Leader of Chicago Public Schools Is Now Victim of His Own Reforms
Over the last six years, Paul G. Vallas loomed large over urban education in America.
A former city budget director, he was an outsider brought in to fix the Chicago Public Schools system, one that had been declared among the nation’s worst.
The new CEO ordered an end to the automatic advancement of unprepared students, prompting President Clinton to urge other districts to do the same. Summer school? Testing? Scripted lessons? Vallas tried all of them first.
But last week, Vallas resigned as the head of the 436,000-student district, the nation’s third largest. He was exhausted, he said, after years of 15-hour days, including weekends.
Moreover, all of the reforms had produced only modest gains in test scores, not enough to convince Chicago’s middle class to risk enrolling their children. Nor, apparently, enough to immunize him from complaints that progress had stalled.
Still, Vallas drew praise for having stabilized a district that had seemed on the verge of collapse.
“I hate to see him leave. I thought he brought some fresh ideas and a no-nonsense approach that didn’t shy away from heat,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
Paige, who until going to Washington last fall ran the Houston Independent School District, said non-educators such as Vallas can be effective at running large school systems because they bring strong management and organizational skills to the job. For those reasons, Paige said, he has kept an eye on Vallas and the Chicago district for years.
But many say Vallas was not able to make much progress in improving the two most important activities in school: teaching and learning.
And that shortcoming, they say, will likely undermine the effectiveness of school systems around the nation that are copying Vallas’ other reforms.
“Now we need somebody who knows something about teaching and learning,” said Dorothy Shipps, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who is writing a history of education reform in Chicago. “You can only jigger up those test scores so much by holding a hammer over people’s heads.”
Vallas, however, clearly set the stage for the next steps.
The district’s $3.5-billion budget has been balanced six straight years, 71 schools were built and 500 renovated, and a teachers’ contract is in place through 2003. In addition, Vallas’ reforms generated the support of the city’s business, civic and university leaders.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Vallas, said at a news conference that “he has been quite simply the best chief executive in the history of the Chicago Public Schools.”
But Daley has made no secret of the fact that he was disappointed this year when some test scores dipped, wiping out some of the earlier gains. Two weeks ago, the man Daley had appointed as president of the Chicago School Board, Gery Chico, also resigned, apparently as part of a high-level shake-up.
“I’m leaving because it’s time to leave,” Vallas told the Chicago Tribune. “These jobs are not forever. . . . I would like to think the school system is better off today than it was in 1995.”
Test scores did rise under Vallas--at least initially. When Daley appointed him, only 30% of students in grades 3 through 8 were above the national average in math. Now that figure is up to 43%. In reading, 35% of the students are above the national average, up from 29%.
But those close to the district say that the improvement in the district--where 85% of the students are low-income and 87% African American or Latino--is less impressive than it seems.
The university-based Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reported earlier this year that student learning peaked in 1997, soon after the district began holding back students in grades 3, 6 and 8 with low test scores.
The district invested in summer and after-school classes to help those who failed. But the research consortium found that many of the older students dropped out and, when it became clear that thousands of students would have to be held back, a third of the students who failed the test were promoted anyway.
Penelope Peterson, the dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, said Vallas’ tenure showed that it’s possible to boost basic skills. But helping students to understand mathematical concepts or learn to write more literate essays depends largely on the skills and knowledge teachers bring with them into the classroom.
Research done at low-scoring high schools found that many teachers lacked essential knowledge of their subjects. Vallas had his staff create packaged, day-by-day lessons that were mandated at low-performing schools. But experts say that’s a poor substitute for top-notch teaching.
“To go to the next level of this reform, the new superintendent is going to have to really deal with the subject-matter knowledge and professional knowledge of the teachers,” Peterson said.
That issue was central to the outcome of a union election two weeks ago in which Tom Reece, the longtime head of the Chicago Teachers Union, was upset by eighth-grade teacher Deborah Lynch-Walsh. Her election was widely seen as one of the factors causing Vallas to decide to quit.
She said Vallas had left teachers out of the reform process and acted as if students’ performance would improve if only the schools got rid of bad teachers.
Dozens of principals and 200 teachers in low-performing schools lost their jobs under Vallas. Lynch-Walsh said many experienced teachers were replaced by untrained rookies.
Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who has been superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District for the last year, said Vallas’ departure shows the challenge of addressing the systemic problems of urban schools.
But Romer apparently has drawn lessons from Vallas’ experience. He is focusing the bulk of his energies on instructional, rather than management, issues. In his budget for next year, Romer wants to spend more than $60 million to hire 475 reading coaches and 285 math coaches for the city’s elementary schools.
“The lesson in urban education is that it is incremental,” Romer said. “You can’t get it done in any single stroke or any short period of time. . . . I constantly have to fight the impression that you’re going to change this place overnight.”
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