Former head of NOLA schools responds to questions, critics

Earlier this week, I ran a piece by one of the key architects of Louisiana's recovery school district. A consultant with the Chicago-based DSI Education, Paul Vallas served as Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District from 2007-2011.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

He also served as Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, Public Schools of Philadelphia and Bridgeport Public Schools.

Some of you posted questions for Vallas, several of which he tackles today.

By Paul G. Vallas

There are common essential practices that exist in all high-performing schools, whether traditional or charter. When these instructional best practices are faithfully implemented, even failing schools begin to fulfill their mission to the children they serve, in spite of student poverty or other challenges.

2. Effective use of data. Simple, time-efficient formative assessments give teachers almost instant data needed to measure student progress. Such data also gives the school's instructional leadership team information to measure teacher effectiveness, which is critical to instructional improvement. "High stakes" testing, with results delayed for months, as well as "over-testing" is an impediment to students' educational experience and school improvement.

3. Intervention and support. Selection and early-in-the-school year implementation of the most effective interventions based on student academic and behavioral needs. Additional teacher supports should be provided, based on teacher effectiveness.

4. There is no substitute for ongoing teacher and support-staff training and mentoring. It must be task oriented, site-based, designed to meet the individual teacher's needs and it must not cut into the instructional day.

5. Local school-based instructional leadership teams to drive instruction. Led by the principal and comprised of the school's most effective teachers the leadership teams not only provide instructional benefits, they also provide opportunities for teacher recognition, promotion, additional responsibilities and additional pay for performance.

The overarching mission of state takeover districts should be to ensure failing schools begin implementing these essential best practices, and in some cases, provide them with the models. State takeover districts also have the authority and resources to remove obstacles to best practice implementation in the schools in which they intervene or takeover. Obstacles include lack of sufficient human resources and technical support, impediments to a longer school day or year and staffing flexibility so that staffing reflects the children’s needs.

Removing obstacles can be accomplished by restructuring, reconstituting or chartering schools, but this is not a charter vs. public school issue. There are less invasive measures at a state’s disposal.

During my tenure as Louisiana Recovery School District Superintendent, my team negotiated “memorandums of understanding” with at least eight superintendents outside of New Orleans, without taking away any schools.

The RSD provided the districts with models and implementation technical assistance. Those districts, in a bid to stay in local control, worked with us to remove the obstacles to best practice implementation. It was a win-win, with students as the biggest winners.

The most important obstacle to remove, however, is financial. This means the state needs to have the capacity to help schools develop long-term financial plans that can implement and sustain the comprehensive education improvement plan. Predictability, consistency and stability are critical to all successful reform efforts and all require stable financing.

While in many districts the lack of success can be at least partially blamed on inadequate and inequitable funding, and while many reform efforts might require initial start-up funds, the reality is that long-term success requires a financial plan that effectively prioritizes and utilizes existing resources and makes organizational changes that maximize efficiency.

This leads me to one commenter’s question, “Why can't those best practices be implemented without seizing control of schools from local accountability?" The answer of course is you can, if you know what to do and if local leadership has the will to carry it out.

However, when that doesn’t happen for years or decades, then there really is no local accountability. At that point, challenging the status quo, as Governor Deal’s Opportunity School District proposes to do, isn’t just good government, it’s a moral imperative.