Miracle Worker

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When Paul Vallas recently held forth in the swank library of one of the city's public schools, he probably didn't expect a lecture--or a visit from an old ghost. But he got both when a teacher from the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) told him that education would be improved only by attending to the curriculum--not by sprucing up the facilities.

"I was trying to communicate to her," says Vallas later, "that I agree with her, that we need both ... "

He doesn't finish the thought.

He's heard this teacher's argument before, directed at him like an indictment, chiefly from the few people in Chicago who dared criticize him when he was chief of the public schools there. He usually counters it with a hailstorm of numbers--some of them true--which explains why the muted chorus still mumbles on behind him.

"Paul Vallas," his critics carp: "More concerned with bricks and mortar than books and pencils."

Not that criticism happens to Paul Vallas very often. He won't sit still for it. Or for much of anything else. Go, go, go doesn't describe his style so much as went, went, went.

A slim, tall, pale, balding, bespectacled man of 49 years, the devoutly Christian Vallas has the stiff-backed and upright demeanor of a small-town preacher. When he arrives at CAPA, he's greeted like a visiting pope. Every way he turns there's another face to greet him. Every step a trail of admirers gussied up in their Sunday best drags along behind him.

Vallas has come here to preach, to talk about what he did in Chicago, to talk about how he's going to do the very same things, experience the very same successes, right here.

He will spend about an hour in the school library, chatting up teachers, administrators and students, and an hour touring facilities and addressing a group of corporate muckety-mucks in the auditorium. Then he'll go from here to gone in a Rapture-esque sprint for the door.

Paul Vallas has very little time. The average urban school chief keeps the job for just two and a half years. Such is the high-flying, fast-falling nature of being a public school pope.

Vallas moves between conversations like most people flip through the pages of a girly mag--always looking for the good parts, demonstrating a need for speed and red-hot bureaucratic action that served him and the city of Chicago pretty damn well for more than six years. So well, in fact, that when Vallas arrived in Philadelphia fresh off a loss in his run for governor of Illinois, he brought with him a reputation not much different than Jesus had just after he turned loaves into fishes, water into wine.

He inherited a school system in Chitown that looks much like Philadelphia today: low test scores, poor security, a fiscal crisis that would make the boys at Enron blink and run-down buildings that would threaten to render any school-lord a common slumlord.

He left the school system with money in its coffers, vastly improved school buildings and a previously unseen commodity: hope.

The change was lauded by supporters as "the Vallas miracle." But for all the hype about his performance in Chicago, he left that school district with some of its most substantive, intractable problems still locked firmly in place--and arrived in Philadelphia with a single, damnable question still quietly haunting him like a ghost: Just how much of the Vallas miracle is a matter of record, and how much is an expression of faith?

For Ted Kirsch, it's a little hard to believe that Paul Vallas arrived in Philadelphia just two months ago.

"It's amazing," says Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "The morale here was so bad just this summer, with the state's involvement and schools being privatized, and now he's arrived and I am looking forward to the future with confidence and optimism. And it's really all due to him."

Such is the healing touch of one Paul Vallas, a man who has revolutionized the model qualifications for running a school district. BV (Before Vallas) it was assumed school districts had to be run by educators. But Vallas, lauded in a 1998 Forbes article as "Chain Saw Paul," comes from an economics background.

He previously served as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's budget man, but his success in schools opened the door on a wider view of what it takes to run a school district. Still, even though Vallas accomplished a number of tangible successes--for instance, he turned a $150 million deficit at the time he took office into a more than $300 million surplus by the time he left--the CEO's supporters speak less in terms of specific accomplishments and more about the Vallas gestalt.

"He completely changed the culture of public education in Chicago," says Max McGee, former state superintendent of education for Illinois. "It was sort of a hopeless situation, with a general sense of decay. Now people are proud of the school system. They are optimistic. People believe things can get better. Sometimes I wish he was still here [in Chicago]."

"Belief" is the operative word, because it's not as if Chicago schools can now coast.

"He did a fine job here," says Linda Lenz of Catalyst, a magazine covering the Chicago school reforms, "but it isn't as if everyone can just sit back now and relax, because all he really did was put us in a position where maybe now we can focus on our most serious problems. Like academics."

Much as he did in Chicago, Vallas arrived in Philly ready to promise the sun, the moon and the stars--or, to be more specific, nine brand-new high schools, increased "accountability" for students and teachers and improved test scores.

But his track record on these three issues in Chicago isn't necessarily what you'd expect from someone with his reputation--a rep seemingly created as much by his skill with the media as by his accomplishments.

School observers often cite the way Vallas walks around, pen and paper in hand, taking notes from whoever speaks to him, as an example of his accessibility.

Most schools bosses remain remote figures, even aloof. Vallas returns as many calls as he can himself.

A manager first and foremost, he could very well be the right man right now for what Philadelphia needs most: someone who can build a solid infrastructure for the school district--both in budgeting and buildings.

He's also a savvy politician. He ran for governor of Illinois and barely lost in the Democratic primary. And when he commands the stage, he can charm the lions right into lambs.

In conversation, he regales listeners with stories about how he forced Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's hand in naming a school after Walter Payton, and even paraphrases Chris Rock.

Speaking to the corporate types from Leadership Inc. in the CAPA auditorium, he takes the microphone off its stand and strolls out from behind the podium so that nothing stands between the man and his people--or his potential benefactors.

He tells them what Philadelphians most want to hear: He will work the system; he will make the system work for Philadelphia. "If I encounter resistance, I will first try to handle the problem quietly, as a private matter. And if that doesn't work, I will make it a public issue."

Oh woe be unto you who might stand in Paul Vallas' way. "As you get older," he says, with self-deprecating good humor, "you tend to get self-righteous."

It's a remarkable moment, a tremendous piece of self-psychoanalysis from a man who has accomplished so very much that the truth should set him free, though at times he ducks it like an alderman from the Alabama backwoods.

At one point, with the crowd firmly in hand, he says Chicago public school students performed so well on the recent Illinois assessment tests that they "carried the state"--a grossly misleading statement at best.

Fact is, just 39.6 percent of Chicago public school students passed the state's most recent exams, trailing behind the rest of Illinois by more than 20 points.

At another point, he helps justify his capital improvement plan by claiming that "128 Philadelphia schools lack running water." The reality, according to Philly schools communications officer Paul Hanson, is that around 20 have such substandard water quality that the district brings in the bottled stuff for drinking.

But hey, why sweat details when your plans are as big as Paul Vallas'? And Vallas' plans? They are always big.

In Chicago, much as he's doing here at CAPA, Vallas routinely toured school facilities while touting his plans to build new schools for a cash-strapped district.

The buildings he left behind there are the single most tangible example of his success, but even his success in erecting those Windy City buildings had at least as much to do with great timing and strong political alliances as it did his financial skill.

First off, the Chicago school district was flush with more cash than it had seen in many years. Vallas had access to $100 million in teacher pension funds and state money that had previously been off- limits, which went a long way in erasing the $150 million deficit.

These funds were made accessible through sweeping reform legislation at the state level, which ultimately enabled the school board to issue the bonds that paid for Vallas' ambitious construction agenda. Oh, and the school board itself was comprised entirely of fellow Daley appointees--a cushier situation than any other schools' boss is likely to find.

"I think, for all of Paul's considerable skills, he was first and foremost a great politician and a brilliant self-promoter," says Lenz of Catalyst magazine. "We wrote about it at the time--that somehow he had received all the credit for this 'miracle' when in fact the legislature had stepped in and made significant changes that made all this possible. But the media likes a personality--and Paul's got one. Plus, he was out there claiming the credit."

It remains to be seen whether Vallas will find his own municipal Moses to part the bureaucratic seas here in Philadelphia, where he not only lacks a mayoral ally with the power Richard Daley wields in Chicago, but has walked into a brand-new experiment in public education.

As everyone knows by now, the state has forced a series of changes on Philadelphia's school district, including a politically appointed reform commission that has replaced the old board and a series of private firms with contracts to manage schools throughout the district.

In light of the changes, Philadelphians have perhaps been so glad to see Vallas seize the spotlight that too little time has been spent probing the depths of his record.

When Vallas first strode up to a podium in Philadelphia to let people know what to expect, he fired off the word "accountability" like a warning shot across the school district's bow.

Six years earlier he did the same thing in Chicago, announcing that teachers and students would each be held more accountable for their performance. The cornerstone of this part of Vallas' plan was the eradication of "social promotion," a concept that allowed teachers to pass students who weren't ready for the next grade. Previously, the assumption was that students would be better off catching up the following year alongside their peers than with kids a year or more younger.

Vallas has vowed to institute that same policy in Philadelphia. And so far, there has been no public opposition. "There have got to be some standards," says Aldustus Jordan, head of the nonprofit Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. "We can't have students graduating from school any longer who can't read or write. We've seen too much of that."

Agreed. But ending social promotion in Chicago, six years on, has had unforeseen negative consequences.

For context, Chicago suffers from one of the nation's worst dropout rates. The Consortium on Chicago School Research revealed the problem's depth when it discovered that, over the last 10 years, a little more than 40 percent of the district's 13- to 19-year-old students dropped out.

That's a slow, steady plague, producing tens of thousands of unskilled, disenfranchised youth in an unforgiving urban job market. Vallas' programs--the same ones he's proposed for Philly (mandatory after-school programs for struggling kids, dramatic increases in summer school attendance)--failed to alleviate the problem. And ending social promotion actually made matters worse out in the streets, if not in the schools themselves.

A more recent Consortium study found that while the overall percentage of dropouts has remained stable, the numbers have shifted considerably. Most troubling, the number of kids dropping out of eighth grade rose a startling 38 percent from 1996 to 1999. And here's where Paul Vallas gets downright complicated.

Asked for comment on these figures, he turns apoplectic, sputtering, raising his voice, blinking fiercely and accusing the Consortium of "intellectual dishonesty ... We got them to correct those figures," he says, which is sort of true.

Fact is, at one point during the Consortium's research, Vallas' minions pointed out that some 500 "dropouts" were actually "unverified transfers," meaning these students had moved into other schools. The Consortium removed these students from their dropout figures before releasing their report. Hence, the bloody truth: While the overall dropout rate in Chicago has remained roughly the same for a decade, the dropouts themselves have shifted: Due to Vallas' social promotion policy, kids aren't dropping out at younger ages, but they are dropping out at lower grades.

In 1995, when Vallas took over the Chicago school district and ended the practice of social promotion, 1,485 eighth-graders quit. That number ascended, dramatically, to 2,055 by 1999, the most recent year for which data is available. AV (After Vallas), the Chicago schools have done a good job of producing the same number of even less-qualified workers.

"No one wants to be out in the job market without even a high school diploma or G.E.D.," says Melissa Roderick, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and a Consortium researcher. "But to be out there without even any high school experience? That's an almost-certain life of poverty."

While Roderick praises Vallas' intentions in expanding the district's summer school program and in creating transitional schools for struggling students too old for grade school, she says the numbers indicate the measures haven't worked. "We haven't yet addressed the root causes of why these kids are failing," says Roderick. "We haven't yet found a way to reach them."

Such failures are just one reason Vallas' once-cozy relationship with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley eventually turned cold. (Vallas didn't walk out the door in Chicago. He was given the old bureaucratic push.)

Tellingly, his comparatively stolid replacement, Arne Duncan, has been labeled the "anti-Vallas." Very quietly, Duncan has made changes to broaden teacher discretion in promoting students and refocused the district on the professional development of teachers--the kind of academic-based initiative many Chicago-area observers say Vallas wasn't interested in.

While Vallas has done an admirable job of pumping up Philly schools in just a couple of months on the job, he may find the public and media here less forgiving than he did in Chicago's great Daley-ruled Midwest, especially if he refuses to be "accountable" himself.

Ben Joravsky, author of Hoop Dreams and long-time scribe at the Chicago Reader alternative weekly, covered Vallas on a regular basis. "He reminds me of a movie [A Guide for the Married Man]," says Joravsky, "in which Joey Bishop is having an affair, and he's in bed with another woman and his wife walks in. His wife asks, 'What's going on?' and he says, 'Nothing,' and he and the woman start getting dressed and making the bed."

The wife keeps pointing at the woman, and Bishop keeps denying she's there--resolutely, self-righteously. Finally, the bed is made, Bishop is dressed and the other woman leaves. An emotional wreck by this time and questioning her own sanity, Bishop's wife finally caves and asks her husband what he wants for breakfast.

"That's the way it was here in Chicago," says Joravsky. "He did good things, but whenever he was confronted with negative numbers, facts that couldn't be disputed, he just denied them."

If Vallas starts sputtering when some of his failures are brought to light, it probably has less to do with any menace on his part and more to do with the crushing weight of his job. Any school chief's head should probably come with a warning sticker--"Caution: Contents under pressure."

The truth is, educating children remains one of our nation's great unsolved mysteries. Across the country, urban school districts are a mess. So as soon as Vallas was quoted in the local press saying that fixing schools is "simple," we all should have reached for our decoder rings. An educator wrapped inside a burrito tucked into a peppermint patty just rolled into town.

That Paul Vallas entirely rebuilt the infrastructure of Chitown public schools can't be denied. But even the most oft-quoted academic statistic about his Chicago tenure--increasing test scores for seven years in a row--resounds with the muted applause of faint praise (See sidebar: "Moving on Up," below).

Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) in Chicago, among others, says there was some concern that Vallas had placed such incredible emphasis on the standardized testing that the scores may not be reflective of actual learning.

"I think there's still some question as to whether instructors were teaching to the test," says Woestehoff. "Because you would think there would be some positive movement in the dropout rate if students were actually being taught more effectively across the board."

Despite these shortcomings, Vallas rightfully remains a towering figure in the Windy City. With few exceptions, even Chicagoans who criticize their old schools czar still hail him as a godsend for their district.

"If you portray what went on here in Chicago as anything less than a miracle, you'll be wrong," says Roderick, a critic of Vallas' social promotion policy.

Her enthusiasm echoes that of people here in Philadelphia, who see in Vallas a gleaming new model of CEO as superintendent: responsive, engaged, always jotting down notes he'll theoretically use to change the face of education in Philadelphia. But, of course, that's also the problem.

Vallas did change the face of education in the Windy City--$3 billion dollars in construction tends to do that--yet Chicago still faces its most serious academic challenges: the same challenges it faced when Vallas arrived.

The only reasonable conclusion is that perhaps the Vallas phenomenon was not quite phenomenal enough, leaving Philadelphians in an uncomfortable position: hoping that one of the most accomplished men in public education can get better at what he does, hoping for something more than a miracle.

Moving on Up?

When Paul Vallas swept into action in Chicago, he announced that the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills would be the basic unit of measurement for both students and teachers. Third-, sixth- and eighth-grade students who didn't achieve minimum scores on the test would be held back, and teachers who didn't raise their students' test scores could face punitive action.

Both sides largely responded. Iowa test scores have, in fact, increased for seven years straight. But the Iowa test has long been the subject of controversy in school districts across the nation. Rather than judging students against some basic standard of what they should know by a certain grade level, the Iowa test merely rates students according to what their peers across the nation actually do know.

In other words, a student who ranks in the 51st percentile in reading has done better on the test than 50 out of 100 students who have taken it. Chicago celebrated this past year when the district as a whole drifted over the infamous 50th percentile barrier--meaning the Chicago school district had finally risen to the level of solid mediocrity.

In a country where public schools are struggling just about everywhere, this hardly represents arrival in the Holy Land. In fact, it's more like purgatory, especially if you factor in that the Chicago school district continues to struggle on the state-administered, standards-based test.

Just 39.6 percent of Chicago grade-schoolers passed the state's assessment tests this past year. To be fair, the state test is only a few years old and administered only at three grade levels, so it can't yet be used as the assessment test in Chicago. But one might expect a greater correlation between the two test scores, and that hasn't happened. (S.V.)

Senior Editor Steve Volk (svolk@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about late Philly musician Henry Dale Harris.

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