Voices in Education

Q&A with Jeffrey R. Henig
Jeffrey Henig, coeditor with Katrina Bulkley and Henry Levin of the new Harvard Education Press book, Between Public and Private: Politics, Governance, and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform, discusses the book’s subject—the new Portfolio Management Model (PMM) for district management—and its implications for school improvement in four urban districts.

What is a Portfolio Management Model (PMM) for organizing schools, and how does it represent a change in the way schools are organized?

Traditionally, most districts run things from the top down, with central offices defining much of what schools do and trying hard to standardize procedure and practice across a range of schools they directly control. In theory, districts adopting the Portfolio Management Model deliberately introduce new kinds of schools—including charter schools and schools managed or partnered with for-profit or nonprofit organizations—and give schools more discretion in exchange for greater accountability for performance results. As individuals might do in managing their stock portfolio, PMM districts try to regularly weed out poorly performing schools and replace them with new schools and new providers who have proven records in the city or elsewhere.

What is the rationale for managing districts using the Portfolio Management Model?

Since No Child Left Behind began mandating strong interventions in schools that consistently failed to perform, traditional districts have tried a variety of strategies to encourage and help schools improve, including additional support, staff changes, and school reorganization. Some efforts have been more successful than others, but no "magic bullet" has been found that consistently leads to improved performance. This has convinced many that low-performing schools simply cannot improve themselves, which makes the PMM strategy of closing low-performing schools and introducing new ones seem like a logical alternative.

How is the PMM movement changing the roles of district administrators?

PMM, at least in principle, puts the district into the role of “general contractor” rather than manager and boss. Administrators need to know a considerable amount about potential providers, as well as how to define clear contracts, monitor performance, and intervene when things are not going well. They may not need to know as much as in the past about what each school is doing on a day-to-day basis. They may not even need to know as much about theories and practices of curriculum and teaching; if that kind of knowledge is needed, administrators can hire those who can bring such expertise to bear. Also, districts have traditionally evaluated principals and administrative personnel at school-sites procedurally in terms of a checklist of how well they were meeting job responsibilities. In a Portfolio Management Model district, they are more likely to be evaluated on the success of the school.

As Honig and DeArmond discuss in their chapter, such structural changes would need to be accompanied by the building of strong informal relationships. PMM proponents suggest that all this can be done by a leaner and less-costly central office structure, but there’s not enough evidence at this time to judge whether this might be wishful thinking.

How do individual schools function within the Portfolio Managed Model?

Also in principle, PMM gives individual schools more leeway to experiment and to fit solutions to the particular needs and values of the families they serve. They must gauge their success in both attracting students and meeting performance criteria set by the district. PMM is a new idea, still evolving, and not yet fully tested. Ours is an early effort to take its pulse. It will take some time and further studies to know with confidence how it will develop in practice in different places and over time.

Which specific districts do you discuss in your book? What does your book suggest about the progress of PMM in those districts so far?

The book focuses on four cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. As we describe in the book, there are some common underlying approaches to reform in these cities, drawing on the ideas of markets, performance-based accountability, and the differentiation of schools. However there is also considerable variation, as local reforms evolve over time and local actors make pragmatic adjustments. We identify several broad themes in the book: design matters, but designs evolve; capacity matters, in terms of both educational and civic capacity; and national forces—including federal policies such as NCLB and the Race to the Top competition, as well as the activities of some major educational foundations and advocacy groups—are playing an important role in the unfolding of locally-developing portfolio managed models.

What are some potential benefits for school reform under PMM, and what are some potential consequences?

PMM might make districts more flexible, innovative, and less bureaucratic. Also on the positive side of the ledger is the possibility that parents in PMM districts will have a broader range of options when looking for a school with the focus and approach best suited for their child’s particular needs. At this point, however, the promise exists more in theory than in proven results. And our book identifies some genuine risks and concerns. One possibility is that PMM, like many other education reforms, will generate superficial change but leave the core problems of delivering high quality education unresolved. Another is that PMM will shift political dynamics in ways that empower private providers and weaken mechanisms for democratic oversight and control.

Given how new PMM is to education reform, what do you hope to accomplish with Between Public and Private?

New departures in education tend to be backed by untested ideas, bolstered by a combination of hope and hype, and met with both uncritical enthusiasm and knee-jerk resistance. Adding to the heat and confusion is the tendency to frame the school reform debates in terms of a conflict between the forces of markets and the forces of government. The Portfolio Management Model makes it clear that ideas of public and private provision of education need to be understood in terms of how they interact and not as rivals from which we must choose only one. Our hope is that this volume—by combining theory, the existing evidence, and the recognition that the consequences of change can vary by context and over time—will set the foundation for more balanced and pragmatic debates about the future of American school reform.

About the Author: Jeffrey R. Henig is professor of political science and education at Teachers College and professor of political science at Columbia University.