Advocating a Portfolio Model for Public Education

Jal Mehta
I was happy to see this piece, “A Case for Educational Markets From the Left”, by Jal Mehta, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, featured on Education Week‘s daily e-newsletter. I am pleased that the kind of arguments for educational transformation that I passionately write about, including many paths and focus on more democratic governance are getting a broader airing than I am able to give them. There are maybe 100 to 200 people who read my blog, while this piece is being put forward to a much larger audience of educational “thought leaders” who read Education Week.

In Mehta’s arguments I see another person like myself trying to think outside the box of conventional liberal/progressive wisdom on education “reform”…

I’ve been struck by the vitriolic reaction that always emerges around proposals to increase market forces in education. I wanted to use this post to say something about why even some of us on the left see some value to markets in education.

As an aside… frankly the phrase “education reform” is pretty much meaningless to convey any other meaning than “education business as usual”. The proof of this I think is the fact that you would be hard pressed to find any politician or educrat that was not for some sort of “reform”.

Besides explicitly challenging liberal orthodoxy, Mehta also challenges the ability of a one-size-fits-all education system to create an effective learning environment that can meet the needs of more that perhaps half our youth…

Schooling is inescapably about values and purposes, and in a nation as diverse as ours, there should be somewhat different versions of school. Some parents and students will want something more like Montessori, and others will want something more traditional. That’s okay, and even healthy.

And most gratifying to me, Mehta also appears to share my concern about the ineffectiveness of the conventional top-down governance model for schools…

The literature on effective public schools, Catholic schools, and high performing charter schools is clear that good schools are mission oriented; they are organized around a shared set of goals that create a normative culture for faculty and students. The usual approach seeks to stovepipe in programs to lots of schools, and schools find themselves trying to comply with multiple, potentially inconsistent, signals from the district and state.

Moving away from top-down control is moving towards the district and the state playing a more facilitative rather than directive role…

In contrast, with the system of schools approach, each school is treated as its own unit, its own problem-solving or learning organization. The role of the district, then, is less to tell all schools to do X, and more to respond with support as School A is working on problem A, school B is working on problem B, and so forth. (Think of what a sea change that would be in the district role!) And, like a portfolio manager, it also has responsibility to close a school if it really is not working.

What I call “many educational paths”, Mehta descibes as a “portfolio of schools”. Mehta imagines a school district offering the public in their jurisdiction a broad range of different schools, rather than trying to force every learning venue in its purvey to conform to some one-size-fits-all best practice.

And further on the topic of school governance so dear to my heart…

Here’s where critiques from the left, like Kozol’s Death at an Early Age meets up with critiques from the right, like Chubb and Moe’s Politics, Markets, and Schools, as well what you might think of critiques from the center, like Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence. From very different perspectives, all criticize the role of centralized bureaucracies as too distant from the real work of frontline practitioners. Schools need the ability to hire their own staff and make a range of other important decisions if they are going to be held accountable for results.

And having parents play a role in school governance process (something that many progressives are still uncomfortable with)…

In a system in which more power is devolved to schools, parents can have increased democratic deliberation at those local sites. Rather than one site of democracy (the district) you now can have 50 or 100 different mini democracies.

It is gratifying to be reading somebody in the mainstream education media talking about the critical importance of governance when it comes to running an effective learning environment. I feel sometimes like I am banging my head against the wall trying to get people to realize that there is more to education than just the curriculum and the learning methodology. (See my pieces “Educational Transformation? It’s the Governance Stupid” and “It’s the Governance Stupid”.)

The one thing I would add to the above would be to include students in that democratic process. They are key school stakeholders plus it would pay dividends in giving them real life experience in being active democratic citizens.

Finally when Mehta talks about “markets in education”, people shouldn’t get fixated on the word “market” in terms of privatization or for-profit schools. I don’t think Metha’s vision is about that. Think more in terms of the “marketplace of ideas”, and a “portfolio” of schools in a school district representing a range of approaches to the learning process, from traditional instruction to total self-directed learning. The district could even require a level of local participation in the governance of their schools and perhaps limitations on for-profit schools in particular.

We need to figure out a way to put together the elements of the system in a way that takes comparative advantage of what can and should happen at different levels. Right now, we assume that states and districts should reach a single set of decisions, and many schools should implement them. The portfolio model reverses that, empowering schools to make lots of different decisions, and asking districts to support and hold accountable. In my view, that’s more friendly to good practitioners and more likely to yield better practice. Which is why this lefty supports a role for markets in educational improvement.

In the world of business process improvement that I’m involved with they call this “right-sizing” or “turning the org chart upside down”. Whatever you call it in regards to school, it seems like pragmatic evolutionary change on a human scale.

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