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February 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 5

How A Portfolio of Schools Meets Students' Needs

When schools across a city work together and have the autonomy to do what's best for their students, students and families benefit.

How A Portfolio of Schools Meets Students' Needs- thumbnail
Adozen principals in Cleveland, Ohio, are empowered with freedom to hire staff, select curriculum, and rework budgets to enable them to make important trade-offs in support of their students, like adding longer school days or Saturday tutoring.
In Connecticut, teachers in Hartford Public Schools who aspire to be principals shadow principals in local Achievement First charter schools. This yearlong paid residency of three to five people includes mentorship from a strong school leader, as well as experience in several district and charter schools. At the end of the year, these new principals are ready to lead their own district schools.
Until 2013, parents in Denver, Colorado, had to navigate 60 different application forms and timelines to choose a school for their children. Now, because of collaboration among Denver Public Schools and city charter schools, parents simply rank their top choices on one form with a single deadline that covers both district-run and charter schools.
What these school systems have in common with more than 40 others across the United States is their use of a portfolio strategy to manage their public schools. Instead of talking about district and charter schools as two systems locked in battle, school systems using the portfolio strategy focus on improving all public schools citywide. This strategy is geared to offering the best options for families and empowering principals to make decisions for their schools. These freedoms are given in exchange for holding all schools accountable for their performance and continually raising the bar. It's a new way of thinking about the role of today's public school systems.

What Is the Portfolio Strategy?

The portfolio strategy suggests that urban school systems take advantage of the opportunities available in their cities by supporting strong schools, allowing families to choose where they attend, and opening new schools through the best possible options, including chartering (Hill, Campbell, & Harvey, 2000). A school district's portfolio manager strives for a diverse array of schools that meets different students' needs. The New York City Department of Education, the Recovery School District in New Orleans, the Chicago Public Schools, and the District of Columbia Public Schools were all early adopters of this strategy, starting around 2003.
The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington has been studying the portfolio strategy for 20 years. Through that work, we've found seven key, interdependent components (www.crpe.org/research/portfolio-strategy/seven-components) that characterize the portfolio strategy. Not every district fully incorporates every component, but these attributes are typical of the portfolio model.

1. Good options and choices for all families.

Traditionally, districts have assigned students to their closest school. In some cases, this is a happy arrangement. In others, students can spend their entire K–12 experience assigned to the lowest-performing schools in a city.
Systems using the portfolio strategy allow families to attend their neighborhood schools but give families the freedom to choose other schools—often continuing to provide transportation. New Orleans and Hartford both enlist families to actively choose their schools by not assigning students to a default school. In the case of very large school systems like Los Angeles or geographically broad ones like Denver, choices are sometimes bounded by regions.
With choices comes the need for giving families useful information on program offerings and activities and on how well the school serves children like theirs. Denver provides enrollment guides in English and Spanish and an online SchoolMatch tool to help families find schools that meet their criteria (http://schoolchoice.dpsk12.org/how-to-choose-a-school). Some cities, like Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., use one application across all schools and let families rank their choices. Most families are able to enroll their children in one of their top three choices.

2. School autonomy and empowerment.

Instead of treating all schools as interchangeable organizations to which the district assigns staff and curriculum, portfolio systems like New York City give principals autonomy to hire and remove staff, control their budget, create their own schedule and calendar, and choose their own program to create a distinctive school.
The principals and teachers who work with students every day decide what kind of instruction will be most effective. Some principals have sought professional development specific to the challenges of their school, others have identified and purchased interim assessments that are better aligned with their own curriculum, and others have been able to add more reading teachers by not filling administrative positions when those staff members leave.

3. Pupil-based funding.

In portfolio systems, money follows students on the basis of a weighted formula. Schools receive more for enrolling low-income students, those who need special education services, and so on. For example, Houston Independent School District has used a weighted formula for over a decade as a way to prioritize funds in support of district values, such as closing the achievement gap.
Portfolio systems also try to find every way they can to move money out to schools. If schools only control 40 percent of the total district budget, district leaders pledge that next year schools will control 50 percent—and more the year after that. School leaders can decide how best to spend their funds to benefit their students.

4. Talent-seeking strategy.

In most traditional districts, the human resources department posts openings and screens and hires candidates from March to October, hiring into a district pool and then assigning them to schools as needed. In a portfolio system, like the Tennessee Achievement School District, the schools do the interviewing and make offers as soon as possible, enabling them to hire the great student intern who taught there all year, for example.
The central human resources department in these systems knows where the best teachers come from and recruits heavily from those preparation programs. By tracking the success of teacher preparation program graduates in the district's schools, the human resources department gets a better sense of which programs are best preparing teachers. They develop relationships with these programs and help to build pipelines that get stronger candidates in schools for student teaching, and schools can recruit from this pool.

5. Sources of support.

Traditionally, the district central office has been the sole provider of everything from curriculum to special education services. The portfolio strategy acknowledges that not all schools need the same things. Some might need professional development in a specific area or want extra reading tutors. If principals want to take advantage of a new innovation or resource for their schools, and they have the funds, they can buy it.
Portfolio districts also allow groups of educators or outside groups, both local and national, to operate schools within the district. This increases the options for families and provides opportunities for innovation as school operators implement their ideas.

6. Accountability.

Portfolio systems gather evidence on key measures—such as student achievement, school climate and post-graduation outcomes—and judge all schools, both district and charter, according to those criteria. A continued lack of interest in certain schools among families might also indicate a need for intervention or replacement
Portfolio systems act on those findings, expanding strong schools and programs and intervening in ones that aren't delivering for their students. Interventions can include assessing the strength of the school leadership team and replacing administrators if it's weak. It could also mean working with the community to identify the right kind of program for the school: Is the curriculum and environment engaging and the right fit for the children who attend the school? If repeated intervention has not improved the school, the district could replace the current system of operation and bring in a charter school program with a track record of success with students similar to current students, with the option to retain interested teachers.

7. Public engagement.

Often engagement is a one-way exercise, an effort to move information out to families and educators. The idea behind engagement in the portfolio strategy is that community needs and values are sought and included in planning. This has been one of the hardest pieces for school systems to do well, but engaging families and communities is what makes any strategy sustainable.
For example, opening a new school might involve learning about the kind of philosophy and program the community wants, holding meetings to share the process, and getting community members and parents involved in leadership activities. District leaders have to know where they won't compromise—for example, they are the only ones who determine that they must replace a school—but there are many aspects of the school opening or replacement process that would benefit from having families involved.
Engagement also involves having the district report annually on its broad initiatives, whether they are seeing improvements, and what they need to keep working on. They also need to develop strong and wide-reaching partnerships to make sure the work is sustainable enough to carry on even when particular leaders leave.

Is It Working?

Districts that have been implementing the strategy for a while have seen gains. Denver began using the strategy in 2009, and during that time, the district has reduced the number of low-performing schools from 53 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2012 and has added about 8,000 new "high-quality seats" to its total of 85,000. (The Center on Reinventing Public Education defines high-quality seats as spots in schools where more than half of the students score above proficient on state tests.) Denver is also the fastest growing urban district in the United States, not because of population growth, but because more parents are choosing public schools (Auge, 2012).
When New York City launched the strategy in 2003, fewer than half of its 1.1 million total students graduated high school in four years. Ten years later, in 2013, nearly two-thirds did. Graduation numbers increased for students of all ethnicities, with the biggest growth happening for black students (from 40 percent to 61 percent) and Hispanic students (37 percent to 58 percent) at a time when the state test grew more challenging. The percentage of high school dropouts was halved from 22 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2012 (New York City Department of Education, n.d).
Commitment to implementation, regular innovating and iterating, and a caution to not grow satisfied with the status quo are hallmarks of leading portfolio systems. These actions set successful districts apart from others that have not been able to sustain the work and gains. For example, Oakland, California, began implementing the portfolio strategy around 2003; the school system made dramatic progress for several years, closing down low-performing schools, opening new small schools, and giving principals autonomy. But a few years ago, new leadership on the board and in the district office slowly halted the work and eroded principal empowerment. After improving every year for 6 years, the district has slid in test scores every year since.

Lessons Learned

After more than a decade of implementation, we are learning new and important lessons.

1. Choice doesn't prevent mediocrity.

The availability of school choice and of new school providers doesn't mean schools will be good. Districts need good authorizing and accountability policies to attend to the quality of all city schools. Additionally, choice creates new challenges that need to be addressed: Do families have good information with which to make choices? Can students get to the schools? And how well are schools serving English language learners, students from low-income families, and students with special needs?

2. Autonomy means learning for everyone.

School systems that give autonomy to principals usually start with a pilot. That's a good way to start because districts quickly learn that freedom isn't enough. School leaders need training and support to do new things, and they need creative examples of what they could do. The central office also must learn not to undermine principal autonomy. And human resources departments need to change principal job descriptions and focus recruitment efforts on bringing in new hires who thrive with these freedoms.

3. Pupil-based funding means nothing without autonomy.

School systems may put a lot of effort into assigning weights to students and allocating funds to schools based on those weights, but if the principals don't have control of how that money is spent, very little changes at the school level.

4. Talent is wasted without freedom.

In the portfolio strategy, talent is everything. The whole endeavor rests on encouraging the talented teachers and leaders already in the system to try new things and rewarding those efforts with new responsibilities. Strong teachers and leaders are attracted to school systems where they have control and responsibility.

5. Accountability requires communication and follow-through.

The purpose of accountability systems is to see what is working and what is not, to try to understand why, and to intervene and take action if those interventions don't bring about improvements. Consistently carrying out the accountability cycle each year is essential to improving the overall quality of schools and raising the bar for what was once considered "good enough." Yet this is the part of the portfolio strategy that has created the most conflict and upset. Districts that have closed schools due to poor performance have learned hard lessons about how they might have let schools and families know what needs to happen to prevent the closure, where children would go to school if a school closed, and how to improve the odds that the replacement school is successful.

6. The community won't support what it doesn't understand.

System leaders everywhere have struggled with community engagement, and portfolio strategy leaders are no different. Leaders are often convinced that improved student outcomes will convince the public that the district is headed in the right direction. But how they get there matters, and leaders must balance the need to act quickly and decisively with thoughtful efforts to engage the community in improvement efforts. Key stakeholders need to be informed throughout the process because they'll be the ones to carry the beliefs to the next leader when the current leader is gone.

A New Structure for a New Reality

Two new realities make portfolio management particularly valuable for today's mid-size to large districts. First, students in most metropolitan areas have diverse learning needs that are not served by one-size-fits-all schools. Districts must find ways to get schools to specialize, personalize, and redesign. Decades of centrally managed directives have not accomplished those goals. Instead, districts need to unleash teacher innovation, allow schools to develop strong teams, and focus on creating the conditions that make strong schools the norm.
Second, choice already is a significant factor in most urban and inner-ring suburban districts. Someone needs to ensure that the most vulnerable students can access high-quality schools and that parents can navigate options efficiently and knowledgably.
School districts facing these new realities can limit themselves to running their portion of the schools, or they can take responsibility for innovating and collaborating on behalf of all students. The portfolio approach is a new way for districts to take the lead.

Auge, J. (2012, October 15). Denver is fastest-growing large urban school district in the U.S. The Denver Post. Retrieved from www.denverpost.com/ci_21777322/denver-is-fastest-growing-large-urban-school-district

Hill, P. T., Campbell, C., & Harvey, J. (2000). It takes a city: Getting serious about urban school reform. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

New York City Department of Education. (n.d). New York City graduation rates: Class of 2013 (2009 cohort). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/723B1E9A-B35E-4C25-9D48-4E18E0BA90A5/0/2013GraduationRatesPublicWebsite.pdf

End Notes

1 These results were calculated using School Performance Data from Denver Public Schools, available at http://spf.dpsk12.org

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