Finance

The Impatience of Paul Vallas

Philadelphia's school superintendent is brimming with ideas about how to improve things, and he's trying all of them at once.
by | September 2005

Paul Vallas runs into a slight delay on his way to the William D. Kelley School in North Philadelphia. One of the neighboring streets has been blocked off with crime tape and squad cars. "There must have been a shooting," Vallas says calmly. After nine years as a big-city school superintendent, first in Chicago and now in Philadelphia, Vallas knows exactly what a crime scene looks like. He also knows more about school violence than he would wish to. During just one week this past April, three Philadelphia students were killed, and two others were shot. Nineteen were stuck with a needle by a third grader.

It's not only the danger that Vallas hates, it's the way so many of Philadelphia's schools look: like dark and ugly penal colonies, small fortresses of concrete and brick with windows that no one can see through. He wonders whether there's a connection between the brutality of the schools' appearance and the brutality that often takes place within them. That's why he's come to Kelley School on this June morning to celebrate a new mural that's been painted on the north wall, a colorful depiction of several current students surrounded by basketballs, comets and books. Kelley is one of 17 schools where Vallas commissioned murals in the past year.

He wants to change the interior of the buildings as well. During a lull in the day's dedication ceremony--the stereo keeps shutting off mysteriously in the middle of a student dance routine--Vallas steps inside the school to check on new lighting and a brighter paint job he ordered. Vallas believes crummy conditions foster not only incivility but low academic expectations. "The schools should be the most impressive buildings in the community," he says, "not the most run- down."

Vallas' plans aren't about modest touch-ups. All told, he plans to spend close to $2 billion sprucing up the Philadelphia school system's physical plant. Some of the physical changes will have important pedagogical consequences. Before he's through, Vallas will have broken up 38 large high schools into 66 small- to medium-sized campuses and all but eliminated middle schools, mixing the junior high kids back into K-8 settings. He has grand visions for classrooms crammed with the latest technology, including laptops and "smartboards" that can be written on like regular white boards but double as big-screen computers loaded with teaching tools.

Paul Vallas is very much an individualist when it comes to educational thinking, but he is also part of a trend, one of a new generation of urban superintendents who are trying to put school districts themselves at the center of educational planning and strategy. The 1980s and part of the '90s were dominated by the idea of decentralization, of devolving power to the individual school site, its principal, teachers and parents. Vallas and his peers are moving power back to the home office, not only redesigning the buildings but imposing standardized curricula and trying to control teacher assignments so that the worst schools aren't dumping grounds for those with the least seniority.

Vallas, who is 52 years old, typifies the current high-profile superintendents in another way: He isn't a professional educator. A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley's control. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002, he was available later that year when Pennsylvania, which had assumed control of Philadelphia's schools, needed someone to run them.

"Non-traditional" superintendents have been a familiar story in public education for quite a while now. During the 1990s, there were brief periods in which big cities seemed enamored of former military officers and retired corporate executives as CEOs for their school systems. The more recent trends have been a little different, but equally unconventional. Roy Romer, the former governor of Colorado, is the school superintendent in Los Angeles. Joel Klein, who became famous prosecuting Microsoft Corp. on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department, is in charge in New York City.

The argument in favor of non-traditional leadership has been that managerial experience is more important to running a school system than educational background. Not only do the superintendents often supervise as large a workforce and nearly as big a budget as the cities themselves command, but they perform many functions beyond educating children, not least figuring out how to transport and feed them. "It's like running Greyhound and Applebee's on the same day and then also having to deliver the instruction," says Andrew Rotherham, of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Many of the new superintendents, not being educators by training, tend to focus on budget and management concerns, leaving the details of academic planning to others. In quite a few cases, the dominant management concern has involved relations with the local teachers unions. Romer and Klein, both Democrats with no record of animosity to labor, are not alone in struggling with the unions as part of their effort to bring changes into the schools.

Vallas is a little different in that respect. He has enjoyed consistently good relations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers--despite the fact that he's overseeing the biggest privatization effort in any district in the country. The William D. Kelley School is one of 22 in Philadelphia now run by Edison Schools Inc., a private, profit-driven organization, and a similar number of other schools are being managed by other private companies, nonprofits or local universities. The Philadelphia district spends some $80 million a year paying outside entities to run schools (including disciplinary facilities), design curricula and provide expertise in professional development.

However innovative Vallas may prove to be in other ways, the public- private partnerships are likely to determine his ultimate reputation. "What we're seeing," says Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C., "is the early stages of a revolution in public education. Vallas has forced the Philadelphia education community to rethink the status quo and question the effectiveness for kids of a system built around rules and regulations designed to protect adults."

A TALL CHALLENGE

The grim reality is that urban school districts are still a mess everywhere. Even those hailed as successful in the past few years are at best a mixed bag. In Philadelphia, Vallas aims to have 80 percent of the high school students scoring at grade level on standardized tests within the next few years. He brags that in three years on the job, he's already lifted the percentage to the mid-40s from the low 20s. But that means that more than half the high school students-- among those who haven't dropped out--still aren't reaching a minimum threshold of achievement.

Even so, those who watch the Philadelphia schools seem to agree that Vallas has shifted the question from whether they can ever hope to get better to how long real progress might take. "It would be hard to argue that things haven't improved in Philadelphia," says Kent McGuire, dean of education at Temple University. "That's simply not the case." Vallas' moves have won praise virtually across the board, from Republican state legislators pushing hard for school privatization to city activists who can't stand that part of his program. "I don't remember a superintendent ever being on a honeymoon for three years," says Ted Kirsch, the local union president.

Vallas is tall--at 6' 5 1/2", he was still the runt in his family-- and charismatic in a wonky sort of way, spraying ideas and statistics with startling rapidity. He'll never use one example to illustrate a point when eight are handy. But his experience in politics--including the better part of a year spent campaigning for governor--shows in the way he interacts with teachers and parents as he makes his stops around the city. He puts them at ease like an old pol, cracking quick jokes and swapping updates on common acquaintances before handing them a little spiral notebook and asking them to jot down complaints or problems in it. Vallas almost seems more at ease with school kids and strangers than with members of his staff, who sometimes flinch perceptibly when he compliments them, taking his kind words as preludes to bigger work assignments.

Vallas does create a lot of work for everyone around him, but that's because there's so much to do. Before he arrived in Philadelphia, the state had essentially placed the whole system in receivership. Fewer than half the city's students could demonstrate basic competency on state reading and math tests, and the district was running a $100 million operating deficit. Vallas took the Philadelphia job, he says, knowing he would be allowed a relatively short time to turn around a system that had long been one of the most troubled in the country.

Big-city superintendents are like professional football coaches, hired and fired repeatedly as they move from town to town. In the largest urban school systems, three years is considered a long tenure. Not only are the problems enormous, but public and political patience for tackling them runs out quickly. At any given moment, many cities seem to have two superintendents--one just arriving and one preparing to leave. "Nobody has been able to sustain meaningful change to the point that it completely turns around the school system," says Joe Williams, author of a new book about reform efforts in Milwaukee. "It hasn't happened anywhere."

Vallas lasted for six years in Chicago, starting from a base of very poor academic performance and financial chaos--the previous administration had trouble finding money for toilet paper--and managing to achieve some tangible results. Not only did he balance a budget that had been $150 million out of whack, but he presided over a period of consistently rising test scores. By the end of his tenure in Chicago, more 8th graders than 3rd graders were meeting national norms--meaning students were performing better the longer they were in the system. Even so, Vallas found himself under fire because the scores weren't rising fast enough, and Daley eventually decided to replace him.

Six years in Chicago was a tenure that beat the odds; lasting that long in Philadelphia didn't look anything like a safe bet. When Vallas arrived, therefore, it was with the feeling that he had little choice but to innovate on a wide number of fronts at the same time. He's imposed stricter discipline enforcement and assigned the most unruly kids to alternative facilities, a strategy that has reduced by half the number of Philadelphia schools considered "persistently dangerous" by federal standards. More positively, Vallas is expanding the number of children who receive early childhood instruction by about 50 percent, lowering the shelf life of textbooks down to three years, pioneering the idea of a standardized curriculum for high schools, bringing advanced placement and college preparatory classes to every high school--"even where the students don't think they're going to college," he insists--and pursuing the structural reorganization of virtually every middle and high school in the city. All that on top of big changes in finance, human resources, capital planning and technology.

"Day-to-day management is my transcendental meditation," says Vallas, who balked when his wife tried to schedule a two-week vacation for him this summer.

VENDOR BENDER

What makes Vallas' juggling act possible is his unparalleled use of entities outside the district. The University of Pennsylvania is running a school; so are Temple and St. Joseph's universities. Six of the district's seven disciplinary schools are being run by private firms. Kaplan Inc., the private testing company, is designing a citywide uniform high school curriculum that would be the only one in the country. Philadelphia has become the nation's leading proving ground for the new education industry that has emerged in recent years, with many companies betting that if they can make improvements in such a difficult district, the job of selling their wares elsewhere will be a snap.

Vallas feels he's simply taking advantage of a range of expertise- for-hire that didn't exist 20 years ago. He says that when any relationship with a private contractor has served its purpose, he can end it or scale it back, and thus has greater flexibility than if he had tried to launch the same experiments in-house. "If I had built up the internal capacity to institute these curriculum reforms," he says, "it would have been much harder and much more painful for me to suddenly begin to downsize these departments or lay off these individuals that I had hired or recruited from the schools."

The heavy use of private companies is one of the few major points of dispute between Vallas and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "I don't think any of these outside companies has expertise that doesn't exist inside the system," says PFT President Kirsch. But the increased public acceptance of so many outside vendors is a testament to at least partial success. Of the 20 schools that Edison has been running, for instance, only one had previously achieved "adequate yearly progress"--the key measure in school performance under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But a dozen schools have reached this threshold under Edison's management.

Back in 2001, when the state first took over the district and officials from the governor on down were talking about handing over control of the whole school system to Edison, hundreds of protesters staged demonstrations that blocked rush hour traffic in downtown Philadelphia on several occasions. But although there were some initial public relations and finance problems with the Edison partnership, the company's recent performance has quieted complaints. Last spring, when Vallas announced that Edison would be managing two more schools, there was nary a peep. "The sky didn't fall," concedes Shelly Yanoff, of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, who helped organize the opposition to the company's initial contract.

Yanoff still complains that things are comparatively easy for Edison, since it receives $750 more per pupil than the allowance that district-run schools are given to educate them. Some critics jibe that the informal slogan of private vendors ought to be changed from "we can do it better for less" to "we can do it better for more." But Vallas tries to be tough on the vendors, insisting on contracts that are easy for the school district to get out of when companies don't live up to their promises. He dumped Chancellor Beacon, a for-profit company that had been managing several schools, in 2003.

A BIGGER TOOLBOX

If Vallas has been smart in his dealings with the companies he chooses, he's also been sly in his handling of the interests he has to live with. Vallas and Kirsch enjoy unusually good relations for a Philadelphia superintendent and union chief. When the two first met, a lunch meeting turned into a five-hour conversation. They have remained in constant contact ever since and keep their disputes out of the papers. And Kirsch's union has embraced most of Vallas' agenda, from standardized curriculum to modernized classrooms. "He understands," Kirsch says, "that if you really want to make institutional change you have to have the union on board."

While cultivating Kirsch and the teachers, Vallas has been assiduous in lobbying the legislature in Harrisburg, and successful both at squeezing out more money and avoiding public complaint. "We did give him a bigger toolbox of things he could do," says Representative John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican and speaker of the state House. "It allowed him a whole lot more flexibility than you can find anywhere around the country."

The Philadelphia schools have won big grants from national corporations, and Microsoft is building a showcase technology high school in Fairmount Park. Vallas has leaned on the local businesses in virtually every way he could think of, persuading them to donate batteries and sneakers, sponsor after-school chess clubs and propose new business and engineering curricula. The superintendent brags that even his tailor approached him about running a mentoring program at a school. "You had years and years and years where everybody in the community felt that a lot of money went down the tubes and there was a lack of vision," says Ron Wilson, president of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Philadelphia. "With Vallas, there's more optimism."

Whatever effect all this buy-in might ultimately have on the school system, it has had an important effect on the political standing of the superintendent. Backing from the universities, businesses and other community interests means that their prestige is also on the line and the usual syndrome of laying all blame at the superintendent's door is less likely to occur. Vallas, in other words, has spread the risk. And, in contrast with the usual dynamic where one superintendent's changes are the first thing a successor will look to undo, many of Vallas' fixes will in fact be tough to reverse. A future superintendent might conceivably try to rid the district of Edison and some of the other outside management, but it is unlikely that any of them will reconsolidate the high schools or bring back middle schools.

Nothing Vallas does, of course, guarantees that his successors will put much stock in beautifying the prison-like school buildings that remain, but Vallas hopes this will happen as well. One thing is certain, he says. "I'll never live long enough or have enough money to fix all of them."

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