Blog: The Educated Reporter

Will ‘Portfolio District Model’ Yield Returns on Investment?

The idea has a simple, seductive appeal. Expand the things that work, cut short the things that don’t.

The notion, drawn from the investment world, has manifested itself in public education as the “Portfolio District Model.” Instead of managing stocks and bonds, school districts manage schools, creating or expanding successful ones, closing unsuccessful ones, focusing with zeal on academic results.

Starting with a handful of school districts more than a decade ago, it has grown fast. Thirty-seven districts and counting are now trying some variant of the approach. They range from Boston, which spent years focused largely on improving professional development, to New Orleans, which is almost all independent charter schools.

But does it work?

EWA’s “Deep Dive” into this model, presented at the association’s National Seminar in Nashville in May, suggests that it’s too early to tell. Advocates acknowledge it has had mixed results so far but point to a few districts with strong gains. They say it’s a promising alternative to past, and often disappointing, attempts at districtwide reform. Skeptics raise a lot of questions that as yet have few answers.

The Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education has been at the movement’s epicenter. CRPE founder Paul T. Hill pioneered the idea. CRPE is producing a stream of research looking into the approach.

“We’re not ideological. We just want to see what works,” said Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst with CRPE, who gave an overview of the approach for the panel.

CRPE gave out copies of an informative 2013 book they published, “Strife and Progress,” which examines how portfolio districts are doing so far.

CRPE has settled on seven components that typify the portfolio approach: citywide choice, school autonomy, pupil-based funding, talent-seeking strategy, performance-based accountability, new support providers and extensive parent/public engagement.

CRPE takes a biannual snapshot of portfolio districts and rates them based on these components. Its latest version includes 24 districts.

“With the portfolio strategy, we think it very imperative every kid has a chance to not go to a low-performing school,” Campbell said.

She offered some lessons learned so far:

  • Neither choice nor autonomy is enough.
  •  Pupil-based funding requires a mindset shift.
  • Talent is everything.
  • Putting accountability systems to use has created a great deal of conflict.
  • Involving families and communities in real ways has too often been overlooked.

A couple of early adopters who showed gains, including Oakland and more recently, New York City, have since changed course, she said. Oakland’s scores have stopped growing and have flattened since, she said.

Campbell said the area where portfolio districts usually need most work is in civic engagement to sustain reforms.

“Student gains are not enough to get engagement,” she said. “You need involvement.”

Panelist Katrina Bulkley, a professor at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., raised a number of concerns:

  • Political and fiscal instability in some portfolio districts spooks the best charter management organizations.
  • Overseeing charters and independent schools requires a different “skillset” in the district’s central office than the norm.
  • Struggling schools can suffer as other schools soak up resources and support.
  • Closing schools often leads to kids going to not-much-better schools and leaves educational “deserts” in their place.
  • Increasing choice can lead to more racial and socioeconomic segregation.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to answer those questions,” she acknowledged.

Bulkley suspects access to resources separates winners from losers. “Districts that are going to have more resources are going to be able to show more results,” she said. “And that raises questions of whether it’s the model or the resources?”

Linda Perlstein, a former EWA staffer who now works for CRPE, handed out a list of questions that reporters could pursue and links to stories reporters have already tackled. For instance, “Where districts have adopted student-based budgeting has it changed the incentives and caused schools to work harder to hang on to difficult students?”

Several reporters, panelists and not, covering portfolio districts also shared their experiences and perspectives.

For instance, Kate Grossman of the Chicago Sun-Times had a lot of information about a flashpoint in her portfolio district: school closures.

She recounted a story she wrote on a “half-empty” school, according to the city of Chicago, that nevertheless was using every classroom productively. She also questioned the upside for students of transferring to a marginally higher-performing school.

“The Chicago Consortium on School Research found that only works if you go to a top quartile school,” Grossman said.

(EWA gave Grossman first prize in its annual writing contest for her coverage.)

Maura Walz with Chalkbeat Colorado recalled a story in her publication about Manual High School, a turnaround school where the principal, using his budget independence, went $600,000 in debt over the course of months, in part by avoiding for months meeting with his central office supervisor.

The Deep Dive concluded with a principal, administrator and a school board member from Shelby County, Tenn., home to Memphis.

Memphis has seen massive change, including the merging of the city into Shelby County schools and the subsequent breaking away of six small towns in the county to form their own districts. In the middle of this, the Tennessee-run Achievement School District or ASD, took over a bunch of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools and converted them into charter schools. The ASD provoked a district-run competitor, an Innovation Zone of autonomous schools overseen by Shelby County.

All three panelists speaking at the EWA “Deep Dive” were connected with the Innovation Zone.

Bradley Leon, chief of strategies and innovation in Shelby County schools, quickly disavowed the term “portfolio,” saying it sounded as “antiseptic and corporate as it comes.”

“All we’re trying to do is bring the power back to our schools.” Leon said.

School Board Chairman Kevin Woods said innovation schools cost more and “very few decisions have no negatives,” but said the schools have been able to harness private support and have outperformed academically those in the ASD.

“We look forward to collaborating with (ASD), but we look forward to beating them as well,” Woods said.

Antonio Burt, a principal of Ford Road Elementary School in Memphis, said autonomy involves challenges, including learning on the fly how to handle budgets, and stretching and, if that fails, replacing teachers who are used to the old way of doing things.

“It’s helped a lot of people get out of the spirit of entitlement,” Burt said.


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