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Changing Leaders No Panacea for Failing Schools

Purported success in leading schools in one district doesn't assure duplication in another, as Paul Vallas is finding out. Despite his ballyhooed record in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans, Vallas is fighting to hold on to his job in Bridgeport, Conn. ("Change Agent in Education Collects Critics in Connecticut Town," The New York Times, Jul. 22).

Vallas claims that the court ruling early in his tenure directing him to report to the locally elected school board rather than to a state-controlled panel is largely to blame. But the reasons are more complicated than that. In the short time he has been at the helm, Vallas has managed to alienate parents, union officials and community activists. Moreover, Bridgeport, like all troubled districts that have been involved in outside takeovers, is overwhelmingly composed of poor black and Hispanic students.

The tight connection between poverty and achievement has been documented by a host of peer-reviewed studies. Vallas has not helped his cause by his management style, which has shut out dissenting voices. But I think that Bridgeport's demographics bear closer examination. With a 21,000-student population that is 49 percent Hispanic and 39 percent black, Bridgeport is one of Connecticut's highest-poverty school districts. I'm not saying that poverty is destiny, but it certainly plays a powerful role in academic performance.

For example, in 1989 New Jersey seized control of schools in Jersey City, and then followed suit in Paterson and Newark. In 2002, New York wrested control of the Roosevelt district on Long Island, and in 1993, California intervened in Compton. All these districts were characterized by extreme poverty. Not surprisingly, student achievement in all cases remained lackluster ("When States Seize Schools: A Cautionary Tale," Education Week, Jun. 12, 2007). Based on the record to date, replacing leaders and expecting significant change lead to disappointment.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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