Chicago: Viewing Education through a Performance Prism

Published October 1, 1997

Appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Paul C. Vallas took over as Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools on July 1, 1995. Within three weeks, Vallas had hammered out a new four-year teachers’ contract. Within six, he had developed a four-year budget that eliminated a $1.4 billion deficit. Since Vallas took over, Chicago’s schools have started the new school year on time. This year, for the first time ever, the school year started before Labor Day.

Vallas first served in Mayor Daley’s administration as revenue director, then as budget director and chief financial officer before becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Before joining the mayor, he had directed the Illinois Economic and Fiscal Commission and worked for former Illinois Senate President Phil Rock, staffing a number of committees, including education and policy.

During the first few days of school, the busiest period of the school year, Mr. Vallas found time for an interview with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What led the state legislature to give Mayor Daley responsibility for the Chicago Public Schools?

Vallas: The legislature felt that someone had to take direct responsibility for the schools–someone of prominence. Often they have appointed school boards, or the school boards are elected. There’s always indirect responsibility for the schools, but never direct responsibility.

Behind the issue of responsibility was the fact that schools were failing–seven teacher strikes in a year, financial mismanagement, declining test scores, declining enrollment, people fleeing from the system, and facilities that were crumbling. The system was going from one financial crisis to another. While many individual schools were doing very well, as a whole the system was just not providing a quality education for the children of the city.

Clowes: Why did Mayor Daley select you to run the school system rather than a traditional superintendent?

Vallas: In setting up this new management structure, the legislature set up a position of CEO, rather than superintendent. They wanted someone to provide the overall management direction and oversight of the system. That individual would bring in people with specialties on the education side–procurement, operations, and education support.

Clowes: The newspapers report that you have a four-year plan to reform the schools. What are your objectives?

Vallas: I feel uncomfortable even being called a reformer. Our mission was to bring accountability to the system, to have a performance-based education system where all decisions go through the education performance prism. Decisions that we make on budgeting, on new programs, on what programs to expand, and on what programs to get rid of–these decisions are always made in the context of “How does this contribute to student achievement?”

Clowes: So you’re looking for results and saying,”This is the performance we expect; how do we hold people accountable for that?”

Vallas: That’s right. Our first objective, right out of the box, was to bring long-term financial stability to the system and to bring about labor peace. We did that with our first budget and by negotiating a four-year contract with the teachers’ union. We then turned our attention to the other unions. We privatized the trades and got rid of what were called “stationary firefighters,” or school maintenance assistants. These were guys who ran the high-pressure boilers, only there are no more high-pressure boilers.

Then, halfway through the first year, we finalized a comprehensive education plan that has been our focus for the last two years. That plan consists of initiatives we know will improve student achievement. We know that student achievement improves significantly when you reach children earlier, if you subject them to high standards, and if you hold teachers, support staff, and principals accountable for student performance. We know that when those things happen, student performance and achievement improve.

Clowes: And this comprehensive education plan has been implemented?

Vallas: Yes, we fully implemented this over the last year and a half. We dramatically expanded early childhood programs. There are 10,000 more children enrolled in early childhood classes than when we walked in the door, including 4,000 to 5,000 children that we reach through our home outreach program. There are now 417 schools with after-school academic remediation programs, 164 schools have lengthened their school day by an hour, and, in September, 100 schools will be part of the all-day program.

We also ended social promotion. Last year we put 150,000 children through summer school, including 90,000 in academic remediation programs. The high schools are in the process of being restructured. This year is the first year for the implementation of the new high school curriculum reform, which consists of more math, more science, more quality courses–a much more rigorous core curriculum.

Clowes: Did any of this come out of the discussions you had with the Catholic archdiocese?

Vallas: Yes, we learned some lessons from the archdiocese about the quality of their curriculum. Our curriculum is much too diverse. We refer to it as a “dummy-down” curriculum: Students can take so many electives that they can cherry-pick their way through a very, very easy curriculum. They accumulate enough credits to graduate–but, because they’ve taken so few quality courses, their ACTs are below college grade.

We now have a much more rigorous curriculum. In addition, we put the system on very high, uniform, internationally pegged standards. We’re in the process of developing a uniform instructional curriculum that will be available to every teacher by September 1998. That curriculum will be detailed down to the daily lesson plans. Even if you’re a new, inexperienced teacher or you have some deficiencies, we’ll ensure that you can dispense quality instruction by using the lesson plans and support materials.

Clowes: What has been the response of parents to these changes?

Vallas: Parental response has been overwhelmingly positive. The parents are more involved and the students are more focused. By ending social promotion and mandating summer school for children who perform poorly, and then by retaining students who are far behind grade level, we hold students and their parents accountable. So obviously the students and parents are more focused than they’ve ever been before.

What parents want is a neighborhood school that’s academically challenging, safe, secure, and attractive. It’s not too complicated. As the mayor always says, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.”

Clowes: What results have you been able to measure so far?

Vallas: Enrollment is up, attendance is up, test scores are up across the board. The test scores have been up for two years. ACT scores are at their highest level in a decade. So we’ve seen improvement. But, in addition to holding students accountable and parents accountable, we’re also holding teachers and principals accountable by putting schools on probation and reconstituting non-performing schools. We’re all in this together; we all need to be held accountable for our performance.

Clowes: What are your goals for the next two years?

Vallas: The education plan that we laid out almost two years ago has either been implemented or it’s in the process of being implemented, so over the next two years we’re going to continue implementing and expanding the initiatives that we started during the past two years.

I think you’re going to see a continued expansion of early childhood programs. We’re going to work to expand the after-school programs and find ways to lengthen the school day. The implementation of the high school changes will be done over the next three years. While the standards project is complete, we are now working on the model curriculum project that I referred to. That should be implemented by September 1998.

Clowes: Could your approach be successfully applied to other troubled school systems in major urban areas?

Vallas: Yes, I think we have a prescription that can solve any school system’s problems. We’re talking about re-prioritizing our budget so that we do not spend money on things that do not directly or indirectly have a positive impact on the classroom. We’re talking about making sure our schools are spending enough quality instructional time in the core curriculum subject areas.

It’s not uncommon for children in urban school districts to receive about 200 minutes of instruction in the core subject areas, like math, science, reading, language arts, and social studies. On the other hand, children in the suburbs spend as much as 300 minutes in the core curriculum areas, and the magnet and gifted schools spend as much as 360 minutes. A 100 minute difference a day is 182,000 fewer minutes a year. It’s no wonder the kids can’t compete. It’s a knowledge gap. It has less to do with societal conditions and more to do with the fact that these kids are getting short-changed on the education end, on the instructional end.

Clowes: Finally, if there’s one message on education that you’d most like to communicate to policy makers, journalists, and other School Reform News readers, what would that be?

Vallas: There is no substitute for high standards and accountability, none at all. That’s not to say that high standards and accountability are a substitute for adequate funding for education at the state and federal level. The state and federal levels cannot demand high standards and accountability on the one hand, while not addressing the funding issues on the other.

We’ll make the tough decisions at the local level–in terms of reconstituting schools, imposing standards, ending social promotion, retaining students, and dealing with our labor unions–but at the state and federal levels, they have to make the tough decisions on the funding side. We can improve the quality of public education without new resources. We’ve proven that. I think we’ll continue to prove that. But we can move much faster and we can see much more significant gains if we received more help from the state and federal government. At some point, you’re going to exhaust your local financing options.

If I had $100 million more today, I would add another 10,000 early childhood classroom spots, I would put 300 schools on the all-day program, I would put 250,000 children through summer school, and I would reduce class size in some of the benchmark grades. It wouldn’t go into a collective bargaining agreement; it wouldn’t go to fill a big, fat budget hole. It would go into the classroom, into programs that we know absolutely have a positive impact on student performance.