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Between Public and Private: Politics, Governance, and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform

reviewed by Craig E. Richards - November 01, 2010

coverTitle: Between Public and Private: Politics, Governance, and the New Portfolio Models for Urban School Reform
Author(s): Katrina E. Bulkley, Jeffrey R. Henig, and Henry M. Levin (eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742686, Pages: 400, Year: 2010
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Portfolio management, the subject of this important book, examines the effectiveness of an emerging strategy practiced by reform-minded urban school leaders. Portfolio management models (PMM) are defined by co-editor Katrina Bulkley as:  

…. a shift from a centralized bureaucracy that directly manages a relatively uniform set of schools toward a model in which a central office oversees a portfolio of schools offering diverse organizational and curricular themes. That portfolio includes traditional public schools, private organizations, and charter schools as service providers. (p 3)

PMM, as it has been practiced in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and New Orleans (the cases analyzed in this book) are typified by four key strategies:

Creating new, often smaller, schools with higher levels of autonomy and more sharply focused academic missions (product differentiation);

Promoting district-wide school choice (consumer focus);

Establishing rigorous and publicly transparent accountability systems (consumer performance reports);

Managerial consequences that result in closing and/or radically restructuring low-performing schools (quality control over producers).

As one can see from this brief description of PMM, the approach taken by urban school leaders like Arne Duncan in Chicago, Joel Klein in New York, Michele Rhee in Washington, D.C (until recently), Paul Vallas in New Orleans, and Arlene Ackerman in Philadelphia, emphasizes a market strategy, school leadership autonomy with accountability, and parental choice with real options. The market model is sharply contrasted with a bureaucratic model that emphasizes command, control, uniformity, and centralization. To varying degrees––sometimes sharply varying––, urban school reform leaders all see market strategies as a pivotal leverage point for the structural reform of overly bureaucratized school systems. Fundamentally, proponents of the market strategy presume that choice and markets will be more efficient and effective than traditional large urban bureaucracies in producing the necessary pressure for significant school reform.

Yet, this story, like all sharply plotted drama, can lose nuances in translation. Like the highly regulated economies of the European Common Market, Canada, and the United States, large urban school systems still have strong central bureaucracies, strong central accountability reporting, and centrally controlled budgeting and facilities management. Some cites have strong mayoral control like New York and others like New Orleans are under gubernatorial control. The question is not, as organizational psychologist Carl Weick so wisely noted, whether they are loosely or tightly coupled systems, but rather, where they are loosely and tightly coupled. Clearly, the fascinating cases described in this book provide fertile ground for analysis of these nuances. Unhappily, we have as yet, no substantive, rigorous, empirical evidence that mayoral regimes, or their PMM offspring, produce better or worse results than business as usual. At the same time, cross-case analyses, which are not available in this book, might have begun to tease out where some of the best and least effective PMM practices might be found and even perhaps some contextual conditions that make them more or less effective. My favorite list of unanswered questions are:


To what extent are market-oriented reforms able to capitalize on corporate largess because of ideological congruence and thereby raise average levels of per pupil spending at the system level, higher than it would be otherwise?


To what extent are market-oriented reforms being funded by state and local taxpayers due to ideological congruence with market strategies?


How important is mayoral control to initiate and sustain market reform of urban school systems?


If one analyzed urban school systems by inputs (e.g., per pupil spending, school size) and student outcomes (e.g., student achievement tests, high school completion) and controlled for market vs. bureaucratic model (e.g, choice, diversity of vision and mission) of urban education, would it predict anything?

This reviewer spends his energy recruiting and training effective urban school leaders and he sympathizes with urban school leaders desperate to find an organizational vehicle sufficiently robust to carry meaningful school reform forward. It is lamentable that the very ambivalent and nuanced reporting thoughtful policy analysts are likely to write when the experimental conditions of rigorous research designs are absent, makes much of policy analysis irrelevant to the urgent priorities of mayors and chancellors. One side seems trapped by their commitments to research methods and the other by their commitments to educational reform at almost any price––both in a political hothouse that seldom allows for sustained structural reforms or impartial evaluation research that might threaten establishment interests, market reformer’s interests, or the self-interests of labor unions. Very large sums of money are at stake. For example, New York has more than 1.2 million students and spends nearly 16,000 dollars per pupil.

In fact, the cost-effectiveness of managerial reform and policy analysis are both highly suspect. It may be the case that the policy and the market reform industry are so embedded in the problems of public education, the class structure of American society, the stagnating economy, and the consolidation of market ideological hegemony over social and cultural life, that it is not possible for the U.S. to self-reform within these political, cultural and economic constraints. It’s as if our vision of what the good society could be like is so at odds with its short-term interests that no group of stakeholders can be assembled with the sufficient depth of human, political, and cultural capital to pull off the kind of structural reform required without tearing out its very roots in the elite soil that sustains it. We observe similarly disturbing trends within corporate culture, much of what precipitated the current economic crisis. The careful reader might have cause for concern that the self-consuming ouroboros of capitalist markets and the classical bureaucratic model of organization are both wrong. The rapid growth of home-schooling with over one million students, the equally rapid proliferation of quality online curriculum, and the pressure from developing nations for affordable education, might together be shaping the crucible for a new alchemy of education.

This edited collection represents an impressive list of nationally recognized scholars, escapes much of the redundancy typical of edited volumes with well-defined, sharply focused, critical analyses of important questions arising from PMM and the reform-minded restructuring of large urban school systems it reports upon. It is, at the end of the day, well entrenched within the conventions of policy analysis, offering neither radical alternatives, nor decisively supporting or condemning the policies it researches. This is not the fault of the authors or editors: the data are missing and PMM has in fact had nuanced outcomes. Despite these modest results, the authors provide a thorough and thoughtful account with interesting cases for both advocates and adversaries of PMM.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 01, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16221, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 10:39:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Craig Richards
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CRAIG E. RICHARDS is professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University and Director of the Summer Principals Academy. He also serves as Program Coordinator for the Graduate Programs in Education Leadership. He is co-author of Financing Education Systems, and working on a new book entitled, Self-Leadership.
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