Veteran Superintendent Paul Vallas is onto the next big thing.
Vallas, who has led turnaround efforts in major urban districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, has started a new venture that he expects will broaden his reach and extend the reform movement. The Vallas Group, headed by Vallas, now interim superintendent of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Schools, is partnering with Dallas-based Cambium Learning Group to bring his school improvement model to more schools in more districts, a seemingly welcome idea for school leaders who might need some direction. With experience on projects in Haiti and Chile, Vallas may even bring his model to other countries, as well.
“I’m motivated to gravitate toward those school systems that are the most troubled, because that’s where I believe I can have my greatest impact, do the greatest good,” Vallas said when the partnership was announced in June.
Paul Pastorek was the Louisiana state superintendent of education when he hired Vallas in 2007 to lead the New Orleans Recovery School District two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. “He is the real deal,” says Pastorek, now chief administrative officer, chief counsel and corporate secretary of EADS North American, an aerospace and defense contractor. “He is unflappable when presented with a problem and he always has a solution for it, and more often than not, his solutions work.”
Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says, [Vallas] “does the unexpected. He tries new things. He is probably one of the better-known non-traditional superintendents, if not the best known. He has a track record of controversy to some extent, but also successes.” Vallas’ partnership with Cambium is “a bit different” for a superintendent, continues Domenech, but “if it works, that’s all that matters in the final analysis.”
More Than Academics
The Vallas reform model includes not just improving academic performance, as other turnaround systems do, but also stabilizing districts by balancing their budgets and reorganizing their administrations. “We are committed to affordable change,” Vallas says. “You will be amazed at the efficiencies and cost savings you can bring to a district.”
Other reform models also have come from big-name school CEOs. Rudy Crew, the former New York City Schools chancellor, ran Global Partnership Schools, a private New York-based consulting firm with former Rochester (N.Y.) Schools District Superintendent Manny Rivera. Before Vallas started in Bridgeport, the district signed a contract with Global to try to turn around Harding High School, which was one of 14 struggling Connecticut schools to receive U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grants (SIGs). According to The Connecticut Mirror, Harding was the only one of the 14 to choose to “restart,” one of four models prescribed by DOE, and that model required hiring an outside contractor to restructure the school. As reported by the Connecticut Post, Vallas stated in April that Global will not be back next year, although “we are still working all of that out.” Meanwhile, Crew was appointed in May by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber as the state’s first chief education officer.
Vallas cites his own experience in Bridgeport, where he says it took about 90 days to “reconstitute” the central office, which is now about 35 percent smaller through attrition, retirement, transfer of resources to local schools, and transfer and consolidation of some services to/from the city of Bridgeport. Incumbent superintendents should welcome his model, he continues, without necessarily fearing that it will cause them to lose their jobs or that their districts will be taken over by local mayors. “It’s designed to assist and support superintendents” by providing “research-based, proven tools to fix whatever is broken,” Vallas says. “We emphasize that we come in to support, not to displace, and we certainly are not coming in permanently. Our goal is to train local leadership on how to drive instruction, use data and manage district finances. It’s about supporting and building local capacity.” Vallas does not identify members of his “large and growing” group, but says they are “prominent educators, administrators, finance and operational people” with whom he has worked. He will invite group members to join transition teams to go into a district quickly and, within a short time, as in Bridgeport, come up with academic, financial and organizational plans to transform the district.
He linked with Cambium for the infrastructure it could provide for Vallas and his team, including office space at Cambium’s Dallas headquarters whenever projects or collaboration bring them there, as well as legal, human resources, finance, RFP/grant-writing services, and various other support and resources as needed. Another advantage of the partnership is “the independence to decide which projects to take and determine what degree of involvement we would bring to these projects,” Vallas says. He adds that Cambium has the reputation and associations he was looking for and, like him, is interested in the results of its efforts. He will be involved personally in larger, district-wide projects that call for major reform while he continues to work in Bridgeport, at least until his contract there expires in late December. Meanwhile, he can take on other projects.
Vernon Johnson, president of Cambium’s intervention division, Voyager Learning, says that potential turnaround targets include districts identified by federal and state education departments as being in trouble. He expects the Cambium-Vallas partnership to respond to various districts’ requests for proposals and to otherwise talk to superintendents about what it can to do improve their districts. He adds that the Vallas model is designed so that districts with tight budgets can afford it by using federal, state, local and special education funds, or “other funds they might already have.”
Beyond Educational Skills
Vallas came into district leadership from an unusual direction for a superintendent. Not trained as an educator, he was budget director for the city of Chicago, where he closed a $125 billion shortfall and increased city revenues before Mayor Richard Daley appointed him as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995.
Prior to the post, he was the city’s revenue director, executive director of the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission, and a policy advisor to the Illinois State Senate. After resigning from the Chicago school job in 2001, he ran for governor of Illinois in 2002, narrowly losing in the Democratic primary. He considered running for governor again in 2006 and 2010 but stayed in education instead.
Vallas resigned from the Chicago schools post and took the CEO position in the School District of Philadelphia in 2002. While he was credited with implementing reforms there similar to the ones he instituted in Chicago, he left the Philadelphia job with “a sour taste and a big deficit,” according to a 2008 article in Education Next, which stated that “his endless array of new programs and initiatives exhausted not only those around him, but the district’s available resources as well.” In 2007, he was hired to essentially pull the New Orleans Recovery School District out of post-Katrina chaos. Then in December 2011, he went to Bridgeport.
Vallas, a Chicago native, appears to be planning a return to his home state in his school turnaround consulting role. The Illinois State Board of Education gave preliminary approval in May to a contract of nearly $1 million to the Vallas Group to work on “coordination of interventions” in low-performing school districts. Vallas stated in mid-June: “We have not signed a contract as of yet, but it is our understanding that we would be asked to come in to support the superintendents in two very poor districts in Illinois that, for years, have been struggling to provide the quality of education that all students deserve. We are putting together a team of distinguished Illinois educators who have the skills and experience to assist in the transformation that the Illinois State Board of Education expects to achieve. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to make a difference again in my home state, and of course it will be great to spend some time working in close proximity to family and friends.”
Nationally, turnaround initiatives appear to be having mixed results. In the Chicago Public Schools, the lowest-performing elementary schools have been closing the gap in test scores by almost half in reading and two-thirds in math, according to “Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago,” a report issued in February by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
The report cites “five distinct reforms” that CPS initiated during Vallas’ tenure there “that aim to dramatically improve low-performing schools in a short time.” But it makes clear that the results it reported were found four years after the reforms began. “The improvements took time to develop; test scores were not significantly better in the first year of reform, but grew larger over time,” the Consortium on Chicago School Research report states. In Washington state, nine school districts failed to make aggressive reforms in the first year of a federal SIG program for which they will receive more than $50 million over three years, researchers from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education concluded in a report released in March, “Tinkering Toward Transformation: A Look at Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation.”
But some educators who have worked with Vallas say he has been significantly effective in leading turnaround initiatives. In his tenure in Philadelphia, the number of students proficient in mathematics grew from about 20 percent to 37 percent over five years—“a pretty dramatic improvement”—reports Kenneth K. Wong, a professor of education at Brown University, where he is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair for Education Policy and director of the Urban Education Policy Program. Wong was teaching at the University of Chicago and served on an independent panel studying reform initiatives in the Chicago district when Vallas was the CEO there. When Vallas moved to Philadelphia and later to New Orleans, he invited Wong to serve in research and advisory roles in those districts.
Pastorek says he also met Vallas in Chicago and followed his “great track record” there and in Philadelphia. Bringing him to New Orleans was “larger than life for me,” says Pastorek. He recalls that about 25 percent of students—“a horrendously low level”—were at grade level in New Orleans before Katrina and the number grew to 50 percent after four years under Vallas’ leadership. “It was the largest gain in the state and more dramatic than you can imagine and he did it with the greatest of ease,” Pastorek asserts.
Keys to Success
Wong is quick to explain how Vallas separates himself from other reform leaders. “What separated him from a lot of urban school superintendents is that he not only focused on moving the average achievement levels, he also tried to empower and make sure the lowest-performing schools would be able to reduce the achievement gap,” Wong says. “He thinks about how to strategically leverage some of the resources and leadership of an entire district to ensure that the achievement gap is narrowed.”
Pastorek adds that he believes the keys to Vallas’s success in turning around troubled districts include strong professional development for teachers and giving school principals “a wide degree of latitude” to manage their buildings, including finances. “He brings a strategy and also his skills to a district, as well as his unflappable nature,” Pastorek declares. Vallas has other assets, Wong continues, including his pre-education experience in Illinois, where he often worked on issues in the state legislature.
“He understands the importance of mobilizing stakeholders with diverse and competing interests to come to agreement on an issue. In that respect, he brings an unusual skill set to the superintendent’s office. In the different systems where I observed him, I didn’t hear any conversation about teacher strikes, for example,” Wong says. “He is good at managing a complex situation and making the process more apparent to all its stakeholders. His leadership skill and style are to look at all the data and be transparent.”
Results in a Year
Vallas says that his turnaround model with Cambium will be able to produce significant and sustainable results in a district within a year.
What distinguishes it from other reform approaches is that it not only shows district leaders the educational strategies and programs that they need to improve academic performance, says Vallas, but also, it reveals how to “organize and implement the programs and prioritize their finances so that they can fund the programs and financially sustain them long-term.” DA