Paul Hill: Portfolio Schools – A New Answer to an Old Question

Paul Hill: Portfolio Schools – A New Answer to an Old Question

Monday, November 26, 2012

Originally published on the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Education Reform blog.

Cities throughout America are struggling to educate their children. Mayors and other leaders concerned about cities’ economic survival and quality of life are worried that too many children leave public schools unprepared for work and citizenship. Though cities have many advantages, it is clear that cities that cannot improve schools have reason to fear both for those children’s future in a dynamic, competitive world economy, and for the cities’ future as homes of successful businesses and as good places to live.

Many cities have been stuck with public education systems that are focused more on compliance than on results, and that consistently fail the low-income and minority students who are the core of the cities’ future work forces. These systems are typically resistant to change, walled off from the cities’ greatest intellectual resources and financially unsustainable.

In New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland and more than 30 other cities, leaders are finding a way to become “unstuck.” They are adopting a new strategy to transform K-12 public education. Called the portfolio strategy, it transforms the role of a school district. Rather than acting as a vertically integrated provider of one type of school, the district in the portfolio model acts as the sponsor of a diverse set of schools staffed and operated by the best people and organizations available anywhere.

The portfolio strategy is indifferent to the question of who runs schools. It is by design open to new ideas and new uses of technology. Its only goal is to ensure high and uniform levels of learning for all students, so city leaders can give a positive answer to the question, “Is this the very best we can do for our children?”

The Benefits of Portfolio Schools

Under a portfolio strategy:

  • Parents of every income level can choose among a variety of different types of schools and school providers to find a fit for their child’s unique learning needs
  • School districts are no longer the sole providers of public schools and they actively seek out diverse providers and programs
  • Schools create economies of scale and receive technical assistance in diverse ways, by forming associations, management organizations, and contracting with a wide array of providers
  • Public education is now open to people (teachers, principals and others) to come from a variety of different entrepreneurial backgrounds and training programs
  • Consistently low-performing schools can be closed and replaced by purpose-built, more coherent schools

The Rationale Behind Portfolio Schools

Today’s one-size-fits all urban public schools too often fail to provide students with the most basic academic skills, much less prepare them for the skills needed to thrive in an information-age economy. Moreover these schools have little real incentive for improvement. The portfolio strategy seeks to address several clear challenges:

Children in a large diverse city do not all need exactly the same kind of schooling. Thus, the portfolio strategy seeks to incorporate a variety of school models that match the needs and abilities of a variety of students.
What children need to know – based on evolution of the economy and advances in science and technology – will change over time. Thus, rather than assume that a given set of schools will always be the right ones, it constantly reviews the performance of schools and looks for new options.
Competition and experimentation will steadily produce better and better approaches to instruction – including some that combine technology-based instruction with in-person teaching. The portfolio strategy therefore always looks for new options and is open both expanding the numbers of innovative schools and closing less effective schools.
Taken together these assumptions amount to a commitment to continuous improvement, the core of the portfolio strategy’s theory of action.

The Future of Portfolio Schools

This idea is catching on. However, implementing the strategy and making it work to its full potential is a challenge. In pursuing a portfolio strategy, city and district leaders must commit to all elements of the strategy. They must also overcome opposition from stakeholders anxious about change – educators concerned about tenure and poorly designed accountability systems; families in wealthy neighborhoods whose schools benefit from funding inequities; political factions attached to the status quo.

In an effort to share insight and stimulate dialogue, this blog will lay out the key components of portfolio school districts and then explore each. We look forward to hearing from you.
Read the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation series on portfolio school districts.

Guest blogger Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. His current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance; school choice and innovation; and finance and productivity.

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