Troubled schools seek old-fashioned hero

Philadelphia opts for a talented individual over private firm to improve schools

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the schools in her city opened last week, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter issued a special invitation to Paul Vallas, the new head of Philadelphia schools, asking him to meet her at the Schuylkill River. "I wanted to see if he actually could walk on water," she wrote.

Ms. Porter may have been joking, but many Philadelphians are truly hoping for miracles from Mr. Vallas. He is being touted as the potential savior of the city's schools – schools which fairly recently were being described by the national press as so hopelessly substandard that only intervention from the private, for-profit world could turn them around.

But privatization – a solution much touted in the 1990s – now seems to be taking a back seat to the more traditional notion that one talented individual can pump new energy into a struggling school system. While some observers argue that this option has serious limitations, others see it as more promising than placing hope for reform in the hands of profit-oriented firms with no strong community ties.

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About-face

Vallas's arrival on the scene represents an abrupt about-face from plans formulated just a few months ago to cast Edison Schools Inc. in that role.

The state, which took over the deeply troubled city school system last spring, was pushing a plan to give the for-profit school-management company control of the school system's central administration, in addition to hiring it to run 45 of the city's 264 schools. It was a radical idea, seen by some as an admission that the city simply could not run its own schools without outside help.

But the plan met with powerful public resistance. The state was forced to rethink its approach, ultimately removing Edison from any central-management role and assigning it only 20 city schools to run.

The management of another 25 schools has been divvied up between two other for-profit companies, two universities, and two community-development groups.

Despite the shift, the arrangement still leaves the city at the forefront of the nation's experiment with privatization of public schools, with nearly 30,000 students and almost 1 in 6 of its schools under outside management.

Vallas says the private companies will have their chance. But he announced almost as soon as he arrived in Philadelphia that he would be making the decisions. And he has made it clear he will remove the firms promptly if they don't perform.

Some insist that if anyone can work miracles in Philadelphia, it is Vallas.

He comes to the city after six years at the helm of the Chicago public schools. His track record there was mixed, but even his critics agree that he brought to the job considerable energy, enthusiasm, and the financial expertise of his previous work as city budget director. By the time he left, math and reading scores were up, 71 new schools had been built, and the school system's $3.5 billion budget was balanced.

Although some complained that early gains on test scores had reached a plateau by the end of Vallas's tenure, Chicago did see impressive increases in standardized test scores. When Vallas had arrived in Chicago, only 30 percent of students in Grades 3 to 8 were achieving the national average in math; 29 percent in reading. By the time he left, 43 percent surpassed the national average in math; 35 percent in reading.

Pointing to such achievements, many see Vallas as an ideal match for Philadelphia's heavily bureaucratic school system which, like Chicago's, is plagued with sagging test scores, crumbling infrastructure, and continual budget problems. If anything, the Philadelphia system with its 198,000 students is perhaps a bit less unwieldy than Chicago's 436,000-student system.

Build schools, target violence

Vallas has been quick to lay out his plans for the Philadelphia schools.

These include: spending $1 billion to $2.5 billion over five years to build nine new high schools and renovate many old school buildings; phasing out middle schools in favor of schools that run from kindergarten to eighth grade; creating more magnet schools; using schools as community centers, with more financial support from the city; asking Medicaid to better fund student-health services; and cracking down on school violence.

But there are those who question how much any one individual can do to battle academic problems that are so tightly linked to the twin urban woes of poverty and entrenched bureaucracy.

"He's obviously a skillful person," says Paul Hill, professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But does he have ideas fundamental enough to make a difference? I doubt it."

In addition, Professor Hill points out, Vallas will be burdened in Philadelphia by having lost his home-court advantage.

"I worry about people like him who are mainly politicos," he says, referring to the strong ties Vallas enjoyed with Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley and other insiders there. "Sometimes they're not such good politicians when they're out of their environment."

Vallas is not the first talented outsider to be placed at the helm of the Philadelphia schools. Some skeptical observers point out that not too many years ago, David Hornbeck was being hailed as the potential savior.

Mr. Hornbeck, who served as head of Philadelphia schools from 1994 to 2000, came to the city with a strong track record as a reformer who had been successful in overhauling Kentucky schools. Philadelphia schools did achieve some gains during his tenure, but never moved forward at the rate many had hoped.

"If any one person could magically have fixed the schools in Philadelphia, Hornbeck would have done it," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "But you can't in the lifetime of one man expect all the problems to go away. It has to be a process that happens over a long, long period of time."

The ideas Vallas has thus far put forward for improving Philadelphia schools are sound, most observers agree, although not dramatically different from what has been tried elsewhere.

And yet, say Vallas enthusiasts, this time the ideas are coming from a man with real experience.

He's happy to step on toes

"I would tell the people of Philadelphia that a whirlwind is coming their way," laughs Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University in Chicago, reflecting on Vallas's tenure in her city.

She acknowledges that, while in Chicago, Vallas was faulted for being tactless, stepping on the toes of those around him and moving too precipitously to remove those who didn't perform. A key complaint was his single-minded focus on raising test scores that, critics charge, caused schools to dilute curriculum and compromise real learning simply to meet that goal.

Professor Radner argues, however, that Vallas's shortcomings pale beside the value of all he learned in six years of wrestling with the complexities of an urban school system.

"People take their experience to their next job," she says, "and that's why, overall, I would tell the people in Philadelphia that they are lucky."

But experience won't be sufficient to fix what doesn't work in Philadelphia unless Vallas gets his priorities straight, warns Pedro Noguera, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

"The most important issue in these large urban districts is that they serve very poor kids," says Professor Noguera.

"Talk to their teachers and they'll tell you these kids are crying out for help, for social services that they're not getting. It's very hard to make progress in other areas without addressing that first."

What an urban schools chief really needs to be today, says Noguera, is a broker who learns how to corral the resources needed to help correct the imbalances of poverty.

If that sounds like a heroic task, Noguera says he doesn't think there's anything unrealistic about the idea of looking to a single talented individual as the savior of a school system.

"The talented individual is absolutely what we need," he says. "I just think we need more of them."

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