On May 31, 2012, American education expert Diane Ravitch posted a blog about the decision by Bridgeport’s Interim Superintendent, Paul Vallas, to end the school year with another round of standardized tests.
Yesterday Vallas posted a response on her blog and I, in turn, responded to Mr. Vallas’ comments.
It is a long read – but I would urge anyone who is impacted or following the developments in Bridgeport to take a look. Mr. Vallas’ claims are beyond astounding;
Ravitch Blog: Test, Test, Test, Test: Another Day in Bridgeport
Paul Vallas has taken over as superintendent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while running a consulting business on the side (he just won a $1 million contract to help fix the Illinois schools).
He is concerned that students and teachers slack off after they take the state tests in March, so he has just imposed yet another round of tests for the end of year, which will precede the administration of even more tests.
You see, this is the way corporate reformers think. If students don’t have tests to face, they won’t learn anything. If teachers don’t have a test to prepare students for, they won’t teach anything. They think that no one in school will do anything unless someone at the top is holding out a stick or a carrot.
What they do not understand is the basic idea of intrinsic motivation. By relying so heavily on extrinsic motivation, the corporate reformers will snuff out any outcroppings of intrinsic motivation.
What the Bridgeport approach will do with certainty is to eliminate any time for creative activities and projects; to remove any time for exploration and un-regimented learning. It will substitute testing for teaching. It relies on coercion as the prime motivator for learning.
It is a plan that will prepare students for factory work in the early twentieth century.
Paul Vallas’ Comment To Ravitch’s Post on June 8, 2012
As someone who has known you for a long time as a colleague and a friend, I am taken aback by your post about Bridgeport testing. We are up to our ears with a district in crisis and trying to right the ship for the mostly minority, low income children who are our responsibility. Perhaps the hectic pace here in the district accounts for why I missed your phone call expressing concern for the methodology I, in partnership with my Chief Administrator, Dr. Sandra Kase, are employing? Of course, no phone call ever came. Therefore I will respond in this forum.
As I explained to my teachers in school visits and by memo, which I would have been happy to share with you, the Connecticut assessment test is weak. I have always been critical of annual state tests that are high stake, that are too narrow, that are administered too early and that produce data that is dated by the end of any given school year. Connecticut’s assessment system has all of those shortcomings. It is unfair to both teachers and students. Thus, in an effort to support teachers and to give them the baseline data that they need in real time at the end of the year, we are am administering a series of short end-of-the-year tests to give teachers an accurate and up to date picture of their students’ full learning profiles, and in particular the skills and concepts that need to be re-taught or strengthened to ensure student success in the new school year term. Our teachers care deeply about their students’ success, and most of them are delighted to have the opportunity to gain a clear picture of which children need to be in summer school. They welcome the baseline data that will give them the information they need over the summer to plan for the strengths and weaknesses of their incoming classes, to ensure they are equipped with the appropriate interventions and supports. They agree with us that this will help them be confident and ready to instruct in the new and more rigorous curriculum and instructional program we are implementing in 2012-2013.
There is no downside to these baseline assessments. The results do not factor into student promotion or teacher retention. Allow me to reiterate, they will simply provide current, data-guided decisions about summer school interventions to the benefit of students who are struggling, they will inform as to where additional supports should be allocated to individual students next year, and they will provide a baseline that will guide the implementation for next year’s new curriculum and instructional program. It is a responsible, proactive, vigorous measure to ensure teachers have the information they need to be effective in as close to “real time” possible, and that students get the support they need beginning on day one of next school year.
With regard to the comment about running a consulting business on the side, after my previous districts, Bridgeport is a small district by my experience. I was recruited Bridgeport to become interim Superintendent with the full understanding that I would continue to be available to help other school districts as needed. You will recall that I have been doing work in Chile and Haiti. The Illinois contract you speak of, which has yet to be tendered, is actually a request to do turnaround in two historically failing districts. I have assembled a team of top educators, many of whom you know or know of, and all of whom come from the traditional schools community. While the price tag on that contract may sound exotic at $1 million, that actually covers the cost of the team for three years work in two school districts. Let me point out that in New York, that much money is frequently spent annually on interventions targeting a single school only. I hope these are the not the only projects where we can make the type of impact we are making here in Bridgeport. I expect it to be quite a challenge and one I look forward to. Give Dr. Kase and me a call if you wish to discuss further or the next time you want an explanation of any of our programs. Your call is always welcome.
Jonathan Pelto’s Response to Paul Vallas on June 8, 2012
I’d like to take a moment to respond to the comment you recently posted in response to Diane Ravitch’s blog about the testing mania that you have brought to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
My name is Jonathan Pelto and I’m the one who writes the CT Blog called Wait, What?.
I spent nearly a decade as a member of the Connecticut General Assembly, serving as a member of both the Appropriations and Education Committees. During my tenure in the Legislature, I had the honor of helping to develop the Education Enhancement Act and the Education Cost Sharing Formula, the two most important pieces of education legislation in modern Connecticut history. I represented the 54th House District, while my friend and colleague, Nancy Wyman, who presently serves as the state’s Lt. Governor, served in the 53rd District.
In addition to spending nearly four decades working on and monitoring education policy in Connecticut, I’ve managed or worked on numerous political campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Although I’m from far northeastern Connecticut, my first campaign working with Bridgeport politics was thirty years ago. Since then I’ve been a regular observer, and sometime participant, in Bridgeport politics.
Your response to Diane raises a few key issues.
Let me first address your introduction in which you say;
“We are up to our ears with a district in crisis and trying to right the ship for the mostly minority, low income children who are our responsibility. Perhaps the hectic pace here in the district accounts for why I missed your phone call expressing concern for the methodology I, in partnership with my Chief Administrator, Dr. Sandra Kase, are employing? Of course, no phone call ever came.” Therefore I will respond in this forum.”
That paragraph is probably the most insulting, self-centered and sophomoric thing I’ve ever read. Only someone who is obsessively self-centered would start with such an absurd and arrogant introduction. No one, least of all someone of Diane Ravitch’s caliber, would be expected to “check in” with you before articulating an opinion about your public activities. You are a public employee, engaged in the public’s business. If you wanted a life of quiet insignificance you should have chosen to be a hedge fund manager.
Then, to add insult to injury, you go on to say that you;
“Explained” to your “teachers in school visits and by memo that the Connecticut assessment test is weak…”and “thus, in an effort to support teachers and to give them the baseline data that they need in real time at the end of the year, we are am [sic] administering a series of short end-of-the-year tests to give teachers an accurate and up to date picture of their students’ full learning profiles, and in particular the skills and concepts that need to be re-taught or strengthened to ensure student success in the new school year term.”
But of course, Mr. Vallas that is an absolute and total lie.
The memo that you or Sandra Kase wrote to all teachers, of which I’d be happy to give you a copy, speaks of the “lull in learning” that takes place after standardized tests and announces that you have scheduled another round of tests – to be done exactly like the first round – in order to ensure that teachers are focused on their jobs till the end of the semester.
Your memo reminded me of Governor Malloy’s comment that a teacher need only show up for four years to get tenure or his statement that he is okay with teaching to the test as long as the test scores go up. They are statements that are, at best, disingenuous.
As we now know, your testing scheme actually disrupted the finals and end of year projects that would have given teachers and administrators the ability to finalize the lists of who needed summer school. Your tests not only failed to do that but were actually counterproductive to that very task.
You go on to inform Diane Ravitch that “our teachers care deeply about their students’ success, and most of them are delighted to have the opportunity to gain a clear picture of which children need to be in summer school. They welcome the baseline data that will give them the information they need over the summer to plan for the strengths and weaknesses of their incoming classes, to ensure they are equipped with the appropriate interventions and supports. They agree with us that this will help them be confident and ready to instruct in the new and more rigorous curriculum and instructional program we are implementing in 2012-2013.”
Come now, please. Try to maintain some element of the truth. The additional standardized test was an opportunity to know one’s students. And who needs extra help from a test that appeared late in the year and failed to remotely follow the approved curriculum?
What about the 11th grade math test that included topics that aren’t taught until 12th grade or the 5th grade questions that were simply wrong?
What about the question that proved the pitfall of standardized testing when it asked urban, minority students to respond to a question about a “deck” when it turns out that not a single student knew what a “deck” was, although all knew that the porch was the thing that is attached to nearly every house in Bridgeport.
And if you are so concerned about preparing for the fall’s high school seniors, how do you rationalize your decision to purchase new textbooks before the group that is assigned to develop the revised curriculum even meets.
That doesn’t even begin to address your unilateral decision to shift next fall’s high school seniors away from reading African American and world literature and, instead, having them read an anthology of British Literature.
I had the opportunity recently to tour a Title 1 school in New York City. Their school wide curriculum development process, which included full utilization of the Rubicon Atlas software program, was a weekly event throughout the year and they are still not completely ready for next year. Under your approach, the curriculum will be developed in a few short sessions and presented to teachers in the days immediately before the start of the school year.
Finally, as a Connecticut resident let me just say that your belief that you are entitled to run “a consulting business on the side” since Bridgeport is such a small district compared to your previous experience” says more about your commitment and dedication than anything you could have possibly said. The $229,000 plus benefits may seem a pittance to you, but Connecticut residents are not out of line to believe that for that amount of money the children, parents and teachers of the City deserve someone’s full-time attention.
Since it was you who introduced the notion that an “expert’s” comments should go unquestioned, let me just say, as an expert on Connecticut politics, that while you will come and go as you please, that last comment of yours implying that setting Bridgeport’s schools is virtually child’s play compared to your previous efforts will live to haunt Mayor Finch and the Bridgeport leaders who recruited you. If one of my employees said something so incredible insulting, I’d tell him he needn’t return in the morning.
I have watched your activities from afar since you arrived in Connecticut and your post on Diane Ravitch’s blog says more about you and your intentions than anything else I’ve read to date.