Tag Archives: Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts”

Portfolio school districts

25 Jul

The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice has a great introduction piece to “portfolio districts.” In the 2010 Executive Summary of Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts” Kenneth J. Saltman of DePaul University writes:

The premise of the portfolio strategy is that if superintendents build portfolios of schools that encompass a variety of educational approaches offered by different vendors, then over time school districts will weed out under-performing approaches and vendors; as a result, more children will have more opportunities for academic success. This brief examines the available evidence for the viability of this premise and the proposals that flow from it.

The portfolio district approach merges four strategies:

1) decentralization; 2) charter school expansion; 3) reconstituting/closing “failing” schools; and 4) test-based accountability. Additionally, portfolio district restructuring often involves firing an underperforming school’s staff in its entirety, whether or not the school is reconstituted as a charter school. In this model, the portfolio district is conceptualized as a circuit of “continuous improvement.” Schools are assessed based on test scores; if their scores are low, they are subject to being closed and reopened as charters. The replacement charters are subsequently subject to test-based assessment and, if scores remain disappointing, to possible closure and replacement by still other contractors…. This perspective considers public schools to be comparable to private enterprise, with competition a key element to success. Just as businesses that cannot turn sufficient profit, schools that cannot produce test scores higher than competitors’ must be “allowed” to “go out of business.” The appeal of the portfolio district strategy is that it appears to offer an approach sufficiently radical to address longstanding and intractable problems in public schools Although the strategy is being advocated by some policy centers, implemented by some large urban districts, and promoted by the education reforms proposed as part of the Obama administrations Race to the Top initiative, no peer-reviewed studies of portfolio districts exist, meaning that no reliable empirical evidence about portfolio effects is available that supports either the implementation or rejection of the portfolio district reform model. Nor is such evidence likely to be forthcoming. Even advocates acknowledge the enormous difficulty of designing credible empirical studies to determine how the portfolio approach affects student achievement and other outcomes…. Moreover, even when the constituent elements are considered as a way to predict the likely success of the model, no evidence is found to suggest that it will produce gains in either achievement or fiscal efficiency.

Finally, the policy writing of supporters of the portfolio model suggests that the approach is expensive to implement and may have negative effects on student achievement. In light of these considerations, it is recommended that policymakers and administrators use caution in considering the portfolio district approach. It is also highly recommended that before adopting such a strategy, decision makers ask the following questions.

 What credible evidence do we have, or can we obtain, that suggests the portfolio model offers advantages compared to other reform models?

What would those advantages be, when might they be expected to materialize, and how might they be documented?

 If constituent elements of the model (such as charter schools and test-based accountability) have not produced advantages outside of portfolio systems, what is the rationale for expecting improved outcomes as part of a portfolio system?

 What funding will be needed for startup, and where will it come from?

 What funding will be necessary for maintenance of the model?

Where will continuation funds come from if startup funds expire and are not renewed?

 How will the cost/benefit ratio of the model be determined?

 What potential political and social conflicts seem possible? How will concerns of dissenting constituents be addressed?  http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Saltman_PortfolioDistricts_EXEC_SUM.pdf

Answering the questions posed by the report are particularly important in the analysis.

Christina A. Samuels  has written an interesting Education Week article, Job Roles Shifting for Districts’ Central Offices:

The Center for Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington Bothell, has long tracked the progress of portfolio districts. It counts 26 school systems as members of its “portfolio district network,” including New York City, Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and the Recovery School District in Louisiana.

Among the many central-office positions that need to change in a portfolio district is that of the chief academic officer, said Paul T. Hill, the center’s founder. Central-office administrators generally offer “a standardized approach, coaching, and professional development. But as much as possible, that needs to be put into the schools” in a portfolio-model district, he said. “At the extreme end, the chief academic officer can become a broker or a tender of the supply of options for schools. The district is not the default provider of anything.”

From Mr. Hill’s point of view, school administrators need flexibility not just in their schools, but freedom from mandates from the top in order to design programs, hire teachers, buy materials and technology, choose vendors, and own or lease their own property. Central offices can keep longitudinal data on students, assess schools based on student performance, distribute money to schools, recruit teachers to the district, and manage an enrollment process for the schools that do not use neighborhood boundaries, he said.

But this change, though easy to describe, is not always easy to implement, he added—in part because of concerns from central-office administrators about loosening the reins of power.

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/07/18/36portfolio_ep.h31.html?tkn=QWMFYXnKDrhzWkFcOfHUEQQBfslMpYJJk0aw&intc=es

Feather O’Connor Houstoun writes in the Governingarticle, A Portfolio of Schools:

Portfolio management turns conventional school-district administration inside out by drawing all publicly funded schools into similar position relative to the governing administration. In its theoretical form, a portfolio school district no longer focuses primarily on management of district-run schools, with charters as a sideline operated largely outside of district oversight. Good schools—charters or district-run—are encouraged to expand; poorly-performing schools—charters or district-run—are closed or reconstituted under new management.

The unit of performance is the individual school, whether chartered or district-run. The evaluation is transparent and equivalent in standards. District-run schools operate with increasing autonomy, similar to charters. Parents are helped to make school choices for their children using a menu that lays out facts about their choices.

There are formidable challenges to putting this approach into operation. As Paul Hill comments in his recent report on four portfolio school districts, “Rebuilding a school district on the portfolio model involves challenges of many kinds: technical, organizational and political.”

Long-simmering resentment among public-school advocates toward charters that have drawn funding and students from both public and parochial schools may make collaboration difficult, particularly if the shrinking districts have had little opportunity to shed the costs of underutilized schools.

Meanwhile, charters, which believe they are offering safe havens and choices for parents, bridle at the suggestion that their expansion should be constrained to accommodate broader school-district concerns about funding, underutilized buildings and the complexity of change in big bureaucracies. They often have political and family support that challenges the validity of evidence of poor performance.

The Gates Foundation has begun to provide financial incentives for urban districts and their charter counterparts to sign “district-charter collaboration compacts.” These agreements are aimed at providing a framework for decision-making that can overcome what Vicki Phillips, a former Pennsylvania secretary of education and now Gates Foundation director of education, describes as “contentious and persistent tensions.” Greater levels of support from the foundation appear to be on the horizon, and in some communities other philanthropic efforts are aligning around these partnerships.

Both charter operators and public officials and administrators accustomed to working within the boundaries of those things they directly control may find the portfolio approach unsettling. Charter operators, for example, are agreeing to be judged by uniform standards and to relinquish some of the control they have over the destiny of their individual schools.http://www.governing.com/columns/mgmt-insights/col-portfolio-school-charter-district-run-management-challenge.html

Houstoun agrees with Saltman that the strategy is difficult to implement.

Resources:

Portfolio Strategy

A growing number of urban districts are pursuing the portfolio strategy and profoundly changing the role of the school district and its relationship to schools.

The portfolio strategy aims to dramatically increase student achievement by continuous improvement. The strategy, built around 7 key components, creates diverse options for families in disadvantaged neighborhoods by opening new high-performing, autonomous schools; giving all schools control of budgeting and hiring; and holding schools accountable to common performance standards.

New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Hartford, and Baltimore are among more than 25 districts pursuing a portfolio strategy of continuous improvement.

CRPE’s portfolio work includes:

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