Guest Post: Many major districts are moving toward a portfolio approach of managing schools

June 18, 2010 •

Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature guest bloggers that are involved in rethinking what is possible with schooling and the education system.

This is a post by guest contributor Paul Hill of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

With colleagues at the Center on Reinventing Public Education I am studying how big city school districts are pulling together many of the best ideas in education reform—small schools, chartering, more spending at the school level and less in the central office, performance-based accountability, continuous improvement and family choice—into a coherent package called a portfolio strategy.

A portfolio strategy seeks effective schools for all students, understanding that a major city needs many different kinds of schools, matched to diverse student needs and neighborhood circumstances. It is particularly focused on closing the achievement gap by developing and testing new approaches to the needs of disadvantaged children.

As New York City Chancellor Joel Klein has said, the core of a portfolio strategy is the effort to build many strong schools, not to create one-size-fits all district-wide programs.

As practiced in New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, D.C, and many other cities, it is both a revolution in public management and an R&D approach. It seeks to make full use of the expertise of local educators, including many not now employed by the public schools, cultural institutions, nonprofit organizations, businesses, colleges, universities, and foundations.

Cities pursuing a portfolio strategy also try to become beacons for talent from across the country, attracting both conventionally trained teachers and people who trained outside education schools.

Some portfolio strategy cities have received a lot of attention, but others are still mostly under the radar – Hartford, Denver, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, have moved a long way, quietly. Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Chicago, New Haven, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis are on the way. All these cities have formed a portfolio district network to share ideas and work together on hard problems.

Portfolio strategy districts have many attributes in common:

  • District leaders don’t manage schools directly; their job is to find the best set of school operators – including charter boards, teacher groups, national school providers, and existing and new school leadership teams.
  • School performance is measured in many ways – student growth, climate, attendance and dropout rate, even in some cases graduates’ performance at the next level of schooling. Every year, district leaders try to replace their worst performing schools with more promising new schools.
  • Neighborhoods with the lowest performing schools and the fewest good options get primary attention.
  • Schools are funded based on enrollment, and almost all money follows children to the schools they attend.
  • School leaders decide how to spend their money.
  • Schools can buy professional development and other services from any vendor. Central office units are not privileged, and those that can’t get customers wither away.
  • District leaders encourage lots of nonprofit organizations to offer all kinds of services, including financial and facilities – for fees.

It often takes a special crisis (hurricane, fiscal collapse) or mayoral or state takeover to generate the necessary political will to institute a portfolio strategy. Even once underway there is agitation to return to the ‘good old days’ of input control and job security. Local leadership is necessary to sustain it.

The CRPE has released an interim report on portfolio districts. It may be found on their website at: the center’s website.

Image: Paul Hill