District Leadership in Radical Reform: Philadelphia’s Experience under the State Takeover, 2001-2006
by William Lowe Boyd, Jolley Bruce Christman & Elizabeth Useem - November 28, 2006
The most daunting challenge in educational leadership today–and probably in local or state government generally–is the reform of large urban school districts. Recognizing the repeated failure of many conventional approaches to improving urban districts, reformers have turned to increasingly radical ideas. Since 2001, the School District of Philadelphia has served as a prime example and living laboratory for radical reform of a large urban school system.
The most daunting challenge in educational leadership todayand probably in local or state government generallyis the reform of large urban school districts. Recognizing the repeated failure of many conventional approaches to improving urban districts, reformers have turned to increasingly radical ideas. Since 2001, the School District of Philadelphia has served as a prime example and living laboratory for radical reform of a large urban school system. Because of a unique state takeover that sought both comprehensive district-wide reform and, simultaneously, privatization in the management of a large number of schools, educators and policy analysts nationwide are closely watching each stage of this reform. When the controversial state takeover beganin the midst of acrimonious relations between the school district and the state government and strong mayoral and grass roots oppositionthe complexity and contradictions of this combination of features led many observers to fear a train wreck.
We have examined the dynamics of leadership in this changing school district by looking at the interaction of the new governance structures, the political and policy context, and the leadership styles and actions of key players during the first four years of state takeover. We argue that the districts leadersthe School Reform Commission established under state takeover and CEO Paul Vallascalmed the political waters, capitalized on the national and state policy context created by the No Child Left Behind legislation, and managed an infusion of state and city dollars for Philadelphia to build legitimacy for their reform agenda. This supportive policy environment, the ability of the SRC and Vallas to make radical reform politically palatable, and increased public confidence that this administration would be able to effect positive change, has provided extraordinary opportunities for district leadership to expand various forms of privatization and other far-reaching interventions at a rapid clip, with little opposition from the public. The mastery of political leadership that Vallas and the SRC demonstrated in the first four years of the state takeover is particularly noteworthy since research indicates that school superintendents generally feel that politics is their main problem. The fact that student test scores have risen steadily since the onset of the reform makes it an especially important district to study.
Yet, now the top-down, shoot from the hip decision-making style of Vallas increasingly chafes civic and community leaders who want a say in the content of the reform agenda. An important theme that has emerged from our research in Philadelphia is the challenge for district leaders in managing the tension between the top-down character of the state takeover, and their efforts to rapidly push for reform, versus their desire for a democratic community voice in decision making. Indeed, we feel the Philadelphia takeover has entered a new and second phase that revolves around this push for a more democratic voice in decision making.
Although still highly regarded for his many accomplishments, Vallas has been facing increasing criticism and has lost the solid support he enjoyed from the SRC. In August 2006, the SRC narrowly voted, 3-2, to renew his contract. More recently, Vallas has been in hot water over an unexpected budget deficit, which has ballooned from $21 million to $73 million. Ironically, the controversy over this deficit developed about the same time that Vallas was named, on October 23, 2006, as one of Americas 20 best leaders by the U.S. News & World Report and Harvard Universitys Center for Public Leadership. While Vallas tenure in Philadelphia is already longer than those of most urban superintendents these days, these developments illustrate once again that top leaders in true hot seat jobs like the urban superintendency are usually embroiled in controversies and vulnerable to being ousted.
The leadership and management tasks the SRC and Vallas faced at the outset of the takeover were daunting because Philadelphias education reform was radical in three respects: it is the largest district ever taken over by a state; it is the largest experiment so far in outsourcing school management via a diverse provider model; and it has combined, rather than chosen between, the choice-based and integrated governance models that have been described as the leading alternatives for reform strategies. The pragmatic ways these three models have been combined and implemented in Philadelphia have produced some amalgams that have blurred the boundaries between the public and private sectors in outsourcing, and have led to new insights about how shared management and new kinds of partnerships can lead to productive new kinds of relationships, a development that even Chris Whittle has acknowledged.
What looked initially like a quasi-decentralized system of externally managed schools actually became part of the more centralized system in practice. The states accountability system, based primarily on standardized PSSA test scores, applied to schools run by providers, so their innovations with curriculum and instruction could not diverge greatly from district practices. Several of the providers adopted all or parts of the districts core curriculum. And what appeared on the surface to be a radical experiment with privatization ended up looking more like a public-private partnership, or hybrid model, of school governance. From the start, the SRC devised a system of thin management whereby the district and the providers shared responsibility for different aspects of schools functioning. Further, a host of Vallas-initiated centralized reforms, along with the districts strategic use of public charter schools in school development plans, has eclipsed the diverse provider model in importance.
Philadelphias complex and radical education reform under the controversial state takeover was clearly a high-risk enterprise that many people expected to crash and burn. That it has so far escaped this fate is due, we believe, to a fortunate combination of skilled district-level leadership, important enabling conditions associated with the takeover, and the requirements brought on by NCLB. The provisions of the takeover, which included extra funds to support and facilitate change, replaced the school board with the powerful SRC and prohibited teacher strikes, both of which shielded Vallas and the SRC from much of the volatile politics and pressures that bedevil urban school district leaders. NCLB brought new forms of external accountability for student achievement that have forced the acceptance of measures that would have been strongly resisted in the past.
Even with the favorable enabling conditions, the takeover could have disintegrated on many occasions, especially near the outset. During these critical opening months of the state takeover, the SRC, under Nevels leadership, took vital steps that not only established its legitimacy locally, but made the takeover more palatable in Philadelphia. They did this by limiting the huge role the state had proposed for Edison Schools, by hiring a nationally recognized education reformer as CEO, and by refusing to accept the states conditions vis a vis funding that required all the new state funds to go to Edison or other outside providers. By these and other measures they began the transformation of the takeover from a hostile to friendly one, gained legitimacy, and created conditions that gave Vallas an opportunity to gradually gain acceptance, even though he was an outsider. These conditions, together with the effective partnership that quickly developed between Vallas and the SRC, laid the groundwork for successful district-level leadership in the reform effort.
The key elements of this story, we think, were the leaderships success in establishing the legitimacy of the new governance structures, the leaders themselves, and their reforms. The SRC and Vallas were able to:
make the takeover acceptable and seem like a partnership;
make the radical reforms seem commonsense and politically acceptable;
make the contradictory, competing approaches seem balanced and pragmatic;
make a rapid-fire, scatter-shot approach seem comprehensive and responsive to the urgency of the situation.
Fairly assessing the outcomes of these efforts is difficult because multiple goals and values are involved and much work remains to be done. Student achievement gains, as noted earlier, have been encouraging, but less dramatic than many desire. Educational reformers who favor choice-based models are disappointed because the diverse providers scheme has been implemented in a way that minimizes choice among the providers schools (Hill, 2006). However, the large and growing charter school sector in Philadelphia, which the district has embraced and tried to leverage strategically, provides a significant range of choice for students and parents.
There are pitfalls and areas where work has barely begun. A list of these would include, at a minimum, the following: no system-wide plan for high school reform that offers a robust strategy for improving neighborhood comprehensive high schools; weak leadership in schools; a teaching force that may not be up to the job of teaching to high standards, with scant attention thus far to content-based professional development; and new financial problems that have forced deep cutbacks to maintain a balanced budget. Each of these shortcomings is significant. Taken together, they will undoubtedly undermine long-term, substantive education improvement, if not addressed.
So, how should we assess the districts leadership? It has steered the district through perilous waters, both political and financial; brought peace, stability and progress; balanced budgets; implemented a core curriculum; and launched new programs and new small high schools. But it has limited public input into policy decisions, so the top leadership does not get high marks on democracy. Whether district leaders will respond to requests for greater transparency and openness in decision making remains unanswered at this time.
If the leadership of Nevels and Vallas has not been perfectwho would expect that it could beit nevertheless has been extraordinary in managing what many have called an impossible job. However, as we noted at the beginning, the first phase of the takeover is ending amidst funding problems and a chilling of the relationship between Vallas and the SRC. Close observers of Philadelphias takeover agree that the district is entering a second phase of the takeover process in which more community involvement and participation will be necessary for the legitimacy and support required to sustain the bold reform effort and obtain needed funding. The future of Philadelphias education reform will depend heavily upon the daunting task of finding adequate replacements for Nevels and Vallas when they leave their current roles. Whatever the makeup of Philadelphias leadership team, they will continue to face steep challenges.
Readers can download the full length report from which our piece is drawn from the Research for Action website at http://www.researchforaction.org/publication/details/238