Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Truth in Advertising in the Portfolio Strategy

Portfolio cities are not all created equal. Some, like New Orleans, have been able to advance quickly. Others are slowed down by the public reactions to school closures or school board turnover or other political or technical realities. District leaders like the idea of accountability for schools, but avoid creating clear performance criteria. They like the idea of new schools, but don’t want to close low performers. They like the idea of partnering with a few charter schools, but they don’t want to upset the unions by partnering with more. They like the idea of school-level decisionmaking, but don’t want to shrink their central offices.

Civic leaders and philanthropists who want to support portfolio efforts need to be skeptical of people who adopt the word “portfolio” without really being serious about carrying out the reform. It’s also easy for even the most well-intentioned portfolio leaders to get caught up in day-to-day policymaking and implementation and lose sight of whether their efforts are panning out in meaningful changes for students.

For nearly two years, CRPE has been rating cities on how deeply they are implementing the 7 components of the portfolio strategy. These ratings for portfolio network cities are adjusted twice per year to reflect progress, stagnation, or backsliding. You can take a look at these ratings and see the cities that are farthest along and those that are moving more slowly.

What rate of progress is good enough? In most cites, there is both strife and progress, and reform implementation can move in fits and starts. But I think it’s reasonable to expect that any leader who is serious about portfolio can do the following within the first year of adopting the strategy:

  • Articulate the desired end state for the city schools (e.g., all charters? continuous replacement of the least productive schools no matter who runs them?) and a timeline for getting there.
  • Define school autonomy concretely: what decisions will be made at the school level and not second-guessed at the central office? How will autonomy be extended to all schools? How will school staffs that are unable to use autonomy be replaced?
  • Begin establishing new legally binding performance contracts for schools that can handle more autonomy immediately.
  • Use the promise of autonomy to attract principals and teachers who want to be responsible for the results they get.
  • Draw a new downsized and streamlined org chart for the central office, based on providing school support not bureaucratic control.
  • Start hiring central office staff under completely new job descriptions and eliminating central jobs that are no longer relevant.
  • Ensure that everyone in the central office knows that decisions should always be made at the school level unless there is compelling reason to do otherwise.
  • Commit to a clear timeline for moving 95 percent of funding to the school level on a per-pupil basis. The timeline should be no longer than five years and should begin immediately.
  • Partner with third-party incubators and new school providers to make plans for replacing the city’s lowest-performing schools.
  • Ask state lawmakers for any additional regulatory or legal freedoms needed to manage the portfolio effectively.

As more cities move to portfolio and more funders support the strategy, it should never be good enough for a district CEO to say she is in support of portfolio because she is asking all schools to adopt diverse blended learning models or because she has a collaboration underway with a group of charter schools. The portfolio approach demands full commitment to the idea that government’s job is to manage performance and equity, not run schools.

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