In a furious letter to the editor challenging our June stories on dropouts, Paul Vallas contends that Catalyst is biased against his administration and keeps trying to “defend the discredited policies of the past…” How quickly he forgets.

Catalyst, From the Editor, December 1996: “Paul Vallas is a phenomenon. In his first year as chief executive officer … he personally did more good for kids than whole administrations did in the past.”

June 1997: “Congratulations are due all around for the continuing rise in tests scores in the elementary grades and an upturn in high schools. The kids, teachers and principals did the work. But the Reform Board and administration made them do it or at least made them do it harder.”

March 1999: “The School Reform Board and the administration deserve enormous credit for taking low achievers seriously, which means spending serious money on them.”

To be sure, in both its articles and editorials, Catalyst is more critical of School Board policies and administrative actions than the mass news media are. The reason is that, with three full-time writers and a cadre of top-notch freelancers, we have the luxury of spending a lot of time talking to people in schools, visiting schools and tracking down relevant research. What we try to find out is: What’s working, what’s not working, why, what’s needed for improvement, and could the money be better spent elsewhere—basically, the questions that any good superintendent and school board would ask. We also strive to reflect the many, varied “voices of Chicago school reform.” And, we confess, when the School Board’s press releases or public pronouncements go overboard, we’ll try to balance the scales. That’s how we work to fulfill our mission of documenting, analyzing and supporting school improvement efforts in Chicago’s public schools.

We’re not sure what Mr. Vallas has in mind when he accuses us of trying to defend the discredited policies of the past. As we have said in Catalyst and many other forums, the School Reform Act of 1988 was a needed break from past practices and, by 1995, itself needed the revisions that brought more accountability and smarter, stronger central leadership.

Certainly, there’s lots of room for disagreement over the details of local authority, of accountability, of most everything else in education. But it’s hard to get a clear-eyed discussion going on pros and cons, successes and failures when Mr. Vallas challenges the motivations of people who criticize or advocate alternatives, casting them as the enemy. This practice also wastes time and energy all around. Catalyst is not going to take the bait. We’ll continue to focus on issues of school improvement, calling them as we see them. We know that sometimes we’ll get an earful from Mr. Vallas. But we also know that he does not dismiss credible information. For example, over the summer, the School Board closed a CPS alternative high school (Urban Youth) that was a sieve for students transferring out of regular schools—a phenomenon that is at the heart of the 1997-98 increase we reported in the all-school dropout rate.

ABOUT US We are pleased to welcome seven new members to our editorial advisory board: John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education; Gabe Gonzalez, executive director of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation; Robert Keeley, the new principal of Notre Dame High School for Girls and former a vice president at Marquette National Bank; Carol D. Lee, an associate professor at Northwestern University; Bill McMiller, a member of the Community Renewal Society Board and director of Community Mental Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Jane Moy, a teacher LSC representative at Amundsen High School; and Amanda Rivera, principal of Ames Middle School.

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