Time for Vallas to slow down, listen more

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Paul Vallas is a phenomenon. In his first year as chief executive officer of Chicago’s public schools, he personally did more good for kids than whole administrations did in the past. Yes, he has more power and access to more money—courtesy of Republicans in the Illinois General Assembly—but he wielded those advantages with a finesse and speed that energized the school system’s employees and gave new hope to the general public. Employees got raises; children got more after-school programs; the poorest performing schools got more resources; and private maintenance firms made schools clean—to name a few of the accomplishments.

Along with Reform Board President Gery Chico, Vallas has made clear that more is expected of everyone. That message emanates not only from the bully pulpit, but also from new programs and policies—including a checklist of responsibilities sent home to parents, a promotion policy that gives kids a second chance through summer school and pressure on low-scoring schools.

Not the least of Vallas’ contributions is his style, which comes through vividly in writer Grant Pick’s profile in this issue. Accessible, frank, bold, action oriented—how refreshing. Not surprisingly, there are some strong negatives, too: Thin skinned, explosive, at times fixed in his ideas. However, there is an antidote to those traits: backbone in subordinates. Paul Vallas is intimidating, but only to people who let themselves be intimidated. More administrators—indeed, more of everyone involved in schools—need to be like Gary Moriello, principal of Gladstone Elementary School. As writer Elizabeth Duffrin relates in this month’s installment of our School Reform Chronicles, Moriello stuck his neck out with public criticism of the school system’s building rehabilitation plan. He got his knuckles rapped, but he also got what he wanted for his school. “I survived it,” says the scrappy principal of his challenge to authority.

On balance, Paul Vallas’ modus operandi served the school system exceedingly well in Year 1 of his administration. He set a new tenor and got a lot of new programs going. But from now on, the challenge is much different and much harder—it’s changing the way schools teach. No matter how smart, energetic and dedicated, one man alone can’t do that. And doing too much too soon with too little debate could set the system in reverse. At a minimum, people working in and with schools have to believe that serious thought has been given to their ideas and concerns. So far, Vallas’ massive school probation program, launched with zero public debate, has only demoralized the people who have to change; it may end up being a case of making lemonade out of lemons. And a massive program to restructure high schools is in the wings. It’s time for Paul Vallas to slow down and listen more.

ABOUT US With this issue, Veronica Anderson, formerly a business reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business, becomes managing editor of Catalyst. A native of Chicago, Veronica served as a research assistant for our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, after receiving a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.