A Tale of 5 Cities: Portfolio Strategy Revisited

What urban school district improvement strategy will work best? In A Tale of Five CitiesNeerav Kingsland pondered that question.  He considered reforms in Memphis, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and concluded that “Over a twenty year period, here is how I think district strategies will perform over time, with the highest-performing (in terms of achievement growth) listed first:

  1. Cities that develop charter districts, devote significant resources to human capital, and thoughtfully regulate charter authorization will outperform everyone else.
  2. Cities that focus significantly on human capital and increasing the performance of direct-run schools will come in second.
  3. Cities that develop charter districts and have poor human capital strategies and weak charter regulation will come in third.
  4. Cities that poorly execute on directly running schools will come in fourth.
He will be proven right about the prediction, the early evidence is pretty clear about that.  Surprisingly, he thinks, “There is much debate on which strategies will lead to marginal improvements, which will lead to major change, and which can actually be scaled.”
I think the reform community (i.e., New Schools Summit attendees) agree on portfolio approach that includes closing bad schools, opening new charters and aggressively to improve the rest.  The difference in the cities that Kingsland considered has more to do with context than strategy.
No question, there are a lot of traditional superintendents taking a curriculum & instruction plus human capital approach to improvement (like Bev Hall implemented in Atlanta).  The incremental improvement from this strategy simply can’t deliver the step function improvement needed in urban districts.
If Kingsland had considered Boston, Chicago, and New York, he may have added a category between 1 and 2 for portfolio districts where policy and politics limit the number of charters they can open and where strong accountability is combined with strong improvement efforts.
As noted last week in Improving Urban Education Options: A Digital Portfolio Approach, it’s time to blend the portfolio strategy with online learning options and blended school models.
Many adherents to the portfolio theory will gather Wednesday at UW to celebrate Paul Hill’s monster contribution to the field.
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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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