Advice from a school turnaround expert

Paul Vallas, superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, speaking at CBIA's Annual Meeting in Hartford.

What's wrong with public education?

"The fundamental problem," says Paul Vallas, "is that our educational institutions have increasingly become irrelevant."

Harsh criticism, but it comes from someone with the in-the-trenches experience to back it up.

Vallas, who is the superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, has been on the front lines of school reform for years and has seen firsthand what happens when public education does not keep up with rapid economic and cultural changes.

But, as a nationally recognized leader in turning around underperforming urban school districts, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and post-Katrina New Orleans, he's also seen what happens when a transformative approach to reform is brought to failing school systems.

'We Can't Have Casualties'

Addressing more than 400 business owners and executives at CBIA's Annual Meeting in Hartford, Vallas explained that the absence of accountability and competition is the reason our government institutions: including school systems: have been far too slow to evolve.

For one thing, Vallas points out, our six-and-a-half-hour school day and 180-day school year reflect the needs and rhythms of a bygone era, when the U.S. was largely an agrarian society.

"The length of our school day and school year is still based on the Farmers' Almanac"_We have the shortest school calendar among the industrialized nations and among the emerging economies," he says.

He also cites a lack of progress in the way teachers are recruited and the fact that only now are states beginning to align curricula to national and international standards.

"Our failure to evolve has been our undoing"_In the private sector, you grow and evolve or die." When it comes to public education, says Vallas, we can't afford not to grow and thrive, "because"_we're educating kids. We can't have casualties."

School Improvement Organizations

Vallas believes that state departments of education must become school improvement organizations by:

  • Providing instructional models that work and the tech support enabling schools to implement those models
  • Tracking students' performance from an early age and providing schools with that data so that they can design and implement interventions before it's too late
  • Recruiting the best and brightest to education, including through alternative teacher certification programs
  • Providing a consistent level of funding to schools
  • Embracing early-childhood education. "You won't close the academic achievement gap in this country without universal cradle-to-classroom [education]," says Vallas, pointing out that 70% of brain development occurs in the first three years of life.
  • Holding schools accountable. "There needs to be an end date for failing schools," says Vallas, "and we need to replace the failing models with successful models."
  • Removing obstacles to implementing best practices that exist in all high-performing schools. These include having curriculum aligned to common core standards, using data to determine appropriate instructional interventions, increasing the length of the school calendar, and allowing principals to recruit, retain, and promote teachers based on school needs and teacher effectiveness.

Governor of Like Mind

Gov. Malloy, who followed Vallas at the podium at CBIA's Annual Meeting, cited steps the state has already begun taking to reform public education in a manner very much in line with Vallas's approach and emphasized the importance of improved student performance to the state's business community.

"We have 31 low-performing school districts in Connecticut," said the governor. "If we can begin the process of lifting the achievement level in those 31 districts just a bit each year, say, over the next five years, we can have a profound impact on the availability of the most important resource for your businesses to succeed, and that's a well-educated labor force"_easily available to you."

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News and can be reached at bill.derosa@cbia.com.