Cage-Busting LeadershipFor over a decade, and almost entirely under the leadership of the prolific Paul Hill, the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has promoted the “portfolio-district strategy,” in which districts manage a “portfolio” of diverse schools (charters, magnets, traditionals), each with a high degree of school-level autonomy and accountability. Since beginning this work, CRPE has written myriad reports on the PMM (portfolio-management model) and partnered with an ever-larger number of districts to help them roll out this strategy. Strife and Progress—a new book by Paul Hill and two current CRPE firecrackers, Christine Campbell and Betheny Gross—compiles their immense amount of knowledge and experience. First, the authors outline and explain the seven components that any successful portfolio-district strategy must embrace: school choice, school autonomy, equitable school funding, talent-seeking and retention, support from independent groups, performance-based accountability, and public engagement. Drawing on case studies of several portfolio districts (mainly New York City, New Orleans, D.C., Chicago, and Denver), it then probes both the strategy’s promise and challenges. Clearly, for example, it cannot succeed without political support: The book is admirable in its acknowledgement of past public-relations failures within districts of this sort (e.g., the contentious tenures of Michelle Rhee and Cathie Black), and it expends much ink on the need to build relationships with local organizations and clearly communicate such measures as school closings and openings. Further, establishing the success of the portfolio model proves problematic, mostly because of numerous confounding variables. The authors do, however, offer concrete ways to deal with this complexity, including natural experiments through school lotteries and time-series analyses (which might, for instance, look at a student’s performance in one school versus another). The challenges, then, are real but not insurmountable. At a time when some people want to give up on urban districts entirely, the strategies set forth in Strife and Progress may offer this governance structure a fighting chance for success.

SOURCE: Paul T. Hill, Christine Campbell and Betheny Gross, Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

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