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Vallas Sets the Pace

Opinionated, impatient and anything but staid. The Philadelphia school leader is shaking up urban ed

You don't have to make it all the way into Paul Vallas' office to find out the personality of the CEO of The School District of Philadelphia.

Just by waiting outside his modest office you can hear Vallas discuss issues, loudly but without yelling, on a number of conference calls. You can see him jump out of his office in shirtsleeves and his ubiquitous black sneakers to ask "What's the fax number here?" You can spot him quickly eye the multitude of people waiting to see him, then advise a pregnant staffer to sit down: "You're with child."

Later, he rushes into the hallway and impatiently pushes the button for the elevator. When it arrives, but is too full to take Vallas and his companions, he briskly waves it away and heads down the stairs.

Vallas is a busy man, one who is sure what he wants to do and how to do it.

And about that fax number? Vallas might not know that, or even his own cell phone number, according to some, but, in the course of a 75-minute interview he accurately rattles off a legion of figures, from how many Philadelphia schools still aren't making AYP (68) to the number of teacher assaults by sixth graders (136) to the percentage of teachers who approved the last contract (93).

" There are no new ideas, only good ideas waiting to be rediscovered. I should say, not even rediscovered, but new ideas waiting to be fi nanced and operationalized."

The 51-year-old leader of the seventh-largest school district in the country is on a roll. He's overseen many sweeping changes during his two years in charge, from ending social promotion to creating 67 K-8 schools. But the best news has been the district's recent progress in the latest Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. Philadelphia bested the state average in five of six categories; the district also tripled its number of schools now meeting NCLB's requirements.

In the following interview, Vallas sprints through a variety of subjects, from No Child and Edison to the next big urban trend and the possibility of him running for mayor of the city of Brotherly Love.

DA: The recent news about you and Philadelphia shows exceptional test scores, national attention for district policies, and even some rumors linking you to higher offices. It occurs to me that this reads like your accomplishments from Chicago, where you ran the school district for five years.

Vallas: Yeah, you know, we had a lot of success [in Chicago]. The fundamental difference between this situation and Chicago in 1995 was a lot of things we did in Chicago were controversial for that time and they're not as controversial now.

DA: Is that simply because it's nine years later?

Vallas: Yes, and reform has evolved. I mean, let's face it, in 1995, they were just starting the debate of whether or not there should be a Department of Education. Then what, five years later, Gore and Bush are running on who can do more for public education. So I think clearly times have changed. Plus, you know, back in 1995, when we mandated afterschool and summer school programs and social promotion and when we blurred it with the concept of a structured curriculum, that was very controversial.

And we always seemed to be the first major district to do those types of things, although, [Rod] Paige had done some of those things in Houston. When we implemented our zero tolerance policy and set up an alternative schools network for destructive youth, that all seemed to have generated controversy. So, the things that I'm doing now have generated much less controversy than they did in 1995. Same thing with when I talked about faith-based partnerships and [how] I actively promoted faith-based partnerships. I provoked more of a reaction then than I'm provoking now.

DA: But you're still getting attention for your recent statement on that topic.

Vallas: That's because I use the term, I think I was quoted as saying, we must break down the barrier between church and state. Perhaps I could've phrased it a little better but the point I was making is that that barrier, that separation of church and state, should not separate the schools from partnering with the most dynamic institutions in their own communities and that's the faith-based institutions. So, perhaps I could've been a little more delicate but, you know, I said it for effect and I got one.

Many things that we're doing [now] seem to be the norm. There's a general consensus on the academic side as to what you need to do to transform a large urban [district] to improve student achievement. For example, managed instruction. The research pretty much points out that managed instructional system is the key to improving student performance, not only in individual schools but in large districts as a whole. The whole idea that you identify clear, definable standards and that you align your curriculum instructional models to those standards and you establish a kind of standardized curriculum instructional models, that you provide intensive professional development on those curriculum instructional models, that you increase the amount of instructional time on task for children who are academically under-performing and that your instruction be driven by data. You see those common components of reform efforts in large, successful urban districts like Boston, Houston, Chicago to a lesser extent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

What separates effective superintendents from some of the less effective ones is the issue of who has the ability to figure out the financing and who has the ability to create the organizational structure so you can bring these reforms to scale.

DA: You've been creating more K-8 schools. Why are middle schools bad, and what improvements do K-8 schools bring?

Vallas: This district was predominantly a middle schools district, 84 percent of the kids who would go through this system ... [went] through a middle school. And middle schools are disasters, particularly in large urban areas where a lot of times the middle schools are fed by four or five feeder schools. So, by 2008, all the middle schools will be phased out.

" Sixth and ninth grade are my most destructive classes. If I could eliminate those two grades, we'd be in great shape."

We'll be predominantly a K-8, 9-12 system. There are now 67 schools over the last two years that have begun to add grades, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade. It's interesting because sixth grade is my most destructive class. I have the largest number of serious incident reports among sixth graders, the largest number of teacher assaults among sixth graders. Contrast, 136 teacher assaults among sixth graders, eight [such] assaults among 12th graders. Sixth grade and ninth grade are my most destructive classes. If I could eliminate those two grades, we'd be in great shape. But sixth grade [also has] my lowest test scores. Well, last year [there was a] big increase in sixth-grade test scores. Why? Because 67 additional elementary schools added sixth grade. They didn't move to the middle schools. And then we're moving much quicker to break the high schools up into smaller units.

DA: How are you doing this?

Vallas: Not by creating little boutique schools or even dividing the schools up in smaller learning centers, but as part of the middle school conversion, we're converting many of the middle schools to high schools. All with an eye toward depopulating our large, behemoth, neighborhood high schools and creating school choice within every community. So, it's not small for small's sake. You know, the net effect is we're creating more high school choice while at the same time, the high schools are becoming smaller. There's a template we're following.

We have 16 new high schools being created today. By the time we're done, by 2008, we will have 26 new high schools. Some will actually be brand-new high school buildings, but most will have been middle school conversions to high schools or branch schools that were made independent high schools or charters. Each of these schools has to be college prep. Each of these schools has to have honors and advanced placement. Each of these schools has to have a unique high achievement exemplary program like the International Baccalaureate Program. Each has to have an articulation agreement with a university.

DA: Let's talk about No Child Left Behind. You mentioned earlier that you support it.

Vallas: I support No Child Left Behind for three reasons. Reason number one is I support the desegregation of data because it reveals the underachievement that exists even within some of the affluent districts. It kind of lifts the veil on underachievement throughout the country. Some of the biggest complaints about No Child Left Behind have come from suburban districts, affluent districts. What's been discovered is that some of the most affluent districts, in some cases, do no better, and in some cases, worse, at improving student achievement among minority groups than the large urban districts.

Secondly, I support tougher accountability. I think all teachers need to be certified in their area of academic responsibility. I mean, that doesn't mean they should all be forced to pass a rigorous test, but I mean there's different ways of evaluating just as there's different ways of evaluating students. If you look at the last four years, academic performance among school districts across the nation has actually accelerated, particularly in many large urban districts, and I think that, in part, is due to the pressure being applied on those districts.

[My third reason is] we've broken through this idea that there's only one best way to educate children. In other words, what's emerged from No Child Left Behind is the diversified management models. For example, I think we're using [these] quite effectively here. I mean, it's forced us to look, to be more creative, to go beyond the traditional approaches toward certifying teachers, toward managing schools, for example. You know, the business of alternative certification, the emergence of the Teach America program, the use of diversified management models, the expansion of charters. Schools have struggled to evolve. Schools have not changed fast enough to adjust to the changing world around them.

DA: What about the argument that the law isn't adequately funded?

Vallas: There have been substantial increases in funding, and I think it's made a difference. Would we like to get more? Yes, I think the mandates need to be fully funded and I think the special education mandate needs to be fully funded. That was kind of an inherited mandate by the present administration, [but] they're still funding special ed at only about 18 percent. There was 40 percent promised, and I think that helps everybody.

But what it's forcing me to do, not that I need to be forced to do this, is to really look more closely into what those schools are doing right, what those schools are doing wrong and to consider more radical changes like, in some cases, converting a struggling public school to a charter that has a track record of success or perhaps maybe bringing more schools under private management or perhaps maybe partnering a struggling school with a university or maybe changing the leadership of the school or maybe doing a more radical reconstitution of the school. So, I don't see it as a negative. I don't see the fact that I have that many under-performing schools or that many schools in corrective action as being a negative on No Child Left Behind. Rather, it's a negative on the deficiencies of the school district over these many, many years. And plus, No Child Left Behind gives me cover.

DA: In what way?

" Edison has always had a good model. I think their fi rst year, [they had to deal with] the trauma of getting in here. It was a very hostile climate."

Vallas: It's the boogie man. You know, you want to take decisive action, you blame it on No Child Left Behind. You want to go in and reconstitute a school, you blame it on No Child Left Behind. You want to go in and convert a struggling public school to a charter, you blame it on No Child Left Behind and it gives you your cover. You know? You want to do all those things anyway because they're the right thing to do and the schools need to be shaken up, but heck I can blame it on No Child Left Behind.

DA: When you took this job two years ago, Edison ran 20 schools already. Their recent test results were even better than the school district at large. How do you think Edison's doing?

Vallas: Yes, they matched the public school district. We actually were slightly better in three out of the four categories, but they were very close to us. Also, they had some dramatic improvement in the decline of the percentage of students in the bottom quartile. They have not reached grade level yet but they're approaching grade level, the level of adequacy.

I've always felt Edison has an excellent program. I think their managed instructional system is excellent. And we've learned a lot from them, although we think our data-driven instructional program, particularly working with School Works, is better. Now it's a little competition. Richard Barth who runs the Edison Schools, he's really excellent. The curriculum instructional models have always been fine. We use a different reading curriculum, but we use the same math curriculum. [Regarding] the alignment of the data-driven instruction, [with Edison's] heavy emphasis on professional development, they do that very well.

I think where they've struggled, and where they've incidentally improved, has been on managing school climate. I'm not sure they knew what they were getting into when they took over 20 schools, eight of which are middle schools. I think it was a real education for them. But they've adjusted. We've been very helpful to them because I think we do school climate very well here.

Edison has always had a good model. I think their first year [had to do with] the trauma of getting in here. It was a very hostile climate. Like we had to raise the drawbridge, you know. We had to fill up the moat. If they did not have a good product, believe me, those frustrations, that agitation, would continue. It's been a worthwhile experiment. We may very well give them more schools in their feeder pattern.

DA: Let's talk about social promotion. You've stopped it here. How do you handle the problems it can cause?

Vallas: I'm still a firm believer in retention, but when kids are starting kindergarten at seven years old or entering school without having been through it at all and they're seven and eight years old, that creates kind of a problem. [Pennsylvania law doesn't require students to attend school until they are eight.]

We're looking at having the accelerated classroom at the primary grade level, at the middle grade levels and then the accelerated school at the high school level. The criteria at least this year was if you're a new freshman, age 17, or a repeat freshman, age 17, then obviously you'd be enrolled in that school and I hope to have an accelerated high school in each of the 10 regions.

DA: So with all this good news, come the inevitable rumors about you running for mayor?

Vallas: No, I'm new here. I haven't even had a winning season yet, you know. Just because I ran once, everybody thinks now that wherever I go that I'm going to run.

DA: What do you think about non-traditional superintendents? You are one, but you've also been running two of the largest school districts in the country for eight years now.

Vallas: It all depends on the person. I mean, you've got great superintendents; you've got weak superintendents. You've got terrific CEO's; you have a lot of school district CEO's who have failed.

The key though is to bring somebody in who not only understands good public policy, but understands financial management. Because, like I said, the vision thing, so to speak, is not new. There are no new ideas, only good ideas waiting to be rediscovered. I should say, not even rediscovered, but new ideas waiting to be financed and operationalized. So the key is to find somebody who understands finance and who understands management because if you understand those two things, heck, even if you're not strong on policy, you can hire a good chief academic officer to do the educational policy for you.

DA: Much seems to be made of your management style. No excuses, no nonsense. The word "bully" has been used more than once in stories about you. Yet, you have a good relationship with the unions here.

Vallas: I don't think I've bullied anybody here. Well, look, in '95, I had my confrontations because, let's face it, [Chicago Mayor John] Daley was given responsibility for the schools and the 1995 reform seemed to be in direct confrontation with the 1987-'88 reform which created 600 locally elected school councils and gave them broad tolerance. So there was going to be a collision.

But let me point out that when I ran for governor [in Illinois' 2002 Democratic primary], I did very well in the city, and I did extremely well in the suburbs. Obviously it was enough to bring me within two percentage points of the Democratic nomination for governor. The only areas of the state that I lost were areas where I was not known.

My approach is to be inclusive. Don't make decisions that impact [union] members or impact their lives without letting them know about it, without asking input from them.

The second thing is really to open the books, to bring them inside and to let them see what you see. So that there's never any confusion, so that there's never any misunderstanding. And the third thing that you've got to do is be willing to resolve problems. Don't put off every issue to the collective bargaining process. I would say we collectively bargain all year. We just don't collectively bargain during contract negotiations.

DA: If an issue comes up, you deal with it right away?

Will you run for mayor of
Philadelphia? "No. I'm new here.
I haven't even had a winning
season yet."

Vallas: That's right. You deal with it. You correct it. It's like leveling. They had a problem with leveling and clearly, you know, the school district every October would adjust their roster, reflecting the actual enrollment data at the individual school. If the school had fewer kids, they would lose a teacher and, of course, then that means the rosters of all the other classrooms change.

So the union, two years ago, raised the issue of leveling and rather than wait for two years to negotiate it out, I just got rid of it. It cost me a one-time budget adjustment.

DA: And you didn't try to get something back for it?

Vallas: No, no. It was the right thing to do. But then last May when I called and said, look; we closed the books on grades too early, like first week of May. They begin inputting data because that's always been traditional and I said with the automated system I would like to go as far into the school year as possible before we close the books on grades. And so we actually extended the marking period until June. It took them 15 minutes to make that decision.

We have a great relationship. We went overtime by a month-and-a-half and schools opened, great attendance, we're moving, no animosity in the press. I mean, they did some advertisement but it wasn't personal. It was great and we negotiated a contract that addressed the issues we wanted to address while at the same time addressing their issues and their contract was a significantly better document than the previous one, and was approved with 93 percent of the vote. You can't beat that.

DA: In 1995 you started some programs that are now popular in urban districts across the country. What are the next trends? What are you starting to do here now that everybody else will be doing in five years?

Vallas: Well, phasing out of the middle schools. I think the way we're reconstituting our high school is pretty innovative. Everyone's approach to high schools is let's create small schools, kind of like a simple response to struggling high schools. But they're missing everything else. We're standardizing the high school curriculum. We're standardizing the high school structure.

Wayne D'Orio is editor-in-chief.