Victor Rivero's

Interview: Unstoppable Paul Vallas

In Interviews on November 28, 2009 at 9:44 am

by Victor Rivero

PAUL VALLAS, 56, IS THE SUPERINTENDENT of Louisiana’s Recovery School District, a special district of schools not just in the Hurricane Katrina-wrecked zones, but specific areas across the state that have long been ravaged by more than just bad weather. Before Vallas rose to national prominence as head of Chicago Public Schools, he had directed the budget arm of the Illinois State Legislature and served as budget director under Mayor Richard M. Daley. When Daley convinced the state legislature to place CPS under mayoral control, Vallas took the helm. Toward the end of his reign, and following criticism from his boss and election of a union president running on an anti-Vallas platform, Vallas resigned in 2001 and ran for governor. He lost narrowly to now-former Governor Rod Blagojevich but ahead of former state Attorney General Roland Burris. Vallas was then appointed CEO of the School District of Philadelphia where more than 40 schools were turned over to external for-profits, nonprofits and universities starting in the Fall of 2002. By 2005 (and still a homeowner in Illinois), Vallas opted not to challenge Blagojevich and signed a two-year contract as superintendent in Louisiana’s Recovery School District, where he currently continues his school turnaround crusade. The tools for schools that Vallas recommends include, from a broad perspective, those that support his reform-minded efforts to raise test scores, improve union relations, balance school budgets, and assist in instituting new programs such as mandatory summer schools and after school programs. Vallas has also shown strong support of alternative, charter and magnet school expansions. A key tool he uses daily is his cell phone, and in talking about what truly matters in education, Vallas has by the end of this interview very nearly talked himself hoarse. 

ETT: You’re famous for turning schools around. What tools does it take?

VALLAS: Have a model for what constitutes a high-quality school district. In other words, know the common elements of high-quality, high-performing schools so that when you go in and do a turnaround, you have a K-8 turnaround model, or a high-school turnaround model. After 15-20 years of reform, we know what works and what doesn’t work. We know what the ideal model elementary and ideal model high schools are. Know your resources–the models–and how to secure the leadership to go in and implement those models. 

ETT: That’s what turnaround is about. What is it not about?  

VALLAS: Turnaround is not just taking over a failing school and then not having a clue of how to fix it. A lot of turnaround schools, they’ll just take a successful principal and just stick him in school thinking by osmosis that school is going to get better. You’ve got to have a turnaround plan. 

ETT: For example? 

VALLAS: I’ve been in New Orleans for the last two years. Virtually every school has improved in the last two years. Over the last two years, our high schools have improved in every subject at every grade. And the increases at the middle and high schools were double digit this year. Now the last two years in Philadelphia–in Philadelphia, schools improved for six consecutive years–and the last two years: every grade, every subject [improved]–including four consecutive years of improvement in the high schools. Why? It’s not because we went in willy nilly–we had a model. There was a turnaround plan. There was a turnaround model that we applied to struggling and failing elementary schools and a model that we applied to high schools. The key is having a model and the key is having a leadership team that can implement the model. 

ETT: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, other corporate foundations and dozens of for-profit schools have searched for it; is it pure folly to consider that there might exist a universally applicable model?

VALLAS: I’ll be all honest. There is a commonality to high-performing elementary schools and high-performing high schools. There may be variations. But it doesn’t deviate that much. For example, all the elementary schools that I inherited in New Orleans were failing. So, the model I used was a modified KIPP model (Knowledge is Power Program, a network of free, open-enrollment, college prep schools in under-resourced communities throughout the US; visit: And that became the basis for us for our turnaround. That became the model for our strategy. Let me point out, though, schools that were direct-run–about half the schools–well, see; here’s a district where we had to turn around all the schools–we closed. The hurricane wiped out the schools. We had to open new schools. And we opened afterschools by doing this modified KIPP model, because KIPP is really “best practices with strong leadership teams.” We used Gary Robichaux–who is the original KIPP leader down in New Orleans. He became our K-8 person. So we used that model. And then we also opened up a number of charter schools and we pre-qualified them so that the charters we brought in were all based on high-quality, successful models. But you’ve got to have a model, you’ve got to have a vision of what you want that school to look like. You’ve got to have an understanding, you’ve got to have a model that you apply that is based on best practices, that’s based on the characteristics of high-performing schools. 

ETT: What are the costs and how do you fund all these efforts? There’s Race to the Top, Stimulus, Title 1… 

VALLAS: There is obviously…let’s talk about the obstacles. Instead of talking about the costs, not everything demands additional money. Education is underfunded. But, there are three reasons why turnarounds aren’t successful. 

Here are three reasons why schools fail:  

1. Reason number one is the most common reason people say: lack of money. Sometimes it’s not the lack of money, but more – well, let’s say, lack of financial planning. Sometimes it’s not necessarily having enough money, but having consistent money; it’s not knowing what your resources are going to be so you can plan. Financial stability is important: having enough money and having stable revenue sources. You want to have financial predictability, so you can have reform–even if you don’t have all the money that you would want or that you would feel that you need. Because when districts have a feast, or famine years–it really impedes their ability to lay out a long-term reform. You need to be able to provide the schools with financial stability. Then, they’ll know what their resources are going to be and they can adjust their strategies accordingly. Not where they are embarking upon a strategy and then suddenly they’re having to readjust because the money’s not going to be there. Consistent funding is as important as adequate funding. 

2. The second is institutional. Institutional obstacles and constraints are greater obstacles to reform than financial constraints. The larger the institutional barriers, the more difficult it is to implement those reforms and the more costly those reforms are. What do I mean? Institution-run schools can limit your school day, your year, and your ability to hire and fire based on performance. They can limit your ability to radically restructure school and to put your best teachers in your weakest classrooms. There are institutional requirements that force you to hire based on seniority, or make it difficult to terminate an employee because of tenure. There mustn’t be institutional obstacles to designing a school, a school year, to putting programs in schools, staffing the schools in a way that doesn’t benefit students and only benefits the adults. 

3. Thirdly, human resources. Some people may view human resources as a financial issue. You know, some of it is financial, but some of it is being open to looking beyond the traditional policies of education to recruit high-caliber, intelligent people to the schools. It’s being open to alternative certification, to non-traditional educators coming in and helping your schools. Okay? Developing a TAP-like model (Teacher Advancement Program; visit: for creating school leadership teams at the local level to guide your reforms, you know? Instituting a comprehensive, data-driven curriculum and management system that equips the teachers with best-practice curriculum instructional models, plus strengthening your teaching. I mean, there’s a way to design your curriculum and instructional models to enhance your human resources. When you put people of energy and effort and intelligence and drive in the right instructional management programs–you almost always guarantee superior teaching. 

But [all this requires] having the leadership at the local school level. Not only choosing the right principal, but choosing the right leadership team. Have a TAP model. TAP is a good model for creating local school leadership teams. Expand the pool of qualified teachers by moving beyond the traditional colleges of education. Put your human resources into the type of management system–instructional management, behavioral management, school climate management–that enhances your student resources where there is equipment and training, where there is finance–especially where the quality of your human resources are strengthened by their quality of the curriculum, by the quality of these school climate models, instructional models … 

ETT: Firing an entire school staff in the name of dramatic, effective school ‘turnaround’ — good idea? 

VALLAS: I don’t know. You know, I’ve done school turnarounds by firing the entire staff, by phasing out the old school and phasing in the new school. I’ve done it by taking a big high school with branch schools and taking those branch schools and breaking them into independent schools and then restructuring those schools individually. I’ve done it by converting middle schools into high schools one grade at a time. 

ETT: All these ways are workable? 

VALLAS: Yeah, I think there is more than one approach. You can’t–you need to give the schools stability, so that any school turnaround plan that they implement is not going to be changed every year. There needs to be funding consistency, and no institutional obstacles to making the changes at the local school level that are designed to improve the school. In other words, there shouldn’t be institutional obstacles to designing a school improvement or turnaround plan that benefits the kids. You’ve got to have a strong leadership team that has the technical support and technical assistance to implement the new school model effectively. And that model needs to be implemented based upon best practices. 

ETT: The whole turnaround concept reminds me of when in the late ’80s and early ’90s Rudy Giuliani and the police chief Bill Bratton identified and cleaned up New York City’s little crimes first to create a safer atmosphere where serious crimes abated, apparently as a result. What effect do you see that turning around the lowest-performing parts of an entire system might have on–

VALLAS: Oh yeah, you’re talking about–I don’t draw the same parallel–it’s called the ‘broken window’ or ‘broken glass’ approach where you clean up the petty crime, you get people to conform to the little rules–in other words, where there is neglect and there is graffiti or petty theft, where there is a feeling of disorder and disrespect, it just creates an environment where it no longer leads to more serious crime. By improving the worst-performing schools, you don’t necessarily improve those schools that may not be failing but are still performing mediocre. You have to be careful. You have to be careful that you don’t–for example: the bar for failing schools in Louisiana, the bar– 60 is a school, the index for passing. It’s a composite of test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates–but it’s 60. That’s considered a passing grade. And if a school did over 60 or if they’re even close to 60– then they really fight the Recovery School District’s intervention in their schools. They say, ‘Oh we’re so close–we’re so close to 60.’ Well, if you reach a passing–if you reach 60, is that a passing score? A rising tide lifts all boats. You have to raise expectations for all schools. Raise standards. Demand accountability for all schools. Demand that all schools improve–even schools that are select enrollment, or magnet schools. All schools should have a plan to improve their academic performance, to increase their graduation rate and to reduce their dropout rate. 

ETT: Easier said than done. How do you go about doing this? 

VALLAS: You need to create a culture of accountability. Cleaning up the broken glass, going after the petty crime–broken glass is not the equivalent of going after the lowest-performing schools. It’s about raising expectations. It’s about raising standards. It’s about demanding better behavior and in the case of education, better performance. When you do that, you are impacting everybody. A rising tide lifts all boats. You raise standards across the board–and all the schools get better. You demand accountability across the board–all the schools get better. Another good example is to not only raise the standards, but putting in exemplary programs, magnet programs and enrichment programs and accelerated programs into low-performing schools. Change the expectations. Change the self-image. Kids view themselves as going to failing schools. A better parallel than the broken glass is going into their neighborhood school and putting in difficult, accelerated programs and AP courses where there are not enough kids in the AP Algebra in that school–then providing them with AP Algebra online. Do accelerated. Do gifted. 

ETT: How does that work? 

VALLAS: In Chicago I went into 15 underperforming neighborhood high schools by putting in national merit programs in these schools. Most of the programs took hold. All of the schools improved. Why? Because you raised the expectations. By magnetizing neighborhood schools and putting exemplary and accelerated programs in neighborhood schools, you begin to raise expectations. You end the academic segregation that exists sometimes for no other reason than that these schools have never bothered to invest in accelerated and gifted programs. They’ll say, ‘Well, the kids…’  But it’s actually what came first, the chicken or the egg. When you put accelerated and gifted and high-achievement programs in underperforming high schools–if you build it they will come. If you offer it, they will come. I put 15 IB programs in 15 neighborhood schools. Within three years, the number of kids went from 325 to 4,000–four thousand! And in 15 of the 15 IB programs, the kids were performing far above average. Raising expectations is not only about raising standards but giving kids from poor schools in the toughest neighborhoods access to the type of school choices and offerings that are offered to kids in the more affluent communities. 

ETT: Where do educational technology tools come in?

VALLAS: Technology has given me the capacity to go into some of the poorest performing schools and in New Orleans, all of our buildings were either damaged or closed and 11 of our schools have opened as modular school campuses. Within the first year, I modernized every single classroom. Every single classroom has smartboards, Promethean boards. All my high school kids had laptop computers and could take AP honors, advanced placement and college and dual enrollment courses on their laptops–courses that were not [previously] offered because the schools were so small but that could [now] be offered online. The whole objective here was to use technology and put kids in a position to create a classroom of the future in even the most decrepit schools, and to use technology to give children access to more choices. I invested in classroom technology, smaller class sizes, classroom libraries. That’s the equivalent of the ‘broken glass’ approach.  

ETT: Plenty of schools need turning around–any further advice? 

VALLAS: When you intervene in schools, you need to select the right leadership. Sometimes you need to incubate that leadership. Sometimes what you’ve got to do is go in and stabilize a failing school. And then take the time to go in and train and incubate the leadership team that can go in and implement and do the school turnaround. Sometimes it’s in two steps. Sometimes it’s a two year process. Go in and stabilize, reorganize and lay the foundation–and in the second year, implement the reforms. What that does is it gives you the time to select the best model. Sometimes it’s a model that you have, sometimes it’s a model that you bring from the outside, for example, a top-performing charter school model. It also gives you the opportunity to put together and to train a leadership team that can then go in and do the turnaround. I believe it’s a two-year process. First year, stabilize, second year take your reforms to scale. Incidentally, that’s my prescription for districts. I always go in and stabilize the first year, lay the foundation, and then by year two, I’ve implemented all my reforms district wide. That is why in 17 years, I’ve never had a year when test scores did not improve. And I’ve always gotten a bump–a big bump my first year in Chicago, in Philadelphia and in New Orleans. 

ETT: What do you mean, stabilize? 

VALLAS: Stabilizing means you go in and you make sure people are using curriculum and instructional materials aligned to state standards and align grade by grade. You make sure that they have a strong professional development program. You make sure that you are benchmarking so that you can learn from student progress for the purposes of intervention. And you monitor teacher performance for purposes of support. You make sure that the schools are adequately staffed, that the schools have a strong leadership team on the ground. In other words, the basic things. You make sure that they are using their instructional time well, that they’re using their instructional day, that you are allocating some time for intervention. These are just common practices. In fact, you can spend a week in the school and figure out all the things that they’re doing and not doing. Probably won’t take a week if you have the best practice models out there; you can come up with a school improvement plan for that school that you can start implementing. But the whole idea is to try to go in and stabilize the school and do the easy things. Curriculum alignment, you know? A lot of times you begin evaluating the school and there is always a line. Once you finish your evaluation, you can immediately go in and implement some changes. A lot of these failing schools make the same mistakes. They don’t have a curriculum and instructional strategy. They have a poor professional development program. They’re not using their instructional day effectively. There is a lack of communication among the staff. There is not consistency in what’s being done at every grade level. No one is monitoring instruction. No one is benchmarking the performance of the kids in order to determine who is falling behind and to identify staff professional development. They’re not using their Title 1 effectively. 

ETT: Thoughts on [US Education Secretary] Duncan’s leadership? 

VALLAS: Arne did a fine job in Chicago. In so far as Arne’s leadership, I think Arne is the perfect man for the job. First of all, he’s aware of what works and what doesn’t work. He also knows the five or six key ingredients to what constitutes quality schools. He believes you have to use data effectively–you have to have a strong assessment system that allows you to evaluate student and teacher performance for the purpose of determining the appropriate interventions and supports. If you look at the pillars that he and the President have laid out, they really lay out what they consider important: effective assessment systems, data-driven instructional management programs. They feel think those things are important. They feel that a longer school day, a longer school year is important; more time on task. They feel that building strong leadership teams at the local school level and expanding the pool of highly qualified teacher candidates is important, plus their support for TAP funding and of course their strong support for Teach for America, the New Teachers Project, and projects like New Leaders for New Schools. They believe that the promotion of school choice through charters is important. School choice meaning school choice not only for kids and parents, but also school choice for schools. In other words, the ability of schools to hire and fire based on qualifications, to promote and reward based on qualifications. Through all these things. School districts that are pushing programs that embrace these reforms, that are willing to embrace school choice–states willing to support charters; districts and states willing to support longer days and years, to seek out stronger, better data and assessment systems and willing to support instructional reforms and comprehensive TAP programs–those districts will be rewarded through Race to the Top money. 

ETT: What’s next for you? Sounds like you’ve got plenty of work in New Orleans…  

VALLAS: I’m going to finish my job here. Life is too short not to–not to finish what you started. This is probably as good a chance as I would ever have to either go to work at [Illinois] Governor, either work for the Senate for that matter, for the Cook County Board president–but you know what? Sometimes the timing is right to run–but the timing is wrong to leave New Orleans. Sometimes you don’t get everything you want in life. But I believe, what with the Race to the Top, with opportunities out there, and with Arne as the Secretary of Education–we’ve had two pretty strong years here in New Orleans with pretty significant improvement in test scores. The district is 50 percent charter and the other half has charter-like autonomy, so all [my] districts have charter-like autonomy. We are a one-hundred percent school-choice district and a one-hundred percent school choice both for parents and for schools. Parents can apply to any school and go to any school in the district. Principals from individual schools compete, and teachers can be hired and promoted or terminated based on performance. We’re opening new high schools. And we have an ever-expanding network so we’re really not leaving any child behind. We have second- and third-chance programs. We’re really doing some innovative things here. We have a very large alternative and non-traditional educator program here. We’re attracting talented people from across the country. There’s just a real renaissance going on and I want to complete what we’ve started. [ETT]


Victor Rivero is the Editor of EDTECH TOOLS. Write to:

© 2009 Victor Rivero. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. For permission to share or reproduce selections from this blog, email:


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