A New Year, A Promising New Education Model
With the disastrous education landscape of 2020 now in the rear-view mirror, the New Year offers the opportunity to consider new ways of delivering effective learning to America’s children. Portal Schools is one such promising model.
Confronted with student-learning catastrophes during the COVID crisis, some states, according to a new Pacific Research Institute briefing paper, erected obstacles for charters schools. For its part, Congress mainly protected the status quo in the $900 billion COVID relief bill enacted just before the New Year. They mostly funneled education relief dollars into regular public schools and restricted the ability of governors and parents to create and take advantage of educational choice options.
John Schilling, president of the pro-school-choice American Federation of Children, criticized federal lawmakers’ short-sightedness saying, “America’s students—especially those from lower income, working class, and special needs families who have been harmed by the pandemic—deserved better.”
One new education model that could serve such students better is being pioneered by the Portal Schools, an emerging national network of non-profit, independent schools that seeks to challenge the reigning education status quo on several fronts.
For example, Portal Schools aims to address low college completion rates and exorbitant higher education costs by creating a program that combines academically rigorous high school and college coursework simultaneously. This increases the likelihood of degree completion while alleviating the necessity of costly student loans. Students will earn their high school diploma and bachelor’s degree at the same time.
Also, unlike so much of higher education, where students earn degrees that are often useless in the modern job marketplace, Portal will connect degrees with real careers. According to the school, “Each Portal campus is co-located at a corporate work site to help embed career exploration and internship opportunities directly into student learning.”
Further, “Students have a chance to explore various career path, engage with mentors at our employer partners, and have practical opportunities to intern and work on projects in their field of interest, all while they are completing their diploma and their degree.”
This emphasis on connecting students with the world of work is in direct contrast to traditional public schools, where less than half of high school students say that their school helped them figure out which careers match their skills and interests according to a 2017 national survey of high school students by Youth Truth.
In the Portal model, employers will benefit because student learning will be market driven and will be designed to meet the real needs of employers. Students will benefit because they will have access to learning that prepares them for real jobs and that gives them tangible, career-relevant work experience and skills.
So, how will Portal Schools achieve these goals?
Portal says that it will emphasize small learning communities, with each school educating 60 students at their corporate partner worksite. Content will be customized for students, with electives and other educational opportunities driven by student interest.
In addition, the Portal model uses individualized pacing that allows for students to complete coursework in a timeframe scheduled to meet student needs. The coursework will also emphasize competency-based learning, which means that students move from one learning level to another based on their demonstration of knowledge rather than simply time spent on specific coursework.
The course sequence at Portal for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in communications, for example, includes five courses in year one that are college equivalent, with that number increasing year by year until by year four students take eight college-equivalent courses. These courses range from basic subjects like English and science to work-world-oriented courses such as introduction to entrepreneurship, media marketing, and business management and accounting.
In these revenue-starved times, Portal offers the large plus of educating students at a lower average cost than the cost for educating students in regular public schools.
While the initial Portal sites will be non-public, Portal’s national expansion model envisions multiple governance models including private, public, and public charter, which makes the model nimble for expansion to new markets.
Portal will open its first site this year in Southern California. It will be co-located at Belkin International, a major consumer electronics manufacturer.
With the growing failure of American education to produce graduates ready for a highly competitive international economy, new visionary learning models, such as the one pioneered by Portal Schools, should be encouraged through school choice programs. That’s a New Year’s resolution that policymakers should make and keep.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the co-author, along with Mia Giordano, of the new book A Kite in a Hurricane No More: The Journey of One Young Woman Who Overcame Learning Disabilities through Science and Educational Choice.