Ratchet effect: the continued evolution of portfolio strategy

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The portfolio strategy has resulted in real improvement in urban K-12 school systems over the past 10 years. Results in Chicago, New Orleans and New York were strong, and the portfolio began to reverse declines in poor cities like Camden, Cleveland and Indianapolis. But progress is now uncertain, given shifts in state governorships and legislatures, and the alienation from the Trump-DeVos agenda of many natural supporters on the left. District leadership changes in key cities like Denver and Indianapolis, and toxic charter politics in Oakland, also pose challenges.

Now is not the time for supporters to move on. Yes, portfolio strategies are encountering new headwinds, but the old education system can’t really come back. Alternative strategies—paying more money to the same teachers to do the same things and trying to improve schools with diverse populations through district-wide uniformity initiatives—have never worked and will never work. not in the future.

And principals in portfolio districts have learned to value control over their budgets and hiring decisions. They will resist the surrender of this power. Parents, including those in low-income areas who didn’t have good options before and those in high-income areas that are increasing enrollment in many cities, will be reluctant to give up their choices. New teachers drawn to autonomous charter and district schools, including not only career changers but also newcomers recruited by Teach for America and well-organized splinter groups within local teachers’ unions, will not leave. not.

Events can and will block a city’s portfolio strategy. A state legislature could limit charter school law or prohibit the use of nonprofit organizations to provide support services. District leaders and new school board members may fall back on old habits of central control and seek to undermine principals’ control over hiring and budgets. But even so, city leaders who want to move away from the wallet strategy will find it hard to exclude educators, parents and school providers, who all know it leads to better options for children. The result will likely be that the core elements of the portfolio strategy will remain even in districts that have ceased to actively pursue it.

A more realistic possibility in some cities is a temporary stalemate, with opponents unable to tear down what has been built under the portfolio strategy and supporters unable to move it forward. However, the standoffs themselves will not last, as city leaders once again worry that weaknesses in the public education system are threatening the city’s growth and prosperity.

The pointlessness of backtracking will soon become apparent, given the economic and technological changes affecting the labor market and the possibility of individualized learning paths to make the most of skills and interests. of all students. If ever one size fit all, it won’t in the future. Cities that want to thrive will need a portfolio of diverse schools that can organize different learning experiences for different students and provide a second chance at adulthood for students who are dropping out, struggling to progress in their studies or need to improve their professional skills. in the years following graduation to follow economic and technological developments.

This may require local education officials to expand learning opportunities and supports outside of their current school system. They might want to favor local versions of services offered by EdNavigator in New Orleans, which guides parents through the process of choosing schools, and ReSchool Colorado, which helps parents identify educational opportunities outside of the school. school.

Leaders might want to do what Henry County, Georgia did in suburban Atlanta and offer district-wide online courses, as well as a college and career center, to expand courses available to students attending comprehensive high schools. And they might want to pursue breakthroughs for their most complex learners by creating new opportunities for educators to collaborate on special education across campuses, or by giving parents the ability to get personalized tutoring, therapy, and other services beyond what the schools themselves provide.

Portfolio strategy has always been primarily a problem-solving approach. Addressing some of public education’s most pressing challenges can require system leaders to think beyond their school portfolios and focus on their broader portfolios of student opportunity. Localities that cannot overcome educational and political inertia risk losing jobs and population, and disappointing their children.

Portfolio strategies are inevitable because various learning opportunities are necessary. The portfolio strategy incorporates many ideas that are often presented as stand-alone panaceas (such as school choice and performance-based accountability), but treats them as mutually reinforcing elements of a larger strategy. ‘continuous improvement. It is a plausible compromise between purely market and purely governmental solutions. This, more than the current state of affairs in any locality, is likely to ensure that the strategy will endure, spread and continue to evolve.

Conflict is proof of neither the failure nor the success of a transformational strategy like the portfolio. Conflict only means that issues once considered settled are again up for discussion; the more important the reform, the more the conflict in its implementation is manifest.

Contrary to some hopes, the portfolio strategy was never going to disrupt and reshape the K-12 system in a few years. But it can thrive and extend over a longer period if supporters understand its ratchet effect: make progress by creating good new schools and meaningful learning journeys; strengthen parental support and aligned nonprofits; to wait for the inevitable returns to inefficient centralization; and when the demand for better learning opportunities grows strong again, as it will again.

—Paul Hill

Paul T. Hill is founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and research professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

Last updated December 18, 2018

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Don F. Davis