Ratchet Effect: The Continuous Evolution of the Portfolio Strategy

The portfolio strategy has driven real improvement in urban K–12 school systems over the past 10 years. Results in Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City have been strong, and portfolio has started to reverse the decline of poverty-ridden cities like Camden, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. But progress is now uncertain, given changes in governorships and state legislatures, and the Trump-DeVos agenda’s alienation 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.

This is not the time for supporters to move on to something else. 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 via initiatives seeking districtwide uniformity—have never worked, and won’t work in the future.

And school leaders in portfolio districts have learned to appreciate having control over their budgets and hiring decisions. They will resist giving up that power. Parents, including those from low-income areas who did not have good options before and those from higher-income areas who are swelling enrollment in many cities, will be reluctant to give up their choices. New teachers attracted to charter and autonomous district schools—including not only career switchers but also newcomers recruited from Teach for America and well-organized dissident groups within local teachers unions—won’t go away.

Events can and will stall a city’s portfolio strategy. A state legislature might limit the charter school law or forbid the use of nonprofits to provide support services. District leaders and new school board members might 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 back away from the portfolio strategy will be hard-pressed to exclude educators, parents, and school providers, all of whom know it leads to better options for kids. The result will likely be that the foundational elements of the portfolio strategy remain even in districts that have stopped actively pursuing it.

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

The futility of a return to the past will be evident soon enough, in light of economic and technological changes affecting the job market and the possibility of individualized learning pathways to make the most of all students’ skills and interests. If one size ever did fit all, it won’t in the future. Cities that want to thrive will need a portfolio of diverse schools that have the ability to curate different learning experiences for different students, and to provide second chances into adulthood for students who drop out, struggle to make academic progress, or need to upgrade job skills in the years after graduation to keep up with economic and technological changes.

This may require local education leaders to expand learning opportunities and supports outside their current system of schools. They might want to foster local versions of the 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 school.

Leaders might wish to do what Henry County, Georgia, has done in suburban Atlanta and offer districtwide online classes, as well as a college and career center, to expand the 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 giving parents the ability to obtain customized tutoring, therapy, and other services beyond what schools themselves offer.

The portfolio strategy has always been primarily a problem-solving approach. Addressing some of the most pressing challenges in public education may force system leaders to think beyond their portfolios of schools and focus on their broader portfolios of opportunities for students. Localities that can’t overcome educational and political inertia risk losing jobs and population, and failing their children.

Portfolio strategies are inevitable because diverse 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 parts of a broader strategy for driving continuous improvement. It is a plausible settling point between purely market-based and purely governmental solutions. That, more than the current state of play in any locality, is likely to guarantee that the strategy will endure, spread, and continue to evolve.

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

Contrary to some hopes, the portfolio strategy was never going to disrupt and reshape the K–12 system in a matter of a few years. But it can thrive and spread over a longer time if supporters understand its ratchet effect: make some progress by creating good new schools and meaningful learning pathways; build parental support and aligned nonprofits; wait out the inevitable returns to ineffective centralization; and when the demand for better learning opportunities becomes strong again, as it will, build further.

— Paul Hill

Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

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