‘It’s time to evolve,’ Paul Vallas says as he finishes four years

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Expanded summer school, neighborhood clusters of magnet programs and revisions in both student promotion and school probation policies are in the works, Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas discloses in an interview with Catalyst as he completes four years in office. The following is an edited transcript of that interview, conducted May 7 by Editor and Publisher Linda Lenz and Managing Editor Veronica Anderson.

Q What’s you biggest accomplishment in your first four years?

A Restoring respect for the school system. Image may not be everything, but image is a big part of confidence building. I think there’s much greater confidence in the system, and you don’t just see it limited to Chicago alone. You go downstate, we get respect. You go to Washington, we get respect. The governor has press conferences on his infrastructure initiative; we’re called, we’ve got to be there.

Q Where did you fall short of where you thought you would be?

A I’m not disappointed in anything so far. I actually think we’re further along than I might have anticipated. Within the first three weeks, I was confident we could do the financing stuff, and within the first year, I was confident that we could do the infrastructure stuff. But I think we’ve moved faster on the educational side than I thought we could.

I think we’ve been able to move faster on the academic side.

Q Why do you think it went faster than expected?

A I think accountability and standards have made a difference, but I think what has really helped fuel the improvement has been the fact that we have a lot of support programs in place. Look, when you put 174,000 children in school an additional two hours a day, feed the children three meals a day for 26 weeks, give them that additional attention—the children are going to get better. I mean there’s no coincidence that 86 percent of the Lighthouse schools showed improvement. I also think the summer school programs are making a difference.

Q What’s up next? What do you focus on next?

A It’s not that you do something new every year. If you’re able to sustain these programs long-term, I think you’re going to grow. It’s the combination of living with the uniform standards that we introduced two years ago, having teachers teach to those standards, having a system of accountability that puts everybody on notice that there’s a price to pay for academic failure, and having these support programs in place. These things in combination—if we are able to sustain them—you’ll continue to see improvement every year.

Q Is there money to expand the programs you just described?

A I’m hoping to add maybe 2,000 or 3,000 more kids to early childhood every year. I don’t anticipate much expansion of the after-school program. We would like to expand our summer school. We’d like to have academic camps for the kids who don’t fall into the exceptional category and don’t fall into the remedial category. In other words, we would like to move in the direction of literally having year-around academic programs for all the kids.

We are going to have a major technology program this summer. While we’re seeing technology gradually being introduced into the schools and into the classrooms, it really varies from school to school, because of local school leadership. You’ll go to a school like Shields and you’ll see computers in every classroom. And then you’ll go to a similar school that hasn’t done anything. People have to be prioritizing at the local level to make sure that with their discretionary resources they’re getting technology into the classroom, because we are not going to be able to do it alone.

Any 8th-grader who graduates will have an opportunity to enroll in this six-week intensified computer technology summer program for a high school credit. The objective here is to make sure that when that child starts high school, that child has basic computer competency and, at the same time, will have begun to earn his or her first high school credits. Incidentally, we’re doing the same thing with the transition schools.

Q Do you have plans for changing how schools are put on academic probation?

A Much greater weighting’s going to be given to attendance, graduation rates and dropout rates.

Q Why?

A People have raised quite legitimately the issue that the way the probation system is structured encourages schools to drop kids. I really think that we police schools too closely for that, but it’s a valid point. For those schools that are really struggling to keep their kids in school, to keep their kids engaged, we need to consider that. Clearly, the reading and math scores are important, but so are the dropout rates and graduation rates and attendance rates.

Q Are you going to look at increases in these measures as opposed to absolute rates? Right now 20 percent of your kids have to be at or above national norms to get off probation.

A Staff wants to look at improvement. For example, Orr is a different school than what it was three or four years ago. When Orr goes from 3 percent of the kids reading at or above national averages to 12, you’ve got to sit up and take notice. I’ll tell you if they go to 15, 16, 17 percent next year, I’m taking them off probation.

Q Then will they be expected to continue to make progress?

A Yeah. We may go to 25 percent, we may go to 30 percent. But you’re going to see more comprehensive criteria used.

Q What about schools that have transferred kids into special education?

A Eleven percent of kids are classified as special ed. We audit that all the time. You’re not seeing this big infusion of kids into special education. First of all, Sue Gamm [Chief Specialized Services Officer] won’t let it happen. I patrol everyone’s budget. If we had a huge infusion of kids into special ed, it is going to upset her budget. In the past, it was, “Great, the more kids in special ed, the more money we get.” It’s different now. She has a much broader area of responsibility.

In fact, the schools are complaining we aren’t allowing kids to be classified as special education. You do have schools that have large numbers of special education kids, but that’s because when those schools struggle and there’s an exodus, it’s a non-special education exodus. We’re adopting a policy that will require all schools to carry X number of special education kids. No more Lane Tech with 17 special education kids among 4,307. All the regional magnet high schools are going to have to have at least five to seven percent of their kids in special education.

Q That’s wonderful. These kids are going to be recruited. First time in their lives.

A This policy is not going to solve the problem of that neighborhood school with 10, 15, 20 percent of its kids in special education. The only way you’re going to address that is by having neighborhood-based programs that attract kids to the school. That’s why we’re putting the magnet programs in neighborhood schools—International Baccalaureate, math/science academies. You put them in the neighborhood schools and you make the neighborhood schools more attractive.

Q At the same time, you’re creating magnet schools that can pull kids away from the neighborhood schools.

A First of all, you have such a huge exodus of kids from the system. Just because kids don’t go to our schools, that doesn’t mean that they’re illegal residents of Chicago or something. People criticized the Region 1 magnet high school because it’s going to be 45 percent white and the system is only 11 percent white. Yeah, but Region 1 is [primarily] white, so what do we do? We’re going to disenfranchise everybody else? My point here is that you expand the choices for citizens of Chicago.

If you have educational options in every community for all the kids, it makes that neighborhood school more attractive for the children whose parents do have the financial options for selecting something else while, at the same time, improving the quality of educational services for those children who do not have the options.

Q There is a desegregation goal [65 to 85 percent minority in magnet schools]. Are you going to try to achieve that goal on the North Side?

A Rather than gerrymander, it’s more that the racial breakdown reflect that of those who apply.

Q Do you know what the federal government thinks about that?

A Yeah, we haven’t had a complaint from them yet. First of all, who’s going to come in and sue you for having a school that’s 45 percent white and 55 percent minority? I mean let’s be realistic. I don’t see any complaints about [South Side College Prep]. It will probably end up being about 90 percent African American and 10 percent Hispanic. The bottom line is you can’t force people to apply to a school.

Q Are you going to do more recruiting of minorities?

A Believe me, we recruit all over the place. The big criticism was we were only recruiting in Region 1. The big criticism early on was we were spending all of our recruiting dollars in Region 1.

Q For minority students?

A The forms went out everywhere.

Q For Region 1 or for all the magnet schools?

A Originally, a lot of the aggressive recruiting was in Region 1, because we felt that Region 1 was going to be the region where we were going to have the most controversy. We also did a lot of heavy recruiting in Region 3, because we got the same criticism about the Jones High School as we got in Region 1. Oops, hey, the numbers were perfect in Jones, so no more criticism about Jones.

Q Do you have any changes planned in the student promotion policy?

A This summer, the waiver policy is going to look at stanine scores, (regular) scores and grades.

Q Why?

A Because it’s time to evolve. One of the reasons that we were so heavily reliant on standardized tests when we came in, is [because] you could not trust the grades. You had to rely on some measure to determine where kids read to determine who should go to mandatory summer school, who should be mandated to attend the after-school programs, who should be retained. So we had to be reliant on standardized tests. Test scores have improved, but, more importantly, the percentage of kids in the bottom quartile continues to decline, indicating that there are more and more kids close to the national average. We may have only 35, 36 percent of our kids reading at or above national averages, but the kids who are approaching that national average is growing; the gap is closing. There’s much greater trust in the credibility of the grade, particularly at the elementary school level, than there was three or four years ago.

So we can begin to expand the factors that are considered when making determinations on who should be retained. If the kids still don’t meet that cutoff, then we’ll look at a number of factors to consider whether or not the kids should be moved on. What will then probably happen is, next year, we may use stanines, growth and grades for the regular school year. I think eventually three or four years down the road, grades will be the principal component for determining whether kids are retained. That’s where we’re going to end up.

Q Anecdotal evidence suggests that the threat of retention has a positive impact, that some kids work harder, but that keeping kids back is questionable.

A So far, I think those kids who have been retained have improved. The number of double retainees was very, very small. I’m very reluctant to retain kids a second time, and we’re certainly not going to retain kids a third time. When we retain kids, we just don’t keep them in the same environment. Look, we have almost 500 retired teachers working with retained kids this year. We hired 150 teachers and put them in targeted schools so that we could split class sizes at the bridge grades.

If it takes a kid a ninth year, excluding kindergarten, to get into high school, then so be it. And if it takes a kid five years to get out of high school with a diploma, then so be it.

Q But kids don’t necessarily think that way. Kids tend to drop out.

A We’re graduating kids with diplomas that can’t get them into four-year colleges, that can’t get them into technical training schools, that can barely ensure their survival at City Colleges, so who are we fooling? I mean who are we fooling? What makes us think that the kids are not dropping out now?

Do we need to be vigilant about this policy? Do we need to follow these students that are being retained? Absolutely. I’m not saying our policy is perfect.

Q Is there too much testing in the schools?

A Yes, absolutely.

Q What are you going to do about it?

A A couple things. The ACT prep test is going to replace the TAP at the 11th grade level.

Q But you’re moving the TAP [Tests or Achievement and Proficiency] out of the 11th grade and putting it into 10th grade.

A In fact, I’m not comfortable doing it, but it was something that was recommended and I don’t know whether or not we’re going to continue to do it. The reason we’re developing the CASE [Chicago Academic Standards Exams] is so that we have a standards-based assessment system that will allow us to reduce our reliance on other tests. For example, I’m going to try to opt out of the Prairie State [graduation] exam. I want the CASE to replace the Prairie State exam.

Also, something has to be done about the ISAP [Illinois Standards Assessment Program]. I don’t think the IGAP [Illinois Goals Assessment Program] was a bad exam. Changing it to the ISAP just because some suburban districts did bad on their reading scores … like, change the test. I didn’t see a need to come up with a whole new test and then to plop that test right in the middle of the school year, right after we did our CASE exam pilots. I think there is too much testing, but we are not necessarily the culprit. Once the CASE exam is developed, we may give the Iowas at every other grade level or every third grade level.

The CASE is pointing out that clearly our kids were not learning 9th-grade algebra. The CASE has driven home just how deficient the high school standards have been. It is intended not only to test whether children are learning to the standards, but also whether teachers are teaching to the standards.

Q Are your curriculum models going to be sufficient to help teachers who are unable to teach to these standards? Just handing them these pieces of paper?

A No, there’s going to be training for the curriculum model. The curriculum support material is very, very comprehensive. Every year, we hire anywhere from a 1,000 to 1,500 teachers. Wouldn’t those teachers love standards, programs of study and curriculum models developed by the best teachers in the system? Anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of our teachers, particularly in the math and science areas, are not certified to teach their specific area. Wouldn’t that general math teacher love a state-of-the-art algebra curriculum if they had to teach algebra?

Q Yes, but do you go beyond that to provide help in the classroom, which is what we hear all the time that teachers want?

A All of the curriculum material will be on the Internet. There will be a teacher self-training component in addition to the in-service training we’ll provide. Of course, then we’re going to have to worry about training some of the teachers on how to use the computer. Just like the standards, like the promotion policy—things are going to evolve. Likewise, with the curriculum. It’s going to be on the web, and the teacher at home is going to be able to make recommendations, so there’s going to be a continual inflow and outflow of information on how to modify the curriculum model.

Plus, all of the museums are preparing curriculum support programs. For example, we just met with Bruce Dumont from the Broadcasting Museum. They have the whole reservoir of material that they’re going to inventory and make available to support the social studies curriculum. We met with the Shoah Foundation, and they’re providing us with a Holocaust curriculum. We’re developing a similar Afro-centric curriculum component.

The important point to make here is no teacher is going to be mandated to use this material. It’s just going to be made available and if the teachers want to use it, fine, if the teachers don’t want to use it, fine. But it is going to be aligned with the standards, and it is going to be developed by our teachers, and it is going to be there as a reference guide, as a resource material for any teacher who wants to access it.

Q Do you think you’ve ever made a bad decision in appointing a principal?

A Yeah, I’ve probably made a couple weak choices, but the beauty of it is, when I do make a weak choice, I go in and I make another choice. So I’ve got a couple weak choices, but I’ve never selected a principal because they did me a favor.

Q Could you help local school councils in this regard by helping them see what a good principal is and how to pick them?

A We do that now. We have a lot of outreach programs designed to help LSCs make good principal selections.

Q As Senate Bill 652 now stands, a principal who is rated satisfactory by the regional education officer but is not retained by the LSC could launch an appeals process.

A We [and legislators] all agree that the LSC should not be precluded from seeking someone who’s superior, but we don’t want that to be used as an excuse to jettison somebody who has performed the job.

Q Why can’t you simply rely on your accountability process for schools? You look at whether schools are getting better by a variety of statistics. Why do you need new authority?

A Because the accountability process is reactive; you intervene after things have happened. You see, the fire has started.

The only reason they want to get rid of the principal from Kennedy is because they want to get rid of the principal from Kennedy.

Q Well, there are two sides to the story.

A I’ve been waiting for the council to give me concrete stuff. Please give me evidence, not some anecdotal evidence that some teacher called some kid a name and the principal did not fire that teacher, as if the principal could have. I’ve removed more principals in part because they had simply reached an impasse with their councils than I have in direct opposition to the councils.

Whatever happens to Senate Bill 652, we are going to expand our powers under education crisis to intervene in schools that are being disrupted.

Q To what? Give an example.

A For example, when you come in and 40 percent of faculty leaves within six months, and it’s obvious that you lost control of that school, that’s a problem.

Q It makes good councils real nervous when you want to expand your powers.

A These changes are very modest. And let me point out that we were asked by the Legislature to do a survey. I have 88 percent support [among the public] on [LSC] background checks.

Q From a very well informed public, of course.

A All right, well how’s this? 89 percent believe that there should be minimal educational requirements for council members, and 67 percent believe that councils should be advisory. All right, now, I’m not going out and seeking to make the councils advisory.

Q That will make them feel great.

A And I put more stock into [CPS’ commissioned] survey than I do the Consortium [on Chicago School Research] study that was essentially a survey of council members. Nothing like doing a study of local school councils by surveying the members. That’s like surveying school superintendents to find out what they think about themselves.

Q How do you evaluate the high school redesign effort?

A I think it’s progressing. Fred Hess [who is studying high schools] will tell you that in some schools teaching was not going on, and at least you’ve got teaching going on for the first time in a long time. He says we’ve gotten everybody’s attention; everybody’s serious.

I truly believe that at the elementary school level, when you’ve got a good principal, good support programs and clear standards, the schools are fine. I think school reform has been largely beneficial to the elementary schools. But in high schools, no matter how good the principal, there are so many institutional problems that the schools need a radical change.

Q Some schools are saying that there’s just too much stuff to deal with. One of those things is service learning; teachers say they don’t have time to think about how to change the curriculum to incorporate it.

A How many courses do they teach a day? Five? How many prep periods do they have a week? Four? Look, most high schools start at 8:30, 9:00, and they’re done at 2:00, 2:30.

At the elementary school level you don’t hear these complaints. We’ve got Lighthouse Programs going on to 4:30, 5:00, 5:30. The teachers are there.

Q But they’re being paid.

A Well, there are a lot of sacrifices being made. The lights are burning late. All I’m saying is I think we get too many complaints. We try to do student advisories, right. We provide a script, we provide an outline. One period a week, and you would of thought in some schools that I was Herod killing all the first born. Give me a break, one period a week.

Q Do you offer carrots and sticks to change that? What’s your role in changing that?

A Well, this year we’re paying them to do the advisories, and we’re still getting complaints. We provide support, but we demand accountability.

Q What’s the support for high school teachers?

A In the new contract, there’s one period a week for advisories and one flex period that can be used for a second advisory or special counseling. There is a little more flexibility in the schedule now. I also think that high schools can be spending their discretionary money better.

Q The administration’s been very stingy releasing data on its programs.

A I don’t think we’ve been stingy at all. There’s more information flowing from our school system than any other school system in the State of Illinois or any previous administration.

Q But your press releases are missing data that you would need to be able to see how well the program is working.

A Well, for example, what press releases are you referring to?

Q Well, the one on X percent of kids have met the promotion requirements to go on to the next grade. How many of those students are in bilingual programs? How many are special ed?

A Look, the Consortium does studies on us. Melissa Roderick does studies. Fred Hess basically has complete access to all the high school data.

Q And all that information will be made public?

A Well, Fred’s laid out his summaries. Everybody and their brother studies us. But I’m not complaining about it. But what I’m saying is, Don’t create the perception that somehow we’re holding back on information.

Q Employee compensation is growing. How are you going to pay for it? Do you think programs will have to be cut?

A No, because my budget plan is balanced to the year 2003. Now, the rating agencies always expect us to have a reserve, a minimum reserve of a $150 million. We will be able to sustain all of the program initiatives that we’ve embarked upon, and we might be able to tweak some of them up, like some of the early childhood initiatives. Probably not the Lighted Schoolhouse. The summer school initiatives will be expanded to include the technology component I talked about. Also, we will be providing summer school services so any 9th- and 10th-grader who has failed two or more courses will have summer school available to them cost free.

The four-year plan will take the capital plan from $2 billion to $3.2 billion. That includes the $200 million that we’re going to get from Gov. Ryan’s plan.

We’re going to clean up the Options for Knowledge Program—there’s like 121 different programs—and get it down to about five or six basic programs. The schools claim they have programs that they don’t have. Schools have programs that aren’t doing anything. There’s a lot of waste and a lot of abuse in this area. We want to get high schools and elementary schools to form a series of clusters, so that every cluster will have an IB program, a math, science and technology program, a world languages program. Then when there’s transportation, there will be transportation within the cluster.

A request for proposals is out, and we’ve already gotten 27 school clusters to respond. So the objective over the next four or five years is every neighborhood will have a cluster of schools that have a diversity of program offerings. By doing this, we’re going to reduce our busing costs.

Q Now that the world knows that you and Gery Chico don’t always get along …

A I’m not going to comment. I’ve said enough on the Gery Chico issue.

Q You don’t want to tell us what you disagree about?

A No.