Strife and Progress: New book details strategies, conflicts, and results of promising education reform model

Strife and Progress: New book details strategies, conflicts, and results of promising education reform model

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

News about school reform often comes with tales of conflict, which is an inevitable byproduct of efforts to develop more effective schools.

In a new book, Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools, readers will learn about reform strategies that are transforming urban public schools and creating new opportunities for children. The characters in this book are the district leaders, teachers, families, and others who are striving to reinvigorate and elevate public education.

"Reforming big city schools requires bold action that is sure to create conflict,” says principal author Paul Hill. “If you aren't doing something bold enough to create conflict, you aren't doing something bold enough to make a difference."

The importance of this short, well-paced book can be simply stated: the portfolio strategy is a model for organizing school systems that is generating the kind of results and excitement long missing in the many efforts to improve America’s public schools. As a result, education leaders in over 35 cities across the country are pursuing the strategy, which aims to continuously elevate the level of education for our nation’s children.

Portfolio school districts take a problem-solving approach that puts families at the center, discarding a one-size-fits-all model in favor of building a menu of school choices across a city. Districts follow three cardinal principles: continuous improvement, options, and accountability. Some schools are owned and operated by the district, others are operated as public charter schools, and others are run as contract schools, perhaps by a university or business. All schools must demonstrate improved performance, and any failing school, no matter who runs it, can be replaced.

The book explains how the portfolio strategy has unfolded in cities as different as New Orleans, New York, Denver, and Hartford, detailing how resistance and local factors have channeled the strategy’s development.

Hill and co-authors Christine Campbell and Betheny Gross write, “Conflict is intrinsic to public education for two reasons: first, because children are unable to act in their own interests and must rely on adults to act for them; and second, because no adult group has interests that perfectly match those of children.”

Districts are attracted to the strategy as a continuous improvement philosophy. The authors show how and why the strategy is not an end unto itself, but rather the management of a coordinated set of tools to address the diverse needs of students in a diverse set of ways: try innovations, discard those that don’t work, expand or replicate those that produce results, and repeat.

The authors make it clear that there are not yet enough rigorous studies to irrevocably confirm the encouraging results found in some of the cities. Yet the book concludes with a discussion of how some portfolio reform initiatives have proven to be quite resilient, even in the face of stiff opposition. While the reforms may stall out for a period, they regain momentum, a “ratchet” effect that suggests the sustainability of the portfolio model.

Strife and Progress is written by Paul T. Hill, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the founder and former director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and Christine Campbell and Bethany Gross, both senior research analysts at CRPE. The book is published by The Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., and is available on Amazon.

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