Turning around low-performing urban school districts is in the same class as CEOs turning around failing companies.
After serving in Chicago for six years, Philadelphia five years, and New Orleans four years, Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:
“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”
Vallas’s operating principle, according to one journalist who covered his superintendency in Philadelphia, is: “Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once.” For over a decade, the media christened Vallas as savior for each of the above three cities before exiting, but just last week, he stumbled in his fourth district-Bridgeport (CT) and ended up as “chopped liver” in less than two years.
Vallas is (or was) the premier “turnaround specialist.” Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures. After Bridgeport, however, his brand-name as a “turnaround specialist,” like “killer apps” of yore such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar, may well fade.
Turning around a failing company or a school district is no work for sprinters, it is marathoners who refashion the company and district into successes. Lee Iaccoco was CEO of Chrysler from 1978-1992; Steve Jobs was CEO from 1997-2011, and Ann Mulcahy served 2001-2009.