A New Generation of Ed Reformers: What’s the Big Idea?

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.

-Christine Campbell

12 Replies to “A New Generation of Ed Reformers: What’s the Big Idea?”

  1. The problem is that you can’t have “continuous imrovement” and also have their version of accountability. Their “results” in NYC clearly were not real, and there is little reason to believe their data on New Orleans given their cavalier attitude towards the truth.

    Traditional reformers need to work with as many data-driven reformers as possible. But the Klein/Rhee axis must be defeated first. If people who believed that data can drive reform really want to help kids, they should agree to disagree with us on other issues, and repudiate the Klein/Rhee assault on public education.

  2. Great point. I think this partly explains the ongoing hostility to TFA. They have actually refined their program model over time, providing 2 years of ongoing mentoring and support, but this somehow goes unoticed by their critics.

  3. C’mon John- the NAEP shows very clear improvement in NYC under Klein. The improvement in DC, predating Rhee, is also substantial- might have something to do with the fact that the district has been shrinking for a decade.

    You cannot seriously want anyone to believe that knuckle dragging reactionaries are going to “defeat/repudiate” the Klein/Rhee type efforts to improve public education and then morph into enlightened reformers.

  4. 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.
    Lord forbid people have control over their own money.

  5. Has there been any improvement of 8th grade NAEP reading scores? That’s the key. Reading comprehension is the key. NYC was pretty close to average before and after Klein. Klein had more new money, per student, than my district spends on a student – not counting private money. Read Aaron Pallas on Klein’s lack of substance. Improvements under Rhee slowed.

    There were improvements for many under Klein, under Rhee not so much. But also calculate the human costs. Klein clearly helped some favored kids at favored schools, but he made things worse for kids left behind in neighborhood schools.

    And that the essense of “reform.” Give a few kids more engaging instruction, but at the cost of dumping more test prep and soul-killing standardization on others – all at a monetary price beyond the dreams of most districts.

    A lot of reformers, conservative as well as liberal and neo-liberal, are not knuckle-draggers. Their model, however, is deaf to the human dimension of schooling. If they could extend the opportunities given to many in Small Schools to all kids, that would be great. Under what scenario, however, do you impose such an accountability regime on principals and not have large numbers of them spew poison of the learning cultures of their schools?

  6. John:

    ***”Has there been any improvement of 8th grade NAEP reading scores? That’s the key. Reading comprehension is the key. ”

    Funny that you aren’t mentioning 4th grade reading scores:


    ***”Improvements under Rhee slowed.”

    What data are you using to make this claim?

  7. Chris,

    To paraphrase Arne Duncan,
    elementary test scores do not a career or a healthy life make. Gains that can’t even be sustained until 8th grade aren’t likely to be important.

    And not only has it been explained here and elsewhere how NAEP gains were slower under Rhee than Fenty (look it up) they were much more narrow. With the all-important 8th grade reading, the only progress under NAEP was in the top decile, meaning that gentrification was the most likely explanation. The gains under Fenty were largedly in the top few deciles, as I recall.

  8. John-

    Both DC and NYC had flat 8th grade NAEP reading scores between 2003 and 2009. In so doing, however, they were simply reflecting a national trend. Since the nation had flat 8th grade reading scores during this period, does it follow that we will see you seeking to defeat/repudiate the notion of public schooling?

    The river has to flow both ways on this, don’t you think? The average state gain during this period was less than a point. The two leading states with 7 point gains were Florida and PA, both of which have done much to offend the reactionary set with their education policies.

    It is also far too soon to draw any conclusions about the Rhee policies based upon a single round of NAEP tests.

  9. Scores had gone up in the 90s, and then growth stopped with NCLB. NYC and Dc under “reform” threw billions at schools, and did not show results. But the costs were more than the monetary costs. Klein and Rhee, as opposed to many reformers, imposed an anti-education, anti-democratic, anti-exchange of ideas policy agenda, and they advanced it in a destructive way. The freed their favored innovators, and imposed more rote instruction on others. They abused the legal system. They let the genie of extreme scorched earth politics out. They encouraged cheating and dishonesty.

    I disagree with virtually everything proposed by many data-driven reformers, but I don’t see them as anti-education. I see them as opponents, not enemies.

    Klein and Rhee turned opponents into enemies. That as well as money must be figured into the costs of their “reforms” – that produced little or no gains.

  10. John:

    1) When did Duncan imply that elementary test scores were unimportant?

    2) Note that I’m not arguing that 8th grade reading scores are unimportant, but that it’s wrong to flatly declare there’s been no improvement based on looking at 8th grade reading gains alone, as 4th grade gains may rightfully suggest incremental improvement that will impact later grades.

    3) It’s “been explained”? I didn’t ask you for weasel words. I asked for the specific data you are using for your claim that “improvements under Rhee slowed”. Here is some data that refutes it (scroll down to NAEP scores):


    As Reactionaries-Are-Cute-When-Mad states, there’s been a single year of NAEP testing data after Rhee began, which doesn’t make a trend. This is where many attempts at analysis falter. Were we to look at that single time point anyway and look at error bars of growth over the past several years, as I’ve shown above, it becomes clearer why it is incorrect to say that the latest NAEP scores were simply just part of a past growth trend. Yes, a trend that faltered in the recent years prior to Rhee’s tenure, and one that doesn’t logically follow as one that should continue growing year after year without added input.

    4) Klein imposed an “anti-education agenda”? He “encouraged cheating and dishonesty”? You are planning to substantiate that mess of a comment in your next reply, right?

  11. Oh, and by the way, 4th grade reading scores improved by 5 points in DC between 2007 and 2009. The Trial Urban NAEP shows a 3 point gain in 8th grade scores between 2007 and 2009 once you filter out the charter schools (the sample didn’t generate a number for charters in 2009). That is about half a grade level worth of typical progress in 4th grade, and far more progress than most states made in the 8th grade.

    Let’s see how the DCPS 4th graders do as they advance into the 8th grade NAEP sample.

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