe that poverty is an insurmountable obstacle to improving student achievement should offer to cut teacher salaries and redistribute those funds to the poor.

“We have to get serious with each other. It is not okay to say that since poverty matters so much we should use that as a reason to evade reform. It’s not responsible,” Coleman said.

Vallas was the lone panelist currently working in a school district. Asked by Steiner if there was a problem with how officials had communicated their reforms to the public, Vallas said the issue was more fundamental.

“We’re losing the communications game because we don’t have a good message to communicate,” he said. In separate comments, Vallas criticized evaluations as a “testing industrial complex” and “a system where you literally have binders on individual teachers with rubrics that are so complicated … that they’ll just make you suicidal.”

Vallas admitted his comments were unusual considering his reputation. “Me criticizing standardized testing is like Nixon goes to China,” he said, alluding to the former president’s 1972 trip that was seen as shifting the tone in the Cold War.

Answering the same question, King said communication had not been effective because news media do not try to convey the reforms’ complexity.

“One of the challenges is that the media conversation about education always boils down to black hats and white hats,” King said, referring to the polarized sides of the education debate. As an example, he pointed to a recent New York Post story about a reading passage in the state’s curriculum that contained criticism of the passage’s content but little recognition of its value as a challenging text that reflects real-world issues.

“That may be all that space allows, but I think ultimately our challenge is to have a deeper conversation of what it would really take to change student outcomes,” King added.

He said New York had tried to tackle the communication problem by circumventing the media altogether through, the state’s website that includes free curriculum and resources for teachers.