Elementary school aged students in a classroom, a Black boy in a green tshirt, wearing glasses, is in the front of the photo and is doing a workbook page.
In the aftermath of the Vallas reign, the drop-out rate went as high as 50 percent, proving what teachers tried to tell us: All of that summer school test prep had little to do with actually learning things. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/Unsplash

As one of the old guys still standing from the Daley days of yore, I suppose it’s up to me to tell the rest of you a thing or two about Paul Vallas, the man Chicago seems eager to elect as its mayor.

Back in the 90s, Vallas was Mayor Daley’s hand-picked boss of the Chicago Public Schools. Well, Daley was really the boss—don’t get that twisted—but Vallas got the title of CEO.

I chronicled the Vallas tenure in columns right here in the Reader and experienced them as a parent with kids in the system. 

There’s so much I can say about the Vallas days at CPS—the funny games he played with budgets, his autocratic urges, his mastery of the media, and his bullying. What a bully—the man never ran from a fight he knew he would win. Standing up to the powerful, like Baby Boss Daley, well, he could play the yes-man like a champ.

For the moment, I’ll concentrate on his strange obsession with high-stakes testing.

The man loved giving standardized multiple-choice tests—in fact, it seemed he got perverse pleasure in watching kids “fail.” 

At one point, he created his own system-wide two-week-long test that all high schoolers had to take even though they already had to take two other standardized tests. It was called The Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE). Just about any teacher would tell you it was a monumentally stupid waste of time; mercifully, Arne Duncan put CASE out of existence in 2002.

But those teachers would probably tell you that off the record. Because if they spoke on the record, there was the threat Vallas would do to them what he did to a muckraking, rabble-rousing teacher named George Schmidt. Another story for another time.

Vallas claimed a higher purpose for his test obsession. Said it was about eradicating “social promotion,” the policy of moving students to the next grade whether or not they have mastered certain writing, reading, or mathematical skills.

Now, I agree there’s a clear downside to routinely advancing kids who aren’t ready. If you do it too much, a diploma loses all meaning.

But Vallas took things to an extreme. He punished students if they tested below their grade level, turning standardized tests into something they’re not intended to be: gatekeepers.

They’re not supposed to be pass-or-fail struggles for survival. They’re supposed to be barometers for teachers and parents to figure out what a student needs help with.

But under Vallas, if students weren’t at grade level, they had to go to summer school, where they took classes on how to take the test.

Third, sixth, and eighth graders who didn’t “pass” the test, even after summer school, were held back. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of kids system wide who were held back. 

Vallas was proud of his sternness. He and CPS board president Gery Chico, another Daley appointee, held press conferences, bragging about all the kids who had to take summer school.

They said they were doing it for the kids. “This is not Saigon on top of the U.S. embassy,” Chico told reporters in 1998. “We are not leaving anybody behind.” 

Chico’s alluding to images of helicopters hastily evacuating personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in 1975, as Saigon fell to communist troops.

As always, Vallas and Chico (and Daley) were cheered on by their pom-pom squad in the media. “In the end, students and their parents need to recognize and accept the reality that at some point they have to take a test and pass it,” the Sun-Times editorialized. “If they don’t pass it, they can take it again, until they do.”

One more time—these are not supposed to be pass-or-fail tests.

These were the days before most schools had air conditioning. I remember visiting some of those summer school pass-the-test classes. Kids would be baking in the heat. That’ll teach them to flunk the test!

At the end of the summer, central office flacks would issue press releases proclaiming miraculous results. But their numbers rarely added up. I always thought they were just making this stuff up as they went along.

In 2001, Daley ousted Vallas—most likely for the high crime of getting too much credit from the adoring media, and forgetting he was supposed to give all credit to Daley.

In the aftermath of the Vallas reign, the drop-out rate went as high as 50 percent, proving what teachers tried to tell us: All of that summer school test prep had little to do with actually learning things.

The students were used as props in the Daley/Vallas/Chico dog-and-pony show. Frustrated by their failure, embarrassed by being one or two years behind their peers, many dropped out. 

By then, of course, Vallas had, to use Chico’s metaphor, safely helicoptered himself out of town to run schools in Philly and New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Under future superintendents, CPS basically went back to social promotion. At least, they dropped the heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing. And the dropout rate declined, for which the press gave much credit to Mayor Emanuel.

That’s how it goes in CPS. Teachers do the work, mayors get the credit.

Look, want to help kids who don’t take to reading, writing, or math? Expand vocational courses. Lower class size. Give them one-on-one tutoring. But don’t pack them into sweltering classrooms for test prep and say you’re doing them a favor.

Vallas maintained his love for high-stakes testing in that nutty interview he gave Wirepoints—you know, the one in which he suggested critical race theory was responsible for the downfall of white and Black families. So I guess he’ll bring it back if he’s elected.

Look, Chicago, if you feel an urge to elect this MAGA man as your mayor, knock yourself out.

But don’t pretend you’re doing it for the kids. High-stakes testing is as much a waste of time today as it was back in 2001, when Vallas hopped on his metaphorical helicopter and left behind a generation of students to fend for themselves.

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