Academic journal article Education Next

Political Educator: Paul Vallas Became the Nation's Most Sought-After Superintendent by Bringing Order and Energy to Chicago's Moribund School System. (Feature)

Academic journal article Education Next

Political Educator: Paul Vallas Became the Nation's Most Sought-After Superintendent by Bringing Order and Energy to Chicago's Moribund School System. (Feature)

Article excerpt

A STEADY TRICKLE OF WELL-WISHERS APPROACH FORMER CHICAGO schools superintendent Paul Vallas during a quiet morning at Petro's, the Greek-run downtown coffee shop where Vallas is holding forth. Some congratulate him, some thank him for putting in a good word at a selective parochial school, some ask after his family, and some make sure he's got enough coffee.

Vallas, a famously tireless worker, has had a busy year. Since tendering his resignation, Vallas has run for--and only narrowly missed becoming--the Democratic nominee for Illinois governor. He has spoken at venues across the country, including talks before the U.S. Congress and the city council of New York City. He has consulted to Britain's Tony Blair. And at one point he was simultaneously in the running for three high-profile jobs: chancellor of the New York City schools, CEO of the Philadelphia schools, and Illinois state superintendent of education. He has since accepted the job heading the turbulent Philadelphia school system, where tensions between the city and state have been escalating for years and Edison Schools, Inc., has taken responsibility for running 20 schools (see jay Mathews's article, "The Philadelphia Experiment" on page 50).

The Vallas Legend

Perhaps the most prominent big-city superintendent in the nation, Vallas is widely credited with having turned around the Chicago school system. Before his arrival in 1995, the Chicago schools had been labeled by William Bennett, the secretary of education in the Reagan administration, as the "worst in the nation." And the label may have fit. Teacher strikes had become common, the district was on the brink of ruin financially, academic performance was abysmal, and school facilities were crumbling.

During his tenure, from 1995 to 2001, Vallas racked up a long string of accomplishments that would be the envy of nearly any superintendent. The budget was quickly put in order. Vallas rehabbed old schools and built attractive new ones. Test scores reported to the public rose nearly every year, two union contracts were negotiated without any strikes, and a host of new programs--summer school, afterschool programs, alternative schools, new magnet programs--were all created, Most important, for perhaps the first time in Chicago's history, low-performing schools were pressured to do better, and students and their parents encountered a system that did not just pass everyone through regardless of what they learned.

Not surprisingly, acclaim poured in for Chicago's turnaround and Vallas's leadership. A Clinton administration favorite, Chicago was twice cited in state of the union speeches. Glowing profiles of Vallas appeared in glossy magazines, and he was given numerous business and education awards. Crossing party lines, he was invited to be part of the Bush administration's transition team. Public opinion polls--paid for by Vallas through the school board--showed support for Vallas that sometimes beat the mayor's approval ratings.

To most outside observers, the ingredients of the Chicago formula for success seemed clear: mayoral control, a nontraditional superintendent, and a strong emphasis on accountability. But other, less-heralded attributes helped just as much, including provisions in the state's 1995 legislation that greatly expanded Vallas's power over teachers and schools; school construction and other appealing initiatives undertaken in part to soften the accountability focus; and characteristics in Vallas that aren't necessarily the trademark of the latest fashion, the bigcity superintendent who rides in from another walk of life.

More than a Mayoral Takeover

Vallas's tenure was directly preceded--and made possible--by Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley's 1995 takeover of the city's school district. Vallas's accomplishments, in turn, were aided immensely by the political muscle and resources Daley put into school reform.

First Daley moved two of his key aides, Vallas and Gery Chico, from City Hall to the school district, with more than 100 others in row. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.