Skip to content
ascd logo

May 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 8

Research Matters / The Potential of the Portfolio Approach

Despite some encouraging signs that education reform efforts are raising achievement in one school here and another there, such piecemeal approaches have not yet yielded positive systemic results (Basken, 2006; Council of the Great City Schools, 2006). To achieve districtwide improvement, a growing number of school systems are adopting aportfolio approach to district governance (Robelen, 2006) by replacing the typical central bureaucracy with a school board that manages a diverse portfolio of schools, some run by the school district and others by independent organizations (Hill, 2006). Such an approach promotes innovation while maintaining strict accountability for results.
The concept of portfolio school districts is not entirely new. Researcher Frederick M. Hess points out that the idea has “been around for probably 15 years, but it's finally gaining traction” (Robelen, 2006). Along with Hess (2004), such experts as Paul Hill (2006), Donald R. McAdams (2006), and William Ouchi (2003) have championed this idea in recent publications, arguing that the traditional governance structures and processes in place in many districts inhibit innovation and have not demonstrated the capacity to either achieve results or enforce accountability (Robelen, 2006).

What We Know

During the last 15 years, we have been involved in efforts to improve the performance of urban school districts across the United States. Our interest in a portfolio approach to district operations is based in part on the research that we have conducted to help answer the question, “What does it take to create high-performing school districts, particularly ones serving low-income students?” Our recent review of more than two dozen major reports and policy statements (Dailey et al., 2005) indicates that successful districts have a “theory of action” for effecting improvement. These districts establish clear goals and use data to monitor progress. They intervene when schools are not making sufficient progress, and they encourage educators to accept personal responsibility for improving student learning.
Several large school districts around the country are currently pursuing the portfolio approach, including San Francisco, Chula Vista, Oakland, and San Diego in California; Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Seattle, Washington. Implementation varies from district to district, but the basic concept—significant variation in instructional approaches from school to school—is central to each district's reform efforts. To date, there has been no large-scale study of the effectiveness of the portfolio approach in systematically improving districts. However, it is notable that Houston and San Francisco have won or been finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an annual award given out since 2003 to urban school districts that demonstrate great success in raising student achievement and reducing achievement gaps (Broad Foundation, n.d.).

What You Can Do

  • Common performance standards and assessments. Clearly articulate grade-by-grade expectations for learning and apply them uniformly to all students in all schools. Measure student achievement consistently and use it to guide decision making at the classroom, school, and district levels.
  • Commitment to multiple instructional models and academic programs. Support a portfolio of different models and programs, such as district-run schools, charter schools, and contract schools run by nonprofit or for-profit organizations.
  • District systems aligned with equity and flexibility. Develop administrative systems—for example, in the areas of finance, human resources, and student assignment—that ensure consistent and equitable access to schools and resources. Give students and parents a choice of schools. Student funding should follow students to the school of their choice.
  • Significant decision-making authority at the school level. Give individual schools decision-making authority over their programs and operations, including budget and staffing.
  • Strong district capability to intervene in low-performing schools. Supervise schools carefully and intervene if student performance falters. The district has the authority to limit the school's autonomy and to direct and support the school through any required improvement process.
  • Flexible and supportive central office services. Have the district's central office provide an array of services and supports to meet schools' differential student needs and programmatic interests.
  • Broad-based commitment to leadership development. Develop a distributed leadership culture that engages the entire education community in the improvement effort.
According to McAdams, before a school board undertakes a major reform, each board member must answer “the big question”: Am I satisfied with incremental improvements, or am I profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo and determined to change it as quickly as possible? (2006, p. 22).
But commitment to changing the status quo is not enough. Those who are going to undertake district reform need frameworks to judge whether a system is on track to achieving its improvement objectives. For our work with districts, we have developed detailed rubrics that enable local leaders to determine how well they are achieving the key attributes of the portfolio system outlined here.

Educators Take Note

Implementing a portfolio-based approach to school district governance can be challenging. Everyone in the system—local government officials, school board members, superintendents, central office administrators, principals, teachers, and other school staff—must do his or her job in new ways. In certain circumstances, a portfolio system may not be the best immediate option for improving a district.
Districts with a history of unsuccessful central authority or even of successful experiences with choice and alternative school programs may want to try the portfolio approach. Other districts may prefer to pursue a more centrally directed reform approach that promotes more uniform instructional programs and operations across schools. However, our experience suggests that the portfolio approach, with its flexibility of means and clarity of ends, is more likely to result in long-term achievement gains and uniformly high-performing schools within districts.

Basken, P. (2006, March 29). States have more schools falling behind. The Washington Post, p. A17.

Broad Foundation. (n.d.). The Broad Prize for Urban Education. The Broad Foundation press release. Available:

Council of the Great City Schools. (2006, March 21).Study shows urban school progress on two fronts. Council of the Great City Schools press release. Available:

Dailey, D., Fleischman, S., Gil, L., Holtzman, D., O'Day, J., & Vosmer, C. (2005). Toward more effective school districts: A review of the knowledge base. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Hess, F. M. (2004). Common sense school reform. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hill, P. T. (2006). Put learning first: A portfolio approach to public schools (Progressive Policy Institute Policy Reports). [Online].

McAdams, D. R. (2006). What school boards can do: Reform governance for urban schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ouchi, W. G. (2003). Making schools work: A revolutionary plan to get your children the education they need. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Robelen, E. W. (2006, March 29). “Portfolio” idea gaining favor in some cities. Education Week, pp. 1, 26.

End Notes

1 For a copy of AIR's District Consulting Services “Portfolio System Rubrics,” contact

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 106043.jpg
Challenging the Status Quo
Go To Publication