Image courtesy flickr, Nate Lawson

Four common myths of portfolio district strategy

Portfolio district myth #1:  Charters = portfolio

In several recent conversations in different cities, people have equated to having charters schools in a city to having a portfolio strategy – along the lines of, “We are a portfolio district because we have charter schools.”

Quite simply, having a mix of school types does not mean a school district has a portfolio strategy.  A true portfolio strategy includes, at bare minimum:

  1. A common definition of school quality
  2. Regular assessment of school quality against that definition as well as against neighborhood need and parent demand
  3. Commitment to taking strategic action – such as replicating high performing schools, growing new schools in neighborhoods most in need, phasing out the chronic low performers, etc. –  based on the assessment of quality, need and demand.

Denver Public Schools’ annual evaluation of school performance, strategic regional analysis, and a Call for Quality Schools is a model of this core portfolio district management process.

Portfolio district myth #2:  It’s about school closure

In some cities, like Chicago, the discussion centers myopically on closing low performing and/or half empty schools.  While school closure is certainly an unfortunate and difficult part of managing a portfolio of schools, it absolutely must be coupled with the active development of better school options for families in the neighborhoods most in need.  Closing schools without developing better school options isn’t a portfolio strategy; it’s just plain dumb.

Some places get it right.  For example, Baltimore City Public Schools put a great deal of effort into their “Expanding Great Options” portfolio management process, which intentionally pairs school closure with the expansion of better options.

Portfolio district myth #3:  It’s a one-time event

Some cities seem to approach “portfolio” as a one-time event – assuming that the closure of some schools and the creation of some new ones will “do the trick.”  For example, Cleveland released a draft reform plan that calls for the creation of 25+ transformation or turnaround schools, investment in 3-6 new school models, and authorization 4-8 new charter schools (see pages 11-13).

This is all fine and good, but the plan seems to assume that every school will be a success and that once these new schools are created our urban education problems will be solved.  That will not be the case.  These schools will, no doubt, have variable performance.  Therefore, Cleveland needs to prepare for the regular process of analyzing school performance and responding by ongoing management of its portfolio of schools. The district needs to view its work not as an event, but as a process of continuous improvement.

Portfolio district myth #4: It’s a silver-bullet program

Portfolio management is not a silver bullet program that, if implemented, will immediately generate results: it’s a problem solving strategy. Districts evaluate what is working and what is not and respond and, over time, the best options for students grow their footprint.  As Paul Hill says, “It’s not a cookbook approach that will you can follow and be sure to get results right away, instead it is a problem solving strategy that involves trial of many new ideas and abandonment of some of them.”

Chartering, charters and portfolios: CREDO study clarifies need

In light of the recent findings out of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO,) commitment to a districtwide plan of active management of school quality is crystal clear. We need to stop mistaking simple implementation of charters for strategy and focus instead on what aspects of a strong chartering process apply more broadly to a true portfolio strategy.

Read our series on portfolio school districts.