Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas


Lee Iaccoca, Steve Jobs, and Ann Mulcahy were CEOs that resurrected  Chrysler,  Apple, and Xerox from near (or actual) bankruptcy to profitability. They were turnaround heroes–saviors, if you like–to their corporate boards and shareholders.

Salvaging a sinking business means that the CEO charts a new direction, outsiders     arrive  and veterans exit, novel products appear and old ones disappear–constant and unrelenting change is the order of the day in saving a company.  A tough job that  demands a thick skin with little time for regrets.

Turning around low-performing urban school districts is in the same class as CEOs turning around failing companies.

After serving in Chicago for six years, Philadelphia five years, and New Orleans four years, Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

Vallas’s  operating principle, according to one journalist who covered his superintendency in Philadelphia, is: “Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once.” For over a decade, the media christened Vallas as savior for each of the above three cities before exiting, but just last week, he stumbled in his fourth district–Bridgeport (CT) and ended up as “chopped liver” in less than two years.

Vallas is (or was) the premier “turnaround specialist.” Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures. After Bridgeport, however, his brand-name as a “turnaround specialist,” like “killer apps” of yore such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar, may well fade.

Turning around a failing company or a school district is no work for sprinters, it is marathoners who refashion the company and district into successes. Lee Iaccoco was CEO of Chrysler from 1978-1992; Steve Jobs was CEO from 1997-2011, and Ann Mulcahy served 2001-2009.

Among big city superintendents, marathoners like Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Pat Forgione in Austin (TX), and Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) took over failing districts and, serving over a decade in each place, built structures and leadership continuity that eventually earned awards for improved student achievement.

Superintendents with savior-like visions sprint through basket-case district for a few years and depart (e.g., Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Rudy Crew in New York and Miami-Dade, Jean-Claude Brizard in Rochester and Chicago.

In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives.

Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from there exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Consider long-distance runners. They carefully scrutinize and adapt reforms as they get implemented. Behind-the-scenes, they build teacher and administrator expertise to put changes into practice, mobilize staff and community to support long-term changes in teaching and learning, and, most important, create a pool of leaders ready to assume responsibility for sustaining the ever-shifting reform agenda.

They ask hard questions that few sprinter superintendents ask:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., small high schools, pay-for performance plans, new reading and math curricula, parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

Sprinter superintendents neither have the breathing capacity nor motivation to ask and answer these questions. They are too busy eyeing the finish line. Marathoners spend time and energy on these questions although 2 and 3 get skimpy attention from even the best of the long-distance runners. Still, urban children are better served by superintendents willing to go the distance rather than those swift runners who flash by without a backward glance.

Paul Vallas is (or was)* a sprinter at a time when marathoners are needed for turning around failing districts.


*A hearing on the removal of Vallas will occur in the Fall before the Connecticut Supreme Court


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

15 responses to “Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas

  1. Pingback: Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice ← NPE News Briefs

  2. Gary Ravani

    David Kirp, at UC Berkeley, recently released his book, Unlikely Scholars, recounting in considerable detail what has been written about here. A key to narrowing the achievement gap in urban school systems is just about exactly the opposite of the Rhee and Vallas modus operandi. It takes stability in management, cooperation between union and management, no mass firings of teachers, no wholesale turnovers of schools to private sector charter operators, no TFA, a teacher led development and implementation of a dynamic curriculum, and no obsession with test scores. Though, the test scores, graduation rates, etc., do come as a by-product of all of the above. What a concept!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Gary, for mentioning David Kirp’s book on Union City (NJ). Sandy Sanger has been superintendent since 2003. Such continuity explains in part the commitment to change both structures and cultures, the latter of which sprinter superintendents often ignore or neglect.

  3. Pingback: The problem with the Paul Vallas brand of school reform (from the Washington Post) - Wait, What?

  4. Linda

    I believe this will happen with common core scores. They want low scores the first year. Partial comment by George Schmidt, Chicago:

    The main thing that “low” scores on this round of the Common Core tests will provide is a “low” baseline for the current administrators (state, regional and local) to measure their “progress” against.

    This was one of the many tricks used for years by those guys (and a few women). Paul Vallas did it in Chicago by false flagging the “important” test his first year and downplaying the test that would subsequently matter. He told teachers to ignore the ITBS (the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) and focus on the IGAP (the Illinois test) in 1996, the first round of testing after Vallas became Chicago’s first schools CEO. Then he dumped the IGAP and emphasized the importance of the ITBS, which had the lowest scores in a decade in 1996 because everyone had been told it was going to be phased out. Vallas’s accounting tricks began with that one, and continued until he ran out the thread within five years. But I still remember each year the report on the citywide testing program was headlined ‘TRENDING UP.’ The low scores on this year’s Common Core will enable Arne Duncan and the rest of the Common Core crowd to show that things are ‘TRENDING UP’ for the next two or three years, once this year’s “bottom” is established.

    It’s another example of how the Chicago Boys do the Chicago Plan and how most people still miss the facts on some key parts.


    • larrycuban

      The temptation to game test scores is strong. I felt it when I was superintendent for seven years. So, Linda, changes in tests often do lead to lower scores the first year for the new test and that becomes the baseline. After that first year, test scores do rise. Your Chicago informant and the New York principal in Diane’s blog are correct that scores can be gamed by top officials. Media, including bloggers, are now on top of that kind of game as many journalists over the years were not.

  5. Pingback: That’s a pretty long sprint —commentary on “the Problem with Paul Vallas’ brand of school reform” | Education Bridgeport!

  6. Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practise to deceive!

    Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.
    Scottish author & novelist (1771 – 1832)

  7. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Good Posts & Articles On Education Policy | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

  8. Pingback: Turtles and Hares in Modern School Reform | K-Blog

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