If partnership schools prove able to turn around persistently struggling schools, they may be well the effort—but this is still a big if.
Agents of Change: The Portfolio Strategy CEO
Leaders of big-city portfolio strategies last longer on average than other school superintendents. But all eventually leave their jobs, whether for career or personal reasons or because local politics has turned against them. What makes for a successful portfolio strategy CEO? When city leaders need to find a CEO what should they look for?
The first people to successfully lead big-city portfolio strategies were titans who cared about education, understood public sector leadership, had great local reputations, and knew their cities well. Joel Klein (NYC), Michael Bennet (Denver) and Paul Pastorek (New Orleans) were senior civic leaders before becoming school district CEOs, and their reputations attracted extremely capable collaborators.
But cities that need effective portfolio strategies can’t always wait for such outsized figures to come along. It has to be possible for people who are committed and capable, but not ready-made giants, to lead city portfolio strategies. People from more conventional careers in education (such as Cleveland’s Eric Gordon, former district chief academic officer, and James Meza of Jefferson Parish Louisiana, former education school dean) have advanced the portfolio strategy in their cities.
And though it is always advantageous to be “from here,” it is sometimes necessary to hire capable leaders from elsewhere to lead education reform in a city that is new to them.
The qualities that make an effective portfolio CEO, superintendent, or chancellor go beyond those of a traditional school superintendent. It is, however, possible to help CEOs anticipate the challenges they will face and suggest ways they can handle emergent problems without losing focus.
In an effort to start building a “bench” of potential portfolio strategy CEOs, CRPE has studied successful leaders and identified the skills they need and the functions they must perform. Our new report on the subject is a useful first step but far from the last word.
Everything starts with the portfolio mindset: the belief that the city’s job is to educate all its children effectively, and to search locally and nationally for the best teachers—especially for the children now doing the least well in school. An effective CEO sees the need for continuous improvement, rather than preservation and defense of a fixed set of pre-existing schools. A portfolio CEO can’t seek to be an instructional savant who knows how every school should operate and wants to impose a one-size-fits-all model on principals and teachers.
Portfolio CEOs need to be change agents who both make full use of the talent already in the public schools and recruit new school providers. A portfolio CEO needs to be a political leader, understanding that people won’t just go along with decisions because she says so. Change requires building and gaining support from new coalitions, including engaging religious, higher education, cultural, and business groups that have been sidelined in the past.
To this end, CEOs need to become public figures who discipline their communications with the public, focusing both on saying why the strategy is needed and what actions it requires, and interpreting events (even responses to emergencies) in light of the strategy.
The essence of portfolio management is an unwavering focus on annually determining, based on student learning, which schools will be sustained and which will be transformed, or closed and replaced. Portfolio CEOs also need to identify groups of children who are not doing well, even in schools that are working for others, and recruit new school providers focused on those children’s needs.
In doing these things, CEOs need to re-mission and downsize existing school system bureaucracies so they cost less money (and so that schools control more) and respect school autonomy. The portfolio CEO’s job is to be a change manager, not a micro-manager.
This is a lot for anyone to take on. No person is likely to come to the job fully trained for all the parts of it.
CRPE’s new paper is a primer, but much more is needed. No training program for education leaders, not even those designed for mid-career entrants, prepares individuals to become portfolio CEOs. Philanthropies can make a big contribution by sponsoring portfolio-oriented training and mentorship programs.
Betheny Gross examines how five high-choice cities tackle the challenges of student transportation.