Chicago: Viewing Education through a Performance Prism

Chicago: Viewing Education through a Performance Prism
October 1, 1997

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)

Appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Paul C. Vallas took over
as Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools on July
1, 1995. Within three weeks, Vallas had hammered out a new
four-year teachers' contract. Within six, he had developed a
four-year budget that eliminated a $1.4 billion deficit. Since
Vallas took over, Chicago's schools have started the new school
year on time. This year, for the first time ever, the school year
started before Labor Day.

Vallas first served in Mayor Daley's administration as revenue
director, then as budget director and chief financial officer
before becoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Before joining
the mayor, he had directed the Illinois Economic and Fiscal
Commission and worked for former Illinois Senate President Phil
Rock, staffing a number of committees, including education and

During the first few days of school, the busiest period of the
school year, Mr. Vallas found time for an interview with School
Reform News
Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What led the state legislature to
give Mayor Daley responsibility for the Chicago Public Schools?

Vallas: The legislature felt that someone had
to take direct responsibility for the schools--someone of
prominence. Often they have appointed school boards, or the
school boards are elected. There's always indirect responsibility
for the schools, but never direct responsibility.

Behind the issue of responsibility was the fact that schools
were failing--seven teacher strikes in a year, financial
mismanagement, declining test scores, declining enrollment,
people fleeing from the system, and facilities that were
crumbling. The system was going from one financial crisis to
another. While many individual schools were doing very well, as a
whole the system was just not providing a quality education for
the children of the city.

Clowes: Why did Mayor Daley select you to
run the school system rather than a traditional superintendent?

Vallas: In setting up this new management
structure, the legislature set up a position of CEO, rather than
superintendent. They wanted someone to provide the overall
management direction and oversight of the system. That individual
would bring in people with specialties on the education
side--procurement, operations, and education support.

Clowes: The newspapers report that you
have a four-year plan to reform the schools. What are your

Vallas: I feel uncomfortable even being
called a reformer. Our mission was to bring accountability to the
system, to have a performance-based education system where all
decisions go through the education performance prism. Decisions
that we make on budgeting, on new programs, on what programs to
expand, and on what programs to get rid of--these decisions are
always made in the context of "How does this contribute to
student achievement?"

Clowes: So you're looking for results and
saying,"This is the performance we expect; how do we hold
people accountable for that?"

Vallas: That's right. Our first objective,
right out of the box, was to bring long-term financial stability
to the system and to bring about labor peace. We did that with
our first budget and by negotiating a four-year contract with the
teachers' union. We then turned our attention to the other
unions. We privatized the trades and got rid of what were called
"stationary firefighters," or school maintenance
assistants. These were guys who ran the high-pressure boilers,
only there are no more high-pressure boilers.

Then, halfway through the first year, we finalized a
comprehensive education plan that has been our focus for the last
two years. That plan consists of initiatives we know will improve
student achievement. We know that student achievement improves
significantly when you reach children earlier, if you subject
them to high standards, and if you hold teachers, support staff,
and principals accountable for student performance. We know that
when those things happen, student performance and achievement

Clowes: And this comprehensive education
plan has been implemented?

Vallas: Yes, we fully implemented this over
the last year and a half. We dramatically expanded early
childhood programs. There are 10,000 more children enrolled in
early childhood classes than when we walked in the door,
including 4,000 to 5,000 children that we reach through our home
outreach program. There are now 417 schools with after-school
academic remediation programs, 164 schools have lengthened their
school day by an hour, and, in September, 100 schools will be
part of the all-day program.

We also ended social promotion. Last year we put 150,000
children through summer school, including 90,000 in academic
remediation programs. The high schools are in the process of
being restructured. This year is the first year for the
implementation of the new high school curriculum reform, which
consists of more math, more science, more quality courses--a much
more rigorous core curriculum.

Clowes: Did any of this come out of the
discussions you had with the Catholic archdiocese?

Vallas: Yes, we learned some lessons from the
archdiocese about the quality of their curriculum. Our curriculum
is much too diverse. We refer to it as a "dummy-down"
curriculum: Students can take so many electives that they can
cherry-pick their way through a very, very easy curriculum. They
accumulate enough credits to graduate--but, because they've taken
so few quality courses, their ACTs are below college grade.

We now have a much more rigorous curriculum. In addition, we
put the system on very high, uniform, internationally pegged
standards. We're in the process of developing a uniform
instructional curriculum that will be available to every teacher
by September 1998. That curriculum will be detailed down to the
daily lesson plans. Even if you're a new, inexperienced teacher
or you have some deficiencies, we'll ensure that you can dispense
quality instruction by using the lesson plans and support

Clowes: What has been the response of
parents to these changes?

Vallas: Parental response has been
overwhelmingly positive. The parents are more involved and the
students are more focused. By ending social promotion and
mandating summer school for children who perform poorly, and then
by retaining students who are far behind grade level, we hold
students and their parents accountable. So obviously the students
and parents are more focused than they've ever been before.

What parents want is a neighborhood school that's academically
challenging, safe, secure, and attractive. It's not too
complicated. As the mayor always says, "It doesn't take a
rocket scientist."

Clowes: What results have you been able
to measure so far?

Vallas: Enrollment is up, attendance is up,
test scores are up across the board. The test scores have been up
for two years. ACT scores are at their highest level in a decade.
So we've seen improvement. But, in addition to holding students
accountable and parents accountable, we're also holding teachers
and principals accountable by putting schools on probation and
reconstituting non-performing schools. We're all in this
together; we all need to be held accountable for our performance.

Clowes: What are your goals for the next
two years?

Vallas: The education plan that we laid out
almost two years ago has either been implemented or it's in the
process of being implemented, so over the next two years we're
going to continue implementing and expanding the initiatives that
we started during the past two years.

I think you're going to see a continued expansion of early
childhood programs. We're going to work to expand the
after-school programs and find ways to lengthen the school day.
The implementation of the high school changes will be done over
the next three years. While the standards project is complete, we
are now working on the model curriculum project that I referred
to. That should be implemented by September 1998.

Clowes: Could your approach be
successfully applied to other troubled school systems in major
urban areas?

Vallas: Yes, I think we have a prescription
that can solve any school system's problems. We're talking about
re-prioritizing our budget so that we do not spend money on
things that do not directly or indirectly have a positive impact
on the classroom. We're talking about making sure our schools are
spending enough quality instructional time in the core curriculum
subject areas.

It's not uncommon for children in urban school districts to
receive about 200 minutes of instruction in the core subject
areas, like math, science, reading, language arts, and social
studies. On the other hand, children in the suburbs spend as much
as 300 minutes in the core curriculum areas, and the magnet and
gifted schools spend as much as 360 minutes. A 100 minute
difference a day is 182,000 fewer minutes a year. It's no wonder
the kids can't compete. It's a knowledge gap. It has less to do
with societal conditions and more to do with the fact that these
kids are getting short-changed on the education end, on the
instructional end.

Clowes: Finally, if there's one message
on education that you'd most like to communicate to policy
makers, journalists, and other School Reform News readers, what
would that be?

Vallas: There is no substitute for high
standards and accountability, none at all. That's not to say that
high standards and accountability are a substitute for adequate
funding for education at the state and federal level. The state
and federal levels cannot demand high standards and
accountability on the one hand, while not addressing the funding
issues on the other.

We'll make the tough decisions at the local level--in terms of
reconstituting schools, imposing standards, ending social
promotion, retaining students, and dealing with our labor
unions--but at the state and federal levels, they have to make
the tough decisions on the funding side. We can improve the
quality of public education without new resources. We've proven
that. I think we'll continue to prove that. But we can move much
faster and we can see much more significant gains if we received
more help from the state and federal government. At some point,
you're going to exhaust your local financing options.

If I had $100 million more today, I would add another 10,000
early childhood classroom spots, I would put 300 schools on the
all-day program, I would put 250,000 children through summer
school, and I would reduce class size in some of the benchmark
grades. It wouldn't go into a collective bargaining agreement; it
wouldn't go to fill a big, fat budget hole. It would go into the
classroom, into programs that we know absolutely have a positive
impact on student performance.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)