Vallas leaves a changed district, again in tumult

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

One thing is certain – Paul Vallas certainly shook up the Philadelphia School District.

Full of energy and confident that he could solve any problem, Vallas’s five-year tenure was a whirlwind of bold initiatives and dramatic changes in policy.

He sold the historic old Board of Education headquarters, fattened the central administration, built new school buildings, and generally didn’t let the District’s limited resources get in his way. He instituted a standardized curriculum long sought by the teachers’ union, publicly fired principals in schools with high-profile problems, and praised the federal No Child Left Behind Act when most superintendents were chafing under its requirements.

He outsourced wide swaths of District services – hiring private companies not just to manage schools but to write high school curricula, design afterschool programs, and establish alternative schools for students kicked out of regular schools or in trouble with the law.

He juggled his own penchant for centralization and control with the “diverse provider” model that he inherited from the School Reform Commission, in which private managers operate dozens of low-performing schools. During his tenure, charters proliferated and the number of high schools in the city nearly tripled.

He adopted the strategy of creating more small high schools, while breaking up or more often simply downsizing many of the behemoth “dropout factories.” He found high-profile partners such as Microsoft for a few promising new high schools. But he was unable to attract the philanthropic money that poured into cities like New York and Chicago for such reforms.

Through all this activity, he convinced many people, locally and nationally, that the District was making progress. The firmest evidence of improved academic achievement has been a steady climb in third through eighth grade test scores for reading and math.

At the same time, he is leaving a district in tumult, with the same deep financial problems that he inherited – running a large deficit, and still without stable, reliable funding that meets the extraordinary needs of the city’s students.

The movement at the elementary level has not extended to the higher grades. Dropout rates and achievement at the high school level have barely changed – admittedly a hard nut to crack in any urban district. The percentage of schools reaching federal academic improvement goals has leveled off.

Though he gave increased attention to teacher hiring and retention, students in the highest-poverty schools are still far more likely to face under-certified teachers or a revolving door of substitutes.

By some of the District’s own benchmarks for improvement – offering honors courses in every high school, creating active community partnerships for every school, having all schools meet federal goals for academic improvement – the system continues to fall short.

The academic achievement of African American and Latino students, who make up four-fifths of the District’s enrollment, continues to lag behind that of most Whites and Asians, and the gap is not noticeably narrower.

While he instituted a zero-tolerance discipline policy, a spate of violent incidents against teachers this year – including one in which a teacher’s neck was broken – made headlines and precipitated a review of the District’s ability to control student behavior and create positive learning environments.

While both Vallas and the SRC say that the “diverse provider” model has been successful, three separate studies have questioned whether the academic results have been worth the $107 million extra paid to the outside managers to run schools over the past five years.

While there are more options for students seeking to return to school after dropping out, they still fall far short of what is needed. And there is little reliable research on whether the proliferating, privately-run alternative schools for problem students are actually getting students back on track academically and behaviorally.

In the end, it was trouble in his area of expertise – balancing budgets and squeezing the most out of limited resources – that sped his departure. The revelation of the huge budget gap last fall, which opened after extra money that came with the state takeover ran out, unleashed a political storm.

Tom Brady, the man appointed as interim CEO to succeed Vallas, said his plan is to build on what Vallas left, to keep the reforms “that make sense.”

Seemingly undaunted by the challenges here, Vallas has agreed to lead the Recovery District in New Orleans – a district that lacks sufficient numbers of both teachers and buildings as students pour back from their Katrina-enforced exile. New Orleans is also brimming with political crosscurrents, and has gone much farther than Philadelphia in dismantling the traditional school district model in favor of a market-based and union-free approach.

“He’s perfect for that job,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, an umbrella organization for the nation’s 100 largest districts. “He’ll find it a real challenge, and for them he has all the right skills.”