Portfolio Schools: A Comprehensive Approach to District Improvement

Time and again, piecemeal education reforms have been grafted on to public school systems that are chronically resistant to change. Some reforms have gained limited traction – magnet schools, charter schools, teacher evaluation, etc. – but all have failed to spark the systemic change needed to ensure all families have access to the high quality schools they deserve.

One emerging strategy, known as the portfolio district strategy, seeks to help districts break out of the cycle of failure by significantly altering their behaviors.  There are a few elements that distinguish portfolio districts from traditional districts, but perhaps the most significant is that portfolio districts are agnostic about who operates public schools within the city, as long as the system provides high quality learning opportunities that are accessible to each child.

Seven Pillars of Change

To overcome the shortcomings of earlier, more partial efforts and fully reap the anticipated benefits of this emerging strategy, school systems seeking to adopt a portfolio strategy must commit to seven key, interrelated actions. They must:

  1. Provide good options and choices for all families:  At the core of a portfolio district are the never-ending process of creating good school options for the families and children, and the commitment to make it simple for families to access those choices.  This means closing chronically failing schools and making every effort to replace those schools with better options and proven models. It also means developing school enrollment processes that are simple and transparent.
  2. Ensure performance-based accountability for all schools: Defining school quality, aligning that definition throughout the system, and making parents and principals aware of it — all are critical prerequisites portfolio school districts.  A clear, measurable definition of quality sets a north star that enables school leaders to make informed, data-driven decisions about which school models to replicate and which ones to retire, and should also help parents make informed choices about which school or program is best for their children.
  3. Enable school-level autonomy:  In a portfolio district, school leaders are the most important driver of school success and are ultimately accountable for results.  In order to hold school leaders accountable, districts must give them the freedom and flexibility to make the right decisions for their schools and students.  For example, school leaders must be given the freedom to choose their teaching teams, create the school culture, design the learning experience, and buy the support services they feel are most critical for their particular students.
  4. Ensure funding follows students to schools:  Flexible, per-pupil funding policies are critical to the success of the portfolio model. These policies ensure dollars follow students to schools, where school leaders use them to pay salaries, resources and supports based upon the particular needs of the student bodies they are serving.
  5. Enable diverse sources of school services:  Unlike traditional districts, portfolio districts do not function as the sole providers of support and services to schools. Instead they act as brokers of services to schools and as a provider of last resort.  This “market of services” model creates a competitive environment in which all providers, including the district, must work to meet the needs of school leaders. The primary district role is to monitor quality, and to help school leaders make strategic resource allocation decisions.
  6. Expand talent seeking strategies:  A portfolio district requires a distinct mindset for both non-school administrators and school leaders. In a portfolio district, school leaders are effectively the CEOs of their buildings, rather than supplicants of central office.  As a result, portfolio districts must commit to identifying and developing talent from a myriad of sources.
  7. Foster extensive public engagement:  Implementation of comprehensive change in something as near and dear to community’s hearts as a school system is inherently controversial. Success demands extensive engagement with the community, to educate them about of the availability and benefits of alternate school models as well as to gather community members’ input about the types of schools and choices they want.

The End Goal

When all of these elements are implemented in a coordinated manner, we should see a  flexible, continuously improving system of schools – based on ongoing evaluation of what works and what doesn’t – that serve the unique needs of a given community.

Over the next several months we will use this space to blog on the details of the seven key actions and provide examples of where this work is occurring around the nation.  Stay tuned.