Portfolio Governance Reforms: Why We Shouldn’t Wait

People who see the portfolio strategy as a threat and those who see it as an opportunity both want to know: What’s the evidence that it works? The concept is still relatively new, and it will take a while to build a robust evidence base. But that doesn’t mean that cities desperate for viable solutions should wait for five years and ten journal articles. Here’s why the portfolio strategy is worth trying, now:

1. It is based on significant evidence about what makes schools succeed. The portfolio concept was developed not by advocates of choice or autonomy or market principles or any particular ideology, but by researchers who wanted to design local school governance systems that promote equity and effectiveness. Paul Hill and others developed the idea by working outward from studies showing that the schools most effective at serving at-risk students had common characteristics: control over selecting staff and allocating time and money, a coherent educational strategy to meet students’ needs, the ability to choose their instructional approach, a mission and drive that cannot be mandated by a central office, and a firm sense of accountability.

2. Results are grim for the main alternative. At this moment, the alternative to portfolio is school boards running all schools directly and districts managing instructional strategy from the top. Cities relying on centrally managed solutions tout the power of aligned data systems, centralized professional development, and accountability through teacher evaluation systems. These elements are important, but rarely work in large, diverse, and highly political urban districts. As Andy Smarick recently pointed out in his recent tirade against the Broad Prize, NAEP proficiency scores in reading have been essentially flat for the last ten years and while math scores have slowly increased, only 10% of black students in urban districts are reading proficiently. We don’t know for sure that portfolio will alter this dismal trajectory, but we can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

3. Evaluating the strategy will take a while. The portfolio strategy attacks many structural incentives and barriers: funding models that send more money and more experienced staff to more advantaged schools, restrictive personnel provisions, little or no consequence for schools and people who fail to perform, school assignment policies that limit quality options for low-income families, board politics that get a bold superintendent kicked out for riling the union, and so on. To evaluate the ultimate success of portfolio districts in surmounting these barriers, we’ll need rigorous and hard-to-get data. We’ll need to look at proficiency gains over 10 years. We’ll need to look at indicators other than the usual ones: how many quality seats are available (especially in low-income neighborhoods), whether kids in closed schools move to higher-performing ones, whether families are getting access to their top-choice schools.

At the moment, we know a lot about the promise of portfolio—more than critics acknowledge—but we need to know more. We recently reported on results from two leading portfolio districts, New York City and Denver, that demonstrate the power of sustained attention to creating new, coherent schools; weeding out low-performers; and creating a central office that is focused on recruiting human capital, creating support networks for schools, and monitoring performance. We’re learning from “mature” portfolio cities, especially Denver, New York, and New Orleans, that taking school start-up seriously and giving those schools real autonomy is producing effective new schools (see Chapter 5, “Judging the Results of the Portfolio Strategy,” in Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools).

Dozens of districts around the country are now implementing portfolio strategies, in different contexts and in different ways. To keep the analysis going, we recently launched The Evidence Project, an effort to collect data across cities implementing a portfolio approach and assess progress. Although we have been developing the portfolio concept for many years and think it hold tremendous promise, we are a research center above all. We want to be the first to share news when portfolio strategies falter as well as when they work.

The portfolio approach can be controversial and disruptive. It requires investment in new capacities and disinvestment in failed ones. Cities are moving toward portfolio because it dismantles bureaucratic and political barriers to strong, focused, effective schools. It recognizes that no amount of alignment and accountability can fix an essentially dysfunctional delivery system. Portfolio is, to many, the most promising alternative. But many questions remain about how it will be implemented and whether districts are able to transform themselves. We need to amass the evidence on new approaches as quickly as possible, while keeping in mind that students pay the price of inaction.

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