The new Pershing Road makes no little plans

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A century after city planner Daniel Burnham cautioned against making little plans—”they have no magic to stir men’s blood”—a team of technocrats from City Hall has drafted the transformation of the Chicago Public Schools.

New schools. New teaching. New tests. New ways of doing even routine things. And the plans certainly have stirred the blood of those concerned about the city’s schools, in some cases to the boiling point.

In the following interview, edited for space, CEO Paul Vallas first outlines a new student achievement plan, which was to have been unveiled Jan. 24, and then discusses his first six months in office. Asked about investing in local school councils as well as teachers and principals, he says, “Shall we expend our resources developing councils that may change every two years? Or should we invest in . . . teachers that may spend 5, 10, 15, 20 years with us?” He adds, however, that central office should help provide ongoing training. The interview was conducted on two days in early and mid-January.

Q Now you’re dealing with some of the lowest- performing schools, but do you get to the point where you nudge everybody up, as in, for example, Dallas or Kentucky?

Vallas: If you shift resources into the six or seven elements that seem to exist in all good schools, all should show improvement. If you let people know that academic achievement is the No. 1 priority. But clearly there has to be a concentration of effort in those schools that are facing the most serious problems.

What we’re going to do with problem schools is contract out with a number of universities and outside groups to set up school improvement teams. But we’re also going to set up a master principal, master teacher program, so some of our more gifted principals will also lead school improvement teams that will go in and work in other schools. They would receive a stipend, and some of their gifted teachers would receive stipends. They would work with the school beginning in the summer, helping it amend its school improvement plan, develop a curriculum plan, develop a teacher training plan. It’s a way of rewarding your top performing principals, giving them a new challenge and, at the same time, not pulling quality people from performing schools.

The third thing is, we have [former] principals in the central office who were outstanding. Lula Ford, Blondean Davis, Carlos Azcoitia, Jackie Simmons. Just all the way down the list. They will also take a school. The only one who we won’t give a school to is Pat Harvey. We’re also bringing in some of the principals who have left, some of the top retired principals.

We’re about to launch a major student achievement initiative. First of all we are looking at expanding state pre-kindergarten. Our goal is to add an additional 300 preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds. Two classes a day, 20 kids a class, 12,000 kids. We will trim the existing pre-K bureaucracy and eliminate a number of non-essential, non-teaching, non-assistant teacher preschool positions to provide some of the funding.

Q What do you do in overcrowded schools?

We’ll build the classrooms.

Next, Lynn St. James is developing a Direct Instruction model for kindergarten through 3rd or 4th grade that we want to adopt systemwide.

Q Would this be for phonics only, or beyond that?

It’ll be similar to the Houston model, so it goes beyond simple phonics. Schools that are not performing would have to adopt the model, and schools that are performing could waiver out of the model.

Q What are the criteria for getting a waiver? There may be a school that has lousy scores, but is using an alternative method.

I’m not sure yet. Also, we plan to have a new system of standards that are consistent with state standards and that are simple and understandable, not only by faculties, but also by parents. Our game plan is to have the proposed standards by June and then to work on them and educate people through the summer and have them up and running by September. So when you become a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, you get your standards manual.

Accompanying the standards will be the new assessment system, to replace the Iowa Tests. We’re looking at an internal testing system that can be computerized so you can get instant results.

We’re throwing out the old school improvement plans and replacing them with a very simple, businesslike, very focused academic achievement plan.

We’re going to concentrate on breaking up the high schools by class. We’re going to allow elementary schools that have demonstrated achievement to set up their own 9th grade and then, in some rare occasions, maybe even a 10th grade. We are also looking at setting up a freshman feeder school, so you transition into high school.

Also within every high school that’s not a magnet, we are going to set up a freshman academy—longer school day, longer school year, different faculty, segregated from the mainstream high school population, focused on a core curriculum of language arts, math, science, reading. We’re going to set aside money to allow this to happen, close to $100,000 per high school. First, you will be tested in 8th grade, and you will not get your diploma if you have not reached a certain level of academic achievement. If you’re not at that level, you will go through a summer school program.

Q Does anybody get to opt out of this?

No. No, other than perhaps the magnet schools or schools that are really performing well.

Q What about the kids in 7th and 8th grade?

Middle schools. We’re going to allow the community to decide, because in some cases instead of building a new elementary school, you may want to build a middle school.

Moving on, we are going to revitalize vocational education. Charles Vietzen is in the process of inventorying all the voc-ed classes to determine what they need. We want to bring all the trades into the schools. We’re not going to wait to have these elaborate apprenticeship programs. We want to teach our kids the trades, period.

I know from first-hand experience how successful you can be by learning a basic trade. My brother went to the Washburne Trade School, and now he’s a very successful automotive technician for Amoco Oil. He’s just moved through the ranks. My father-in-law is a successful builder. He started out as a bricklayer. His two sons started out as bricklayers; they now are successful contractors. And no college education. They have a skill, they work hard, they have intelligence, they have drive, ambition. So I know.

Q Do you have enough faculty to do this?

We have a shortage of voc-ed instructors. We’re going to go out, and we’re going to find them. We will bring in retired tradesmen, tradesmen who want to teach part time, whatever.

Q These are not necessarily certified teachers then?

They will not be certified teachers in all cases. In some cases we may work out an arrangement where we can have a contractor come in. We’ll pay the contractor, and then he will have one of his people teach a trade in the school. As you know, we have a major school-to-work initiative where we’re pushing corporations to give our kids job training and part-time jobs.

Q What kind of response do you have there? Has anybody signed up?

There’s about 22 corporations that have responded. We’ve been talking to Jewel, Shell, UPS. We want to get our kids into jobs. We want to begin hiring our kids to do a lot of the odd jobs around school, like mowing lawns and shoveling snow. Now, someone wrote me a letter saying, you’re teaching kids to be custodians. No, we’re telling kids that, rather then hang out on the street corner, there might be an odd job you can perform to make a few bucks around the school and, at the same time, contribute to the school.

These are odd jobs designed to help develop a work ethic. My first job was in a florist shop. My second job was washing dishes and busing tables in my father’s restaurant. It helped me develop a work ethic. It also taught me that I’d better get a college education if I didn’t want to do it forever.

Then there will be a major truancy initiative. We won’t be hiring truancy officers back. We will be training and paying parents a stipend to serve as attendance officers, to go beyond trying to track down a kid who doesn’t show up at school. How about a kid who shows up at school who’s been abused, or is undernourished? We feel that there should be an adult in the school that you can go to talk to if there’s a problem or a concern.

A core curriculum. We want to be very specific on the amount of time that should be spent on language arts, math, science. What is done with the rest of the time is up to schools.

Q Are you under the impression that there’s a lot of time devoted to other things?

In some schools there is. There’s still going to be a lot of local flexibility on these things, but what we’re trying to do is we’re just trying to get everybody to focus.

Q Are you putting these out to hold hearings, or are you putting out tablets written in stone?

There will be working groups, but we will lay out a draft and then solicit input. We’ll modify, and hopefully by June, we’ll be ready to roll.

Q Probably the most controversial thing you’ve talked about is moving to a system of direct instruction.

Probably. But Lynn wants it. She’s very impressed with the model. People will be able to waiver out of the model. So she’ll be the one who will recommend to me the criteria.

Q Something very similar to this was tried in the mid ’80’s, with Ruth Love.

Really? I never studied Ruth Love.

Q A lot of schools will be doing this. You need to provide training. It seems like there are land mines all over the place, and this could blow up on you.

All I know is, at a lot of local schools things have already blown up because you’ve got children not being able to read and they’re in 3rd grade. Sometimes you have to clear the field before you can start planting again. Direct instruction has worked, miraculously in some cases, wherever it’s been done. It’s a way of allowing a lot of these kids to catch up. So it might be a model that would be best used in some of your more challenged environments.

So with the preschool and direct instruction at the early school level, I think you can get these kids out of the education gate with a full head of steam. We can’t wait another generation. A small, vocal group of people thinks that the only way to improve school performance is to let all the schools do whatever the hell they want to do and just concentrate all your efforts on training and remediating local school councils.

Q Is this, then, a calculated risk?

I think the big risk you take is not taking any action at all.

Q Do you ever fear that you have too many things going to handle?

No. I think we have just the right amount.

Q I’ve read your comments about local school councils that you’ve made at a number of venues. My impression is that if local school councils do a good job, that’s great; if they do a lousy job, you’ll step in. But I don’t hear you talk about investing and developing local school councils the way I hear you talk about investing and developing principals and teachers.

Well, there’s 557 local school councils. Shall we expend our resources developing local school councils that may change every two years? Or should we invest our resources in developing teachers that may spend 5, 10, 15, 20 years with us? It is not our responsibility to spend a lot of time and resources trying to bring local school councils up to speed. If you run for local school council, you have a responsibility to come in with the idea that you want to do the job, and the job is improving education and education performance.

I think the board does have a role in providing for local school council training, and I don’t think it should be a three-day affair, like the Legislature mandated. I think there should be year-round training in a variety of areas. Carlos Azcoitia, who has taken over School and Community Relations, will have that responsibility. I also think the board has a role to play in mediating conflicts between local school councils and principals.

The Legislature mandated that we set up this local school advisory council, and we’re in the process of finalizing that. Once that council is set up, they’re going to work with School and Community Relations to come up with a continuous training program and a remediation and intervention program to help deal with dysfunctional local school councils, and to help mediate conflicts.

But my point is, there’s only going to be so much we can do. We have a system without a lot of resources. I meet with some of these so-called systemwide representatives, and all they talk to me about is process. The discussion is never about academic performance, safety in schools, student achievement.

Q Do you think they don’t care about that?

I’m not suggesting that they don’t care about it, but I spend a lot of time talking about process and nothing else.

Q To be fair, these groups were out fighting to improve the school system way before even City Hall got interested. It’s not as though they have come out of the woodwork right now.

Well, you must distinguish between the reform groups and the cottage industry groups. The reform groups and the special interest groups.

Q Can you give an example of each?

No, because I have to deal with them all. They know who they are. But you have groups that justify the grants that they get by institutionalizing a process or their role. That’s all they’re interested with. For example, the obsession, the total obsession with Prosser High School. We have a crisis in individual schools, and all they want to talk about is Prosser and education crisis.

Reform was enacted in 1987, it’s now 1996, 45 of the state’s 50 poorest performing high schools are Chicago public high schools. At the elementary school level, the results have been mixed at best.

I am inundated with complaints about local school councils from parents, teachers and principals—and other local school council members. Investigate this, investigate that. Patronage, nepotism, people declaring custody over kids so that they can remain on local school councils. People intimidating parents. It’s a continual onslaught. [Columnist] Ray Coffey is getting half the stuff now. They’ve grown frustrated with us, and they all write to Ray. Because they figure, well, he’s the voice now. So now I have to contend with that. I believe they are, to quote Shakespeare, much ado about nothing.

Q Would it be better if the school system didn’t have local school councils?

No, no, it would not. I accept it as the price you pay for local control. The price that you pay for local control are the Slim Colemans and the Carlos Malaves. Is it a price worth paying? Yeah, it probably is because we live in a participatory democracy, meaning he who participates gets to benefit from the democracy. I think local school councils contribute to reform. But don’t complain when I hold you accountable.

I think there’s a good balance between the responsibilities of the local school council and the responsibilities of the central office. What was missing from the School Reform Act of 1987 was accountability. What the second reform act has brought is the power to hold people accountable. Everyone has to be accountable to the primary mission. The primary mission is delivering on the education product and ensuring that the laws and the school code are properly followed and enforced.

Q I’d like to make another statement for you to react to. My view of the Prosser situation is that both sides screwed up. The law provided for setting guidelines and then acting on them, and that wasn’t what happened. There was an announcement to act first, before the guidelines. And the reform groups didn’t talk about Prosser; all they talked about was process.

Well great, great. Everybody wanted to debate guidelines for the next 90 days or 120 days; meanwhile some terrible wrongdoings are going on. So Rome burns, but we basically debate the process in which we are to put out the fire. We needed to act decisively, but what do we do? We gave the guidelines a sunset and we did not declare another school in education crisis until the guidelines were amended. So I think we acted very, very responsibly.

I am not against local control. My reputation and Gery Chico’s reputation at City Hall was always inclusive, not exclusive. Always. We built our reputations on that.

Now there’s been schools where the community is demanding that I remove the local school council. The Hale School for example. There you have a local school council that is dominated by a single family. You have a firefighter who runs the local school council, and six of his relatives—either firefighters or paramedics—they dominate the local school council. The community wants them out. They scream, shout: get rid of them.

First of all, the school is a good performing school. Number two, there’s no incident of wrongdoing or corruption. Hey, we’ve had incompetent legislative bodies; there’s no law against that. So my point is I won’t intervene in that school, even though the whole community wants me to intervene in that school. So give us more credit for acting with restraint than for acting aggressively.

Q This suggests you must have a good speech for the upcoming local school council elections. Can’t you use your bully pulpit here?

We’re already beginning to give that speech. I went out to the Hale community and I said, I got the perfect solution for you—because I think 85 people elected that local school council. I said, Vote them out, get organized.

Q You’ve got remediation; you’ve got probation; you’ve got crisis. In some instances there’s overlap. It’s very confusing.

I don’t think there’s any confusion at all. You have schools on the state’s academic watch list. When those schools have continued to decline, when there doesn’t appear to be a game plan to improve performance, that’s when we put schools on remediation. And that allows us to take action that sometimes may not have to be approved by the local school council, and to remove a principal if we have to. But we envision remediation more as a notice that this school is not performing satisfactorily. Any additional authority that we exercise will really depend on the individual case.

If the records can’t be audited, then schools should be put on financial probation. That means you send in an auditor and the expenditures have to be approved by that auditor.

Education crisis is when something is going on that threatens the whole educational process in the school. There you take radical action. So where remediation is more of a long-term process, education crisis is more of a quick process.

Q And generally what is the trip point that puts a school into crisis?

It can be an emergency. Well let’s take for example Austin. Austin was never put on crisis, although we took the type of action that you might take in a crisis, in part because Austin was already under remediation. But the first week of school: No class schedule. No books. You know what I mean? You’ve got a crisis here.

Q I’m told that on a television program you said that you would like to have a say in the selection of principals. Is that true?

I don’t know if I said that or Gery Chico said that. I think you need to have some standards in the selection of principals that go beyond just a Type 75 Certificate.

Q They might include what?

I’m not sure. We’re in the process of putting together a Principals Academy. The academy would be run by a council of veteran principals, both retired and existing. I would envision that the academy and these veteran principals would make recommendations regarding additional criteria that we might want to consider in the selection of principals. Let’s face it, the principal is the single most critical figure in the schools. So it’s critical that the principals we select are just of the top quality, both as educators and managers.

Q This becomes a difficult political situation as well, if this is construed as placing limits on whom local school councils can select. Do you have to go change the law to get this done?

I’m not so sure that we would need to do that, and we would not impose criteria without consultation. We’re not talking about taking away the authority of local school councils to select principals. We’re not talking about doing something that would affect existing principals.

Q The Chicago Teachers Union contract with the board calls a peer review system to be set up. Is that going to happen?

We’ve got a committee working on that. In fact, there’s a number of things that the contract calls for. It also calls for expenditure reductions in health care. We’re supposed to reach an agreement, I think, by March or April on cost cuts in health care.

Q Does that mean benefit cuts?

It’ll mean what is negotiated. We’re looking for a reduction in cost to the tune of about 20 million dollars. It may mean generic drugs. It could mean a repackaging of certain benefits. Year two, three and four of the contract is contingent on the money being there.

Q Back again to peer review. How close to an agreement are you on that one?

Let’s just say that we will have a peer review system by next year. We’re not so close that I’ve gotten actively involved in it. It’s not at the stage where I’m beginning to see proposals that have gone through a couple drafts. I think it’s going to be a real positive thing.

Q The guidelines on state Chapter 1—what prompted you to change you mind about allowing schools to spend money on retreats?

Public input. The same thing on education crisis guidelines. A lot of the recommendations that emanated from Designs for Change and PURE specifically, we adopted. So we listen and we respond.

Q And you believe that retreats can be a part of school improvement?

Yeah, but once again, when people are deciding to spend public funds, they have an obligation to spend that money in the most cost-effective way possible.

Q How much of the game plan did you have with you when you arrived from City Hall, and how much have you made up as you’ve gone along?

Much of the financial plan was predetermined. We did know about a month before we went in that we were going in, and we spent about five or six weeks sitting down with people who were familiar with board programs and policies and finances. Obviously the most immediate problem that the board was facing was no collective bargaining agreements, a $150 to $200 million-dollar budget hole and [whether] schools would open on time.

We wanted to stabilize the system financially; we wanted to structure a four-year plan, so that there could be a capital component, so that we could go in and do building facility repairs. We wanted to negotiate a long-term [teachers’] contract. In other words, we wanted to buy the system some stability for a number of years, so that we could turn our attention to education policy.

Q You thought this out even before the legislation, because the legislation enabled you to do an awful lot of this, and that was passed in May.

Gery Chico and I were not involved in the formulation of the legislation. I didn’t find out until late May that I was going to be going over as school chief.

Q Then started a crash course in education, right?

Well, no, not really because my first job in government in 1979 was staffing the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee and the Appropriations Committee for Sen. Art Berman. My first government project was working on the Chicago School Financial Crisis Report of 1979.

Q But that was mainly finance. What about teaching and learning and curriculum?

It was finance, but it looked at a number of issues. The staff person for Elementary and Secondary Education would staff both the substantive side and the appropriation side.

Q What’s the mayor’s role now? You, how often do you report to him?

I brief him once a month with Gery Chico and Lynn St. James on school issues, the capital program, education programs, things like that. There’s a formal briefing about once a month, but I’m sure Gery talks to him weekly.

Q Do you need his okay for anything?

No, no. He in no way micromanages. He likes to think that he puts competent people in charge, and he basically lets them run the show. He really has insulated us from politics. I’ve never gotten a direct, personal call from the mayor on behalf of any individual or contract. Nor in my conversations with them.

Q And no one from his staff?

No, no one from his staff. That’s not to say that someone doesn’t call to inquire about something. But it’s almost like whoever you talk to, even when people call to inquire about something, they’re always extra careful to say, Now we don’t want you to do this.

Q Since you’ve had this job, what’s one of the biggest things you’ve learned? What’s been a surprise? What hadn’t you expected?

I hate to say that there are no surprises. I don’t think I’ve been shocked at anything. You heard the stories about the system for all these years and having been involved in education in Springfield, I can’t really say that anything has really surprised me. I think the job is as big as I had anticipated.

Q But in terms of trying to change schools, which are complex political and social organizations. Trying to figure out what levers to push to get teaching and learning to change. Surely, you didn’t know that coming in.

No, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly identify what some of the basic problems are. If there was something that perhaps was somewhat surprising, it was the degree of diversity of approaches at the local school levels. No standardized textbooks; schools using multiple approaches and, in some cases, individual schools themselves using multiple approaches to curriculum and instruction.

Q Is that good or bad?

If it works, it’s good; if it doesn’t work, it’s bad. I’m not suggesting that you need to standardize everything. Clearly you have a responsibility to ensure that there’s a core curriculum and that there’s a focus and that kids are learning the key educational things that they need to learn—reading, math, science, the language arts. But diversity is good too. You can have a core curriculum and still have an Afrocentric curriculum or a performing arts curriculum or be a dual-language school.

I’d like to see schools with more focused education plans. I’d like to see schools that have teachers that have bought into that plan and are trained to teach to that plan. Maybe if we begin to provide more focus at the central office, it’ll have a domino effect within the system.

Q Is there anything you’ve done so far that you would have done differently?

I probably would have gone slower on federal Title I. [Ten weeks into the school year, the administration abandoned its plans to phase in a massive shift in Title I schools; as a result, some schools had to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in programs that were underway.] Even we didn’t realize the full impact of the reallocation. So I’m not in any way saying that we were comfortable with what happened.

From a personnel standpoint, I would have put Carlos Azcoitia immediately in School and Community Relations and Maribeth Vander Weele in investigations. Because Maribeth is like the Avenging Angel; she cannot be compromised. She’s absolutely relentless, driving everybody crazy. We rehired Joyce Price, who was fired by the previous board. She had a reputation for being a bloodhound for weeding out wrongdoing, which was probably one of the reasons that she was cut.

I wouldn’t have done anything different on Prosser. I might have attempted to get the guidelines out a day or two earlier.

Q One last question now. Have you emptied all the warehouses full of extra stuff?

I don’t know.

Q This sounds like a “did not confirm or deny.”

Pershing Road is pretty big, it’s 2 million square feet.