Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach

[Note: this draft from 2004 was written with Jim Shelton and draws heavily from the work of Paul Hill, Michael Barber, Michael Fullan, Kim Smith.  Posting today, with a few updates, was inspired by a panel discussion yesterday including Paul Hill, Steve Adamowski, Garth Harries, Dacia Toll, and Andy Moffit.  Final edition here.]
The most important challenge in America today is creating systems of schools that work for all students, particularly low income and historically underserved groups.  The goal of helping all students achieve at high levels is now decades old.  We’ve made slow but steady progress in elementary literacy but secondary achievement levels and graduation rates remain stagnant.  Hundreds of schools are helping most students achieve at high levels, but they remain largely random acts of innovation and heroic leadership.  Few if any public school districts have achieved uniformly high performance and attainment levels. Building systems of schools that break the cycle of poverty and close the achievement/attainment gap remains critical to our economy, society and democracy.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult and complex challenge.  New system leaders inherit layers of local, state, and federal regulations; restrictive employment agreements; antiquated management systems; and most damaging, a culture of complacency or helplessness.  However, there are hundreds of schools beating the odds and dozens of school districts exhibiting what we believe to be emerging best practices.  Work over 100 American school districts and conversations with engaging experts across this country and internationally yielded the following observations:

Typical Observations Emerging Best Practice
Multiple missions, low income/minority students trapped in low expectation tracks Nearly all student can and should graduate ready for college, work and citizenship
Dysfunction, bureaucracy, legacy contracts, interest group control Transparency, measurement, responsiveness
Some student accountability, no staff, school, or system accountability System of progressive intervention that provide support relevant to the challenge
Disenfranchisement, learned helplessness, white flight Informed and engaged community makes education quality a priority
‘One best system’ is difficult to execute at scale, not readily accepted, and doesn’t work for all students.  Districts lack the capacity to improve struggling schools. Promising results from managed instruction (elementary) and new school development (secondary) utilizing external partners
Command and control management, schools work in isolation Likeminded schools share support services and collaborate in a learning network
Centralized, compartmentalized and programmatic funding Streamlined funding reflects challenge and follows the student
Late centralized recruiting, placement by seniority, common pay scale, self identified leaders School-based hiring, job embedded development; performance is rewarded, leaders are identified and developed
Standardized services, low quality, unresponsive, unaligned with school needs Services are flexible or optional; safe clean learning environments

Good schools. In the last thirty years (starting with Ron Evans) much has been learned about the attributes of good schools.  After the introduction of state standards, assessments, and public data systems in the 1990’s, a formula for elementary improvement was proven hundreds of times over: clear goals with a focus on literacy, an effective curriculum, strengthened teaching, and sustained instructional leadership.
At the secondary level, the only schools to achieve high levels of performance have been new schools designed around the attributes of high performance: a clear mission, high expectations for all students, personalized learning, a culture of respect and collaboration, and high quality instruction.  They demonstrate a shared understanding that if we want students to work hard, schools must be challenging, interesting, and supportive—summarized as the 3R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships.
Some existing secondary schools have made significant improvement.  Cities that participated in Equity 2000 implemented a college preparatory curriculum and exhibited improvements in the percentage of college ready graduates.  However, drop out rates remained high.  Many schools that have implemented a reform model have shown some improvement in both graduation rates and achievement levels.  Schools implementing small learning communities have shown some improvement in persistence but little improvement in achievement levels.
From these mixed results we can conclude that improving secondary schools is a daunting challenge.  Promising practices suggest that schools must begin with a unifying mission and combine improved instruction across a challenging coherent curriculum with structural changes that leave students feeling safe, known, respected, supported, and well advised.  For most schools, these changes will require qualified guidance and multi-year resources.
Unifying Mission. As Equity 2000 purported 20 years ago and Achieve’s American Diploma Project reiterated, there has been a convergence of skill requirements for post secondary success, family wage employment and responsible citizenship.  All students should leave high schools with the knowledge, skills, and information to make informed choices about employment and further education.
Most state and district requirements currently fall short of these aspirations, but the Common Core proposed this month by NGA and CCSSO hold the promise of real college ready standards and a new generation of curriculum, assessments, and accountability systems.  This implies dramatic changes in schools systems around the country particularly in secondary schools that continue to offer low expectation courses and weak support systems.
High Performing Systems. Given a unifying mission, observations about good schools, and emerging best practices, school districts can evolve to high performing systems by developing the following nine attributes of high performing systems:

  • College ready mission: common standards that prepare graduates for post secondary education, work and citizenship
  • Effective governance: policy governance defines ends, delegates executive authority, and clarifies roles and responsibilities
  • Strong accountability: transparent performance management system with steps of progressive intervention (aligned with federal and state requirements)
  • Community support: the community is engaged, parent and business groups express support for quality schools, the system is responsive to community interests
  • High quality options and informed choice: parents, students, and teachers choose from a variety of quality school options; location, transportation, enrollment policies, hiring practices, and outreach efforts ensure equitable choice.
  • Learning and support networks: schools receive support and guidance through networks that may reflect type, location, performance, and/or configuration
  • Adequate and flexible resources: school budgets reflect student challenges and allow school based hiring and decision making (i.e., weighted student budgeting)
  • Teacher/leader development: recruits a qualified pool of candidates; provides induction supports; identifies, compensates and develops teacher leaders
  • Quality provided/purchased services: provides cost effective and responsive core services; makes available optional purchased services

Central to effective classroom, school, and district leadership is developing the right balance of pressure and support.  Michael Barber calls it a “high demand—high support” environment.  The first four attributes create an environment of “high demand.”  The last four provide “high support.”

High Demand

  • College ready mission: purpose and focus
  • Effective governance: boundaries and clarity
  • Strong accountability: incentives and consequences
  • Community support: felt need and consumer demand

High Support

  • Adequate and flexible budgets
  • Learning and support network
  • Quality provided/purchased services
  • Leaders/teacher development

The intent to develop a portfolio of high quality options is a theory of action—a strategic choice and related assumptions about responses and impacts.
Theory of Action. Most superintendents lead their districts through some kind of periodic planning process that identifies improvement strategies and tactics given a set of inherited circumstances.  Few of these efforts uncover a theory of education (conception of how children and adults learn), a theory of organization (conception of how public deliver systems meet diverse needs), or a theory of change (conception of how complex organizations/societies change).  If these assumptions are uncovered, an important decision emerges: what kind of system would meet the needs of a diverse community?
There are two basic answers: a school system or a system of schools.  The first, called “one best system” by David Hyek, is the traditional American school district.  Historically, the goal was operational compliance with little regard for instructional effectiveness.  With the introduction of state standards, many urban districts introduced a system of managed instruction: a common curriculum, instructional coaches, and more rigorous instructional management.  This led to some significant elementary gains but has been less successful at the secondary level.  While promising, the attempt to build one coherent system of managed instruction appears to have three weaknesses: 1) it gets harder to do at scale, 2) it won’t be well received by some teachers and parents, and 3) it won’t work well for all students.
The second choice is a system of schools, or a portfolio of options.  At one extreme is a market driven approach advocated by Milton Friedman.  The presence of state standards and accountability mitigates against a fully diverse system but still leaves room for options.  There are a number of reasons to create a portfolio of high quality learning options to serve children in a given community:

  • Moral and civil rights. Education is a cornerstone of equal opportunity.  Equity requires that all parents, regardless of residence, race, wealth, or heritage, be able to choose among diverse, high quality, publicly financed educational options for their children.  It is a moral imperative to provide equal access to high quality education for all children.
  • Student needs and teacher desires. Children have a variety of needs and learning styles and require a variety of options to find schools that allow them to realize their potential. As importantly, capturing student interest is critical to student motivation and effort (particularly for teens); therefore, having diverse options increases the opportunities for students to find and choose learning environments that appeal to them and thus inspire their effective effort.  Additionally, teachers have a variety of preferred teaching styles and professional interests and deserve options that allow them to find their optimal work environment.
  • Parent and community empowerment. Providing options joins parental/ student choice with society’s interest in improving the quality of public education.  To assure a supply of diverse high quality schools in a community, a number of high quality providers should be enlisted to provide public education,
  • Systemic improvement and capacity expansion. The combination of public accountability and parental/ student choice with educational diversity should be a lever for broader systemic improvement.  The pace of improvement should be accelerated by the influx of resources and expertise from individual entrepreneurs and high performing networks. The greater the district size and state of disrepair, the greater the need and opportunity for new schools, more choices and more providers.

The rationale for a portfolio of options is compelling, but constructing an equitable system of choice at scale presents its own challenges.  System leaders must act as portfolio manager to ensure equitable access to appropriate and attractive options of uniformly high quality (see Brookings report on Doing Choice Right). Considerations include location and transportation; outreach and information; improvement partners and school operators; and enrollment, budget, and hiring policies.
A theory of action is a collection of strategies that reflect a conscious choice about the type and quality of schools that students and teachers in a community should have access to.  As the figure suggests, it’s not an either-or question.  Most districts are likely to adopt a hybrid solution that include a layer or level of district run schools augmented by outside assistance and potentially outside school operators.
What is a Portfolio of Options? Most school districts are actually portfolios; however, they are not deliberately constructed or managed as such.  They are collections of schools that have wide ranging performance levels (though generally low, especially in low-income communities) and a variety of designs and pedagogical approaches (though tending toward direct instruction).  Secondary students have choice within schools, but it’s the wrong kind; they choose from courses of varying degrees of difficulty with no adult guidance.  Low income and minority students typically don’t have access to high level courses or are subtly directed to low level courses.  The mix of schools is typically serendipitous and driven more by history, budget, community resources and influence, rather than by a deliberate strategy based on maximizing performance at the individual student level or in aggregate based on the needs of the community or broader society.  Importantly, very few students typically get to choose the “option” that is best for them.  Most are assigned based on where they happen to live.
Cities can construct portfolios of high quality schools that match the needs and interests of students, families, educators and the broader community.  It is currently possible to cost-effectively project an “optimal mix” of schools based on student needs; parent, student and teacher interests; community assets and the economic and social drivers of the region.  Analysis of student performance data and existing research can provide us a baseline perspective on the types of learning options that need to be available to students.  Traditional academic schools organized around disciplines, schools rich with projects and experiences related to a theme, and highly supportive student-centered schools that design the program to match the strengths, needs and interests of the students will be a part of the mix.  Student and teacher surveys and analysis of current program participation (or attempted participation) will refine the kinds of options that should be made available.  Analysis of global, national and local economic and job trend information) emerging industry clusters and community assets will also help refine the types and priority of options to be made available.
This analysis is likely to reveal that a majority of students, especially at the elementary level, can be well served by a thoughtful, coherent school design and instructional program complemented by the necessary safety nets and recovery systems.  In fact, issues of student and staff mobility, staff and systemic support capacity will lean heavily towards standardization as opposed to diversity.  However, most systems will find that significant numbers of their students are being failed not by laziness or incompetence but by a mismatch of instructional strategies and/or by lack of effort due to a failure to capture interest and establish relevance.  This is especially true at the secondary level and concurrently the impetuses to standardize are significantly lower due to the increases in student interest in choice and self-determination and increased ability to self-transport to locations of choice.
The school district can develop default school design at each level and internal management structure to serve a large percentage of students (e.g., 70% elementary and 40% secondary). The system of schools managed by the district must have the characteristics of effective schools and that implies a substantial redesign of comprehensive high schools.  Nearly all urban systems will need to build their internal school improvement capacity and utilize an external partner.
New School Development. The development of new schools is an essential portfolio strategy for more many reasons:

  1. New schools create a vision of effective schools and create momentum for school improvement efforts
  2. New schools can directly target underserved neighborhoods or groups
  3. New schools can be used to replace low capacity low performance schools
  4. New schools provide an incentive for entrepreneurial teachers, parents and community members
  5. New schools quickly create a constituency thereby expanding district support
  6. New schools can be situated in such a way as to ensure that all students have access to traditional, thematic, and student-centered options
  7. Good new schools are difficult to create but far easier than transforming struggling large comprehensive schools; they are a good investment and a hedge against riskier and more controversial improvement efforts.

Some new schools should be created independently and individually.  Schools sponsored by community based organizations formed the core of the new school strategy in New York City over the last decade.  Independent charter or contract schools can capitalize on a unique community asset (e.g., museum or corporation) or capacity (e.g., YMCA, university).  The authorization process should ensure that outside operators are financial, organizationally, and educationally qualified to operate a school.  A contract should clearly specify minimum quality requirements as well as non-discriminatory enrollment, civil rights, and safety provisions.
The larger the city, the larger the percentage of schools that should be developed in likeminded networks, either ‘franchise’ or managed networks. A franchise network replicates a specific school model and provides strong support systems (e.g., KIPP, Big Picture).  A managed network operates schools (e.g., Achievement First, Aspire, Green Dot).  Strong networks/ systems of schools bring additional management capacity and expertise, as well as proven programs, professional development and additional resources (human and financial).
High-Demand Implications. Without attempting to fully describe emerging best practices in standards, governance, accountability, and community engagement, there are implications specific to a portfolio approach:

  • College ready standards, curriculum and assessments. All schools regardless of type should share the goal of preparing students for college (i.e., passing a community college placement exam in English and math), family-wage employment, and responsible citizenship.  If the district adopts a default curriculum, it should provide stated flexibility for identified options and a waiver process for new options.  Contract and charter schools could operate outside the district assessment system if they can verify that their assessments are valid, reliable, and timely alternatives.
  • Effective governance. With multiple models and operators, it’s more important than ever for school board members to stick to question of policy rather than meddle in operations.  Instead, they should concern themselves with the central question of portfolio management, “What kinds of options should our families have access to?”
  • Strong accountability. States and districts around the country are holding students accountable for learning without holding schools and staff members accountable for performance—it’s wrong and risky, a class action suit waiting to happen.  For district operated schools, five categories of performance (including rate of improvement) should define a schools relationship with the district: autonomous, guided, prescriptive assistance, and for chronic failure, replacement (Steve Admowski’s work in Cincinnati was the first good example).  School results, categories, and consequences should be transparent so that remedial action does not appear arbitrary or capricious.  Contract and charter schools typically operate on a simple renew/non-renew basis, but could be included in some form of progressive intervention if negotiated in advance.
  • Community engagement. The development of a portfolio of options should increase opportunities for community engagement and support.  However, school closure/replacement and the uneven pace of improvement and new school development will create short term winners and losers leading to dissatisfaction and even conflict.  It’s important to frequently communicate the system wide vision and plan so that it’s clear that all students will benefit.

Each of these suggestions constitutes a substantial change for the typical urban district.  The standards are higher, leadership roles are more clearly defined, accountability is shaper and more transparent, and engagement is more focused.
High-Support Implications. A portfolio approach has significant implications on how school support is developed and provided:

  • Learning and support networks. The variable quality of charters indicates that districts should employ a strong authorizing process and encourage the development of schools in network.  District schools should also be grouped in learning and support networks.  With the introduction of multiple school models and a system of progressive intervention, the district may want to consider grouping strategies other than location (i.e., regional supervision) including school type and level of performance.  If a new school developed by an outside partner is going to transition into a district support network, the handoff should be negotiated in advance.
  • Adequate, flexible funding. Most districts that have moved toward weighted student budgeting are still allocating only two thirds of the per pupil expenditure to schools and allocating staffing on an average cost basis.  Districts should shoot for at least 80% school-based allocation and should migrate to an actual cost model so that schools serving low income students receive full benefit.  Contract and charter schools that do not receive district services should receive at least 95% of per pupil revenue and a facility.
  • Teacher/leader development. With more diverse school models, a larger percentage of teacher preparation should be model/network specific.  Hiring must be school-based.  Seniority-based placement, lifetime employment, and a common salary schedule are at odds with the concept of a high performance portfolio.  High quality networks identify great teachers, pay them more and provide leadership opportunities.  High quality leadership development programs like New Leaders for New Schools 1) identify potential leaders early, 2) provide career development opportunities, and 3) provide relevant educational experiences.  Good schools provide ongoing job-embedded learning and collaboration opportunities
  • Provided/purchased services. Districts should provide high quality core services to managed schools (curriculum, assessment, student information systems, recruiting, finance and payroll, facilities maintenance, food service, and transportation) with additional services available for purchase.  With a full budget allocation, contract and charter schools should have the opportunity to purchase core services from the district or other providers.

Like the demand side, these implications require a central office redesign.  With a system of progressive intervention, the district requires substantial capacity for school improvement.  Most districts will need to improve and expand their internal capacity to manage and improve schools.  For example, this may require a literacy coach and a school improvement coach for ‘guided’ school. Many districts will need to contract with an external partner to provide direction and support to schools ‘prescriptive assistance.’
Conclusion. Leading an urban district is a monumental challenge.  Portfolio thinkers 1) ask what kind of schools the community needs, 2) think about schools that leverage community assets, 3) seek to get every student in a school with an effective instructional system ASAP.  It’s not simple, but it is promising.

Tom - Speaking Engagements

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Tom Vander Ark

There are hundreds of great charter schools breaking the cycle of poverty (see No Excuses or for examples). In addition to HCZ in Harlem, see AF, Harlem Success, Village Academy.
Ravitch ignores the data that tells me that CMOs are the most important development in edu in the last 10 years--they delivery reliable quality in the most demanding situations.
This paper simply suggests that city/district leaders incorporate high performing charters into their efforts to serve all children well.
Sorry I've only been at this 15 years; learning as much as I can every day.

Tom Vander Ark

Worked with kids groups starting 30 years ago, taught for 8 years at grad level, taught every semester as superintendent--sorry if not enough to seem legit.
Appreciate any comments offered in good faith. Appreciate the work teachers do, including those that disagree with me.
Not rich, but leading a rich life; hope you are too.

John Danner

TFT, not sure what you are talking about when you say HCZ is the only model that works, 12 of the top 15 public schools in California are charters. Lots of quality charters.
The point I was going to make Tom is that you have districts with scale and charters with quality, but until charters get scale, the challenges that a superintendent would face managing many, many charter operators is going to be tough. We need to see half a dozen charter operators capable of scaling to 1000+ schools each over the next decade or charters won't be the final solution.

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