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Paul Vallas Speaks Out on Detroit Schools

Reinventing a Troubled District

In April 2009, Paul Vallas, superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District, spoke with associate editor Don Parker-Burgard about Detroit Public Schools, what it takes to transform a district in decline, and the best use of federal stimulus money. Here are excerpts of what he had to say.

The hurdles that Detroit Public Schools is facing seem overwhelming. How can administrators begin to get a handle on things?

When you have a district that is continually losing population, it’s almost impossible to stabilize that district and to implement any serious kind of comprehensive reforms that follow the traditional patterns of reform. You’re constantly losing population, and you’re constantly losing state money. And what happens in typical governmental agencies is you lose your population first, you lose your money first, and your adjustment in your expenditures always kind of lags a year or two behind the loss in revenues. And so you find yourself going into greater and greater debt. So you have these compounded deficits that continue to grow, further impeding your ability to stabilize the district and to reform the district. Bureaucracies always shrink slower than the revenue pace. And when you’re losing population, and when schools are closing because of underpopulation, the decline in your central bureaucracy always lags behind.

Now let me give you a case in point in New Orleans. The Recovery School District controls all of the failing schools in the city of New Orleans, as well as 40 failing schools outside the city. Technically, by law, we’re supposed to take control of all of the state’s failing schools. If that were the case, I’d probably have 300 or 400--and I’d demand that they pay me by the school [laughs]. The old Orleans Parish School Board, which directly runs five schools and then has 12 charters, still has 121 central office employees. They have a central office that is about half the size it was when the district had 70,000 kids. And even that central office was built at a time when the district had 100,000 people. Imagine five schools with a central office of 120-125 people. That’s one administrator for every 30 students. Some urban districts would love a class size like that, with teachers.

How big is your central office now?

Our central office in this year’s budget will equal about 1 percent of our budget. We’ll have about 60 people in the central office—no fewer than 60, no more than 70. That’s total, for a district of a little over 70 schools. So, technically, it’s like you have one central office employee for every school. That’s a pretty small district.

What happens when you have a district that is continually losing population and in turn continually losing money? How do you implement reforms, take them to scale, and then sustain those reforms? You cannot straighten out your finances, balance your budgets, reprogram dollars the traditional way. It’s not like you can say, “We’re going to address this problem of declining resources by consolidating this agency or streamlining this agency or freezing hiring or freezing pay and compensation or freezing step increases or whatever, or consolidating this school and that school. You just can’t do it, because you can’t do it fast enough. And what happens is, by doing it that way, you take an administrative structure that is already convoluted and you make it even more convoluted.

So where do you begin?

You literally have to start from scratch. You’ve got to do zero-based budgeting in its purest form. You’ve got to sit back and you’ve got to say, “What type of school district do we want to create? And what type of individual schools do we want to have in that district?” A lot of what happens at the central office is dependent on the character of your individual schools. We can have a very small central office because over half of our schools are charters and I’ve just converted four more to charters and the five new schools we’re opening, because about 40 percent of the district’s schools that existed prior to the hurricane will not reopen and will never reopen, because we just don’t have the population to sustain it. This system had an infrastructure for 120,000 kids and we had 67,000 before the hurricane. After the hurricane, we’ll probably bottom out at about 45,000. So the bottom line is, anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the buildings, the schools, will be landbagged, they’ll be mothballed, they’ll be torn down, they’ll just never reopen.

What does this mean for the central office?

A lot of what you do with the central office will depend upon the makeup of your schools. If you’re predominantly a charter and independent school district, as New Orleans is and will become in the coming years, then the roles and responsibilities of the central office significantly change. But the point here is that just as you need to identify what you want your K8 schools to look like and your high schools to look like and then budget accordingly, and not go back and say, “You know, this is how much we spent on individual schools last year and this is how much we’re going to spend this year. We’re going to reduce spending by 10 percent.” No, you don’t do that. Instead you say, “What is our K8 model?” In New Orleans, in our direct-run schools, we use the KIPP model. Our schools are either what we call our version of KIPP, our direct-run schools, or they’re charter schools, many of which are, in effect, KIPP.

I inherited a budget that had to be reduced over a two-year period by about 40-45 percent. In other words, about 40-45 percent of the budget I inherited two years ago was based on one-time federal revenue, temporary federal revenue that was eventually going to dry up. I had part of one budget year that of course I parachuted into, and then two budget years that I controlled to, in effect, bring expenditures in line with finances. In May I’ll submit a budget to the state board that, first of all, pays off all of our old bills, is structurally balanced, and of course will sustain our high school redesign and our core reforms. And what are the core reforms? We’re predominantly a charter and independent school district--overwhelmingly. Our K8 model is characterized by 1:25 teacher-student ratios. It’s also characterized by an eight-and-a-half-hour school day--8:00 to 4:30--and an 11-month school year—first week of August till the last week of June--almost an 11-month school year. Our high schools, relatively small high schools--the system is a system of choice. Even the direct-run schools have a lot of charterlike autonomy. They’re charters in everything but name only. So all of our core reforms have been implemented. The central office will be approximately 1 percent of the district’s overall budget.

We're predominantly a charter and independent school district. The central office will be approximately 1 percent of the district's overall budget in the next year.

What would it mean for Detroit Public Schools to “start from scratch”?

I think Detroit has to kick back and they have to say, “What do we want the local schools to look like? We need to become a system of schools as opposed to a school system--a system of independent, charterlike schools governed by a strong, centralized accountability system.” So what you have is you don’t have command and control, but you have strong accountability. If they do that, first of all, it gives you a lot of flexibility because it makes it easier to close schools or to consolidate schools or to allow schools to phase out because of the declining enrollment. And because you’re giving people broad choices, the closing of the schools is less impacted on the family, because people are choosing, people are going to look toward the better-performing schools and they’re perhaps going to gravitate toward schools that have more stability in terms of population and demographics.

Of course, when you have that type of a system, it doesn’t necessitate this--well, not that you needed it even when you had the larger system--this large, humungous central office that was designed to support the school system of yesteryear. Your central office reflects the nature of the individual local schools, and if these are charter and independent schools, the need to have this large central office is diminished--not that you couldn’t have cut the central office even if these were direct-run schools. But I think it allows you to bring a lot of economies to scale while at the same time not sacrificing efficiency. Plus, using that approach allows you to go out and to bring in and to replicate some of the top best-practice models for elementary schools and high schools.

I think Detroit has to kick back and they have to say, "What do we want the local schools to look like? We need to become a system of schools as opposed to a school system.

How will this approach prepare Detroit Public Schools for the future?

You’re going to be strengthening local schools and you’re going to be establishing a financial template that is workable, because you’re going to have the flexibility. As the population declines, more schools will close, but it’ll be less you going in and closing them and more their kind of phasing out on their own, because the population has mobility, the population has choices, the population is going to—you have school competition--the population is going to gravitate toward those schools that are stable and that are performing. And then you have a very light, nonintrusive central office that focuses on what I call “seed, feed, and weed”--“seed” meaning you incubate new school proposals, you bring the best-practice models in. “Feed” means you support these schools, you provide them with kind of the minimum supports. If they need transportation support, then you can provide it. If they need food support, you have contracts with providers who can go in and provide them with the food support. A lot of schools will negotiate those things on their own. And then, of course, “weed” is you go in and if the schools are underperforming, you reconstitute them, or you restructure them, or you put them under new leadership.

How do you think Detroit Public Schools should use its stimulus money?

You clearly don’t want to use the stimulus money to balance your budgets. You don’t want to use the stimulus money to finance school operations. If you do that, you’re only going to intensify the problem. You’re only going to delay the inevitable, the inevitable reconciliation between revenues and spending. So you really need to identify the one-time stimulus money that’s out there and you need to do it for things that support this model.

What are the types of things that support this model?

The first thing is, you want to use the money to incubate new school proposals. You have a lot of failing schools in Detroit and elsewhere in the state that should be reconstituted and restructured and converted into charters. Or bring in charter providers to manage those schools. Or, in effect, phasing out the existing schools and phasing in new schools is something you want to do.

The reason that schools like KIPP are very, very successful is not so much that they’re doing things that are unique. They’re not. KIPP is just a series of best practices all kind of laid out in a coordinated strategy for running a K8 school--standardized curriculum, benchmark testing, data-driven instruction, longer school day, longer school year, intensive interventions. That’s KIPP, lock, stock and barrel. They do a lot of cultural things too. But what makes that successful is they incubate a leadership team for a year, sometimes two years, before they start their school. So you already have an incredibly strong and well-trained and coordinated leadership team moving into that school. And then, of course, they’re able to site-select their teachers and their support staff. So they’re selecting the best and the brightest, they’re hiring and promoting based on merit, and they have an incredibly strong leadership team. And then they have all the best practices, and then they have a lot of startup money too. That’s why they’re successful.

The stimulus money could be used the same way. The stimulus money could be used to incubate, to bring in new school providers, charter school providers, selecting the best charter school providers out there and incubating those schools and providing the startup money needed to get those schools up and running. And you can either talk about new schools, or schools that you would close and reopen, or schools that you would convert, because many of the schools in New Orleans we’re actually converting to charters--same kids, only different leadership. That’s number one.

Number two, and this is indirectly related to number one--but, nevertheless, you’re still going to have a lot of direct-run schools--is going in and retraining your workforce. You develop a curriculum for those schools that you continue to directly run, you develop a comprehensive curriculum and instructional plan for your K8 schools. You lay out a school plan that not only includes the selection of the right curriculum and instructional models, the establishment of what I refer to as a management instructional system, but also has a model for school climate management, has a model for conflict resolution, has a model for the most effective use of your instructional time on tasks.

So you have your model, and you provide people with intensive training on that model. So you bring in your principals. You form school leadership teams, and you train them on the implementation of the model, and then you bring the faculty in and train them on how to use the curriculum and instructional materials, how to do conflict resolution, how to do RtI.

You have a lot of failing schools in Detroit and elsewhere in the state that should be reconstituted and restructured and converted into charters.

Once you’ve done that, and you’ve done that intensively, then the cost of maintaining that training does not compare with the initial money that you spent. You can work the cost of retraining into your normal budget by using that money one time.

The third thing is to invest in an instructional management system that selects the best curriculum and instructional models based on the data, that has benchmark testing, and that uses data to help support instruction. And that, in many respects, is a one-time expenditure. It’s a one-time large expenditure. But once you’ve invested in your instructional management system, the cost of maintaining that system is significantly less than the initial investment.

But what you’ve done is created a comprehensive, soup-to-nuts K-8 and 9-12 instructional management system, and it’s going to require the purchase of new curriculum and instructional materials. It’s going to require the purchase and deployment of a data management system. It’s going to require establishing a benchmarking system so that you can not only evaluate student progress, but you can also evaluate teacher progress. Benchmark testing allows you to monitor the success the teacher is having with that student population. And for the students, benchmark testing and having a data management system and instructional management system that’s based on data allows you to determine what interventions you need to have for those students who are struggling.

The fourth thing you need to spend your money on, I think, is classroom modernization. The cost of modernizing classrooms is usually anywhere between 5 and 10 percent of the cost of building a new building or doing massive renovations to the new building. SMART boards, laptops, Promethean boards--classroom modernization can enhance the delivery of quality instruction and provide all sorts of instructional supports. Here in New Orleans, 30 percent of our population are still in modular units on modular campuses. Yet all of our classrooms are modernized. All of our classrooms have Scholastic libraries and Promethean boards; we have laptop computers and Read 180 workstations. You can create a classroom environment based on the quality of your managed instructional system and based on the resources you put in that classroom that is equal if not superior to the classroom environment of the more affluent suburbs. Those are one-time investments that can have long-term benefits.

Once you've invested in your instructional management system, the cost of maintaining that system is significantly less than the initial investment.

How are you going to use the stimulus money your district will be receiving?

What I’ve told my team is, the money we are getting through Title I and IDEA we should try to spread out over a longer period, in hopes that maybe three or four years down the road, we would be able to see a large enough permanent increase in state funding and perhaps a permanent increase in Title I money at the federal level to in effect allow us to sustain the additional spending--that we use the increased IDEA and Title I money to engage in.

So what would I use that money for? I’m focusing that money on expanded early childhood. Because we have a longer school day and a longer school year, I’m focusing that money on Saturday schools and the one month that we have that the schools are not open--we have a series of academic enrichment camps. I’m focusing that money on getting highly trained paraprofessionals recruited from among university graduate and undergraduate schools.

When you have a comprehensive managed instructional system, you can take somebody off a college campus who’s an education major or in graduate school and you can put them in that instructional management system, and they can be as effective as any first-year teacher. So when you put that second person in the classroom they can be of extraordinary assistance to that teacher. In Response to Intervention, kids are broken into various groups based on their performance levels. You may have eighth-graders who are at three different performance levels. You may have some who are at grade level, some who are one or two years behind, and then you may have some eighth-graders who are three or four years behind.

Here in New Orleans, 30 percent of our population are still in modular units on modular campuses. Yet all of our classrooms are modernized.

To do Read 180 interventions or Fast ForWord interventions, you don’t necessarily need a trained teacher to do that. A highly trained paraprofessional can do it quite well. A well-trained parent can provide those interventions effectively.

What about using the stimulus money for operational purposes?

If you have to use the money for operational purposes, anything that can help you extend the day or extend the year is something that you may want to use the money for. Or, for that matter, implementing a TAP program, which is often seen as a pay-for-performance program, but TAP creates leadership teams in the schools, from principals and assistant principals to curriculum coordinators to coaches. It’s almost like a pyramid. You have the principal or assistant principal or academic leader on top, you have your various math, literacy and science coordinators, and then you have your next group, which is your coaches—your coaches and teacher mentors. People move into that hierarchy based upon performance, and they get additional compensation for the coaching, or in the case of the instructional coordinators, the coordinating that they do.

Now TAP also provides financial rewards to schools that show big improvements in test scores. It’s also a pay-for-performance program. But even if the pay-for-performance money dried up, you would still have created a system within the school of building leadership teams and promoting people into those positions of leadership based on merit, which would have a lasting benefit long after the pay-for-performance money dried up.

Using some of the money to establish a districtwide TAP program or to subsidize schools that were implementing the TAP program would also be a very smart move. Let me point out that the federal government funds TAP every year. They’re competitive grants, so obviously there’s other TAP money that you can secure in the out years when your stimulus money dried up.

To do Read 180 interventions or Fast ForWord interventions, you don't necessarily need a trained teacher to do that. A highly trained paraprofessional can do it quite well.

Restructuring and reorganizing is what you don’t want to do. Completely reinventing the district—I think there’s an opportunity to do that, given the present circumstances in Detroit and also given the abundance of resources--albeit temporary--that they’re going to be provided through the stimulus package.

Any final words of advice for Detroit Public Schools?

Those budget holes can be closed if you follow the prescription that I laid out. And what can emerge is a much better school system. Governments go bankrupt too. Governments become so irrelevant and so poorly organized. They become institutional impediments. And they become financially bankrupt. So I think sometimes it’s time to declare bankruptcy, reorganize, and start anew. And I think that’s what they have to do. That’s what they’ve done in New Orleans, that’s what they need to do in Detroit and a number of other cities, as painful as it is--and then, obviously, to provide some sort of a cushion to help people transition to other forms of work.

You can do this. You can’t do it through conventional means. You have to step back and ask yourself, “What type of school district do we want to create?” and then start building accordingly. The stimulus package will give them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do just that. If they use $100 to $200 million of that money to plug a big budget hole, they might as well take the money to an incinerator. One-time money needs to be spent in a way that will have a lasting benefit. One-time money is precious. Two or three years from now when the federal government is reeling under multiple years of trillion-dollar deficits, out of necessity they’re going to be financially retrenching. So bank this money and use it to reinvent the district, not to perpetuate the status quo.