Paul Vallas is often credited with turning around the Chicago Public School System, and since 2001 has been the CEO of the School District of Philadelphia. On November 28, 2006, the Software and Information Industry Association invited him to address the attendees at their Education Technology Business Forum.
He always looked at technology as a tool that could become the great equalizer. He has been using technology for that purpose in four areas in the Philadelphia school district.
Teacher Competency: In order to improve the schools, he needed to install some consistency from school to school. He has acted from the belief that a superior instructional model, ongoing benchmarking of student performance, and access to a wide range of resources will turn a mediocre instructor into a competent one. Students are benchmarked every 6 weeks in elementary schools, 10 weeks in secondary schools; and teachers see the results almost immediately.
Classroom Resources: He asserted that most students are visual learners. The single greatest classroom improvement for the money is the use of smartboards with computers (see 26 second demo). They focus and engage students. It’s like going from a class of 30 to a class size of 15. Number 2 is providing enough laptops for all of the kids.
Parent Deficit: There is no parental involvement for a high percentage of the students in Philadelphia. By bringing parents into the schools as volunteers, and then training them in Philadelphia’s familynet system, parental involvement increases with access to benchmarks, lesson plans, portfolios, homework assignments, and class web sites from home.
Physical Improvement of Buildings: With a lot of help from Microsoft, Philadelphia built one school of the future: environmentally friendly, fully connected, a plethora of computers, labs, etc. They found that the operating costs of this school are 30–40% less than those of a traditional school. But, 90% of the schools in Philadelphia are in poor condition. If Philadelphia were to fully bring every school up to current standards, the cost would be close to $6 billion, an amount that is unachievable. But, by concentrating on laptops, internet connections, whiteboards, printers, and projectors, he can modernize every single classroom in grades 6–12 for $550 million; and that’s a number that’s achievable. While ideally, you want to accomplish full modernization, learning takes place in the classrooms. Once the kids are on the computers learning, the rest of the environment fades to the background.
He is not optimistic about reducing class size, nor is he expecting that technology will enable him to increase class sizes. When you consider the parents who have options of removing their kids from the district, they have two questions: 1) how safe is the school, and 2) what is the class size. When class sizes are over 30, these parents find alternatives for their kids.
When he arrived in Philadelphia, teacher retention was 72%; in 2005-6, it was 94%. He attributes this to superior instructional models, with access to materials and lesson plans, better preparation and training of teachers, better resources, and the use of thousands of student teachers. Philadelphia has one of the highest numbers of university students in the country; they bring in 1200 student teachers each semester, and 1/3 of them eventually apply for permanent teaching positions in the schools. Those teachers have already been through Philadelphia teacher training and already know what they’re in for.
When he arrived, schools had to first fill positions by allowing teachers with seniority, and only if there were not any internal applicants, could they hire. Now, schools can fill half of their openings with hirees. He finds that schools are using the seniority system for their gym teacher, but hiring the math teacher.
The one thing he wants to lobby for is to allow federal erate money (funds provided for technology in schools that derives from a tax on telecommunications services) to be spend for classroom modernization, electrification, and technology.
He does not have the money to provide supplemental pay for excellence. But, he can reward great teachers by paying them as mentors, or for performing other tasks.