Earlier this month, Joel Klein published an op-ed in the Washington Post on the ‘new generation’ of school reform leaders—leaders like J.C. Brizard in Chicago, John White in New Orleans, Dennis Walcott in New York City and others. Klein singled out these leaders for their boldness and for what they’re doing in two areas of reform: rethinking the teaching profession and school choice.
But what Klein didn’t say is that the boldest idea these leaders bring to public education goes beyond reforming teacher tenure and pay or expanding schooling options for underserved students—it’s treating school performance as a continuous improvement project. If you really want to understand what the ‘new generation’ of ed reformers is up to and the challenges they face, you have to understand this big idea.
School performance as continuous improvement means that districts try many plausible approaches to improving urban schools, keep the best, and are always on the lookout for something better. It is an idea that is taking root in more than 20 cities across the country, including New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Hartford, Baltimore and others.
Borrowing language from finance, some leaders in these cities are calling this approach “portfolio management.” These leaders see their role as helping schools to improve, but also closing those that underperform and opening new ones in their place. Los Angeles’ Public School Choice initiative, which solicited bids from outside providers to run some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, is one example of what this looks like in action.
Klein’s new generation of school district leaders are likely to face some harsh challenges in the months and years ahead:
- As they open up the system to outside providers, they risk making enemies out of community groups and politicians who are used to having more control of how district funds are spent.
- As they close and replace chronically low-performing schools, they will anger schools and communities who will have a hard time accepting that the district and school failed.
- As they ask teachers to try new approaches to instruction using new combinations of staffing and technology, they risk being called anti-teacher.
Politically, adopting a portfolio strategy is risky. As Joel Klein notes in his op-ed, these leaders can’t do it alone. They need political support from parents, from students, from the community, and from one another. Results in New York City and New Orleans suggest they’re on to something.