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Portfolio Management

A strategy in use by districts that partners charters and traditional schools to unleash innovation in classrooms for all students

BY ROBIN J. LAKE

In Denver, parents had to navigate more than 60 different application timelines and forms to choose a school for their children. Now they rank their choices on a single form with a single enrollment date that covers both district-run and charter schools.

In Spring Branch, Texas, outside Houston, the district collaborates with two charter networks to coordinate not only the sharing of school buildings but also to share ideas and resources to improve instruction.

In Tulsa, Okla., the school district and three charter organizations are developing a common set of measures to educate the community on school quality and to determine which schools to replicate, support or close.

There are more than 40 school districts nationwide now using a portfolio strategy to improve student outcomes. The districts vary widely in demographics, size and setting, from the 3,200-student, eight-school, mostly Hispanic Windham Public Schools in Connecticut to the New York City Department of Education, a highly diverse system of more than 1,700 schools and 1.1 million students.

RobinLake
Robin Lake directs the University of Washington Bothell’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The portfolio strategy is a continuous improvement framework for managing public schools with the goal to dramatically improve student outcomes at scale. The strategy centers on increasing the number of excellent schools, regardless of provider, and giving schools autonomy over staff and budgets in exchange for accountability for performance. The role of the portfolio district’s central office is to create an environment that empowers and values principals and teachers as professionals and acts on families’ needs and interests. Its core mission is to support, advocate or innovate to help schools prepare students for success in college, career and life.

Steering Schools
The portfolio approach calls for districts to focus on performance management instead of running all schools directly or in the same way. The job of the portfolio central office is to steer, not row, by focusing on seven key components (www.crpe.org/research/portfolio-strategy/seven-components):

  • Good options and choices for all families. In portfolio districts, families have the freedom to choose their neighborhood school or another that is the best fit for their children. Portfolio districts make sure there are good public district or charter schools in every neighborhood and give families useful information and support to make enrollment clear and simple.
  • School autonomy. Portfolio districts allow principals and teachers to decide how and what to teach to bring out the best in their students.
  • Pupil-based funding for all schools. In portfolio districts, funding is linked to each student rather than to staff positions. Most of the district’s money is sent directly to schools based on enrollment, and principals make spending choices that best serve their students’ needs.
  • Talent-seeking strategy. Portfolio districts have strategies to develop the strong people they already have and seek new talent from a wide array of sources, including the best districts, charter schools and training programs.
  • Sources of support for schools. In a portfolio district, support may come from the district but may also come from local organizations, online providers or other sources. Portfolio districts help find the best resources and allow schools to purchase what they want within their budget.
  • Performance-based accountability for schools. Portfolio district schools operate on performance agreements. The portfolio office tracks whether all students across the city are being engaged and prepared for the next grade, graduation and beyond.
  • Extensive public engagement. Portfolio districts need to show what they will deliver, in terms of outcomes for students and new opportunities for families, teachers and school leaders — and clearly communicate on progress.

Different Routes
These seven components only work in concert. Districts can’t push autonomy to the school level without actively attracting new talent and creating support structures. Parents can’t be given a lot of choice without replacing and redesigning dysfunctional schools, or they will end up battling over select neighborhood schools, and disadvantaged families will lose out.

Community engagement is critical. Too many portfolio leaders fail to help parents understand why these changes are needed and how they are helping more students succeed. Although the full package is essential, this is not a cookie-cutter plan for reform. The portfolio strategy plays out differently in each community and context.

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In Cleveland, city and district leaders were confronting decades of low-performing schools and a low state rating. They hadn’t passed a school levy for 16 years. Then, in 2012, strong leadership from the mayor, the local philanthropic community, the school district, the teachers’ union and the faith community collectively launched the Cleveland Plan to grow more quality schools, modernize employment practices, give principals more control over their schools and provide more financial stability. The state legislature approved the plan, with endorsement from the teachers’ union, and in fall 2012 the city passed its $15 million school levy.

Cleveland’s portfolio plan was designed to save a district in academic and financial crisis. By contrast, other districts are drawn to the plan because of the freedoms granted to principals and, by extension, the logical changes a traditional central office must make to allow those responsibilities to shift.

Many of these districts weren’t in crisis — they were interested in designing new schools with a personalized learning mission, moving away from traditional classrooms to new ways of teaching and learning and using technology. Many already were portfolio districts, while others saw the need to rethink how they managed schools to support personalized learning. They realized they would need more school-level autonomy over staff, curricula, supports, budget, schedule and calendar. The Riverside, Calif., schools and the suburban Henry County Schools in Georgia recently began looking into whether the portfolio strategy will help them support new schools.

Locus of Control
The portfolio strategy is not about simply ceding control to schools. School boards and district leaders actually have more control over all the district’s schools by ensuring the locus of control and the locus of accountability are at the school level. Autonomy is granted to school teams that demonstrate the capacity to succeed, while the central-office role is to develop those capacities as quickly as possible.

The portfolio strategy is not about simply having a diversity of school themes and options or playing nice with charter schools. It’s about committing fully to the idea that the role of school district governance is to create the conditions that allow all families easy access to an array of high-quality public schools, not to run a particular set of schools. It’s about protecting student interests and marshaling all of the community’s assets, not protecting ideologies and turf.

Some portfolio districts, such as Hartford, Conn., partner with a few charter schools. Others, such as the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, convert many or most of their schools to charter status. Portfolio leaders actively use chartering as a way to give school leaders more autonomy and to codify accountability arrangements.

Portfolio districts sometimes work with charters to share resources, such as facilities or district services, in exchange for more equitably serving students with special needs or more clearly reporting student outcomes. Denver and New Orleans developed common enrollment, accountability and student suspension/expulsion policies across district and charter schools. Still others have shared instructional practices around Common Core implementation or leadership training. Many collaborations are supported by the Gates Foundation’s district-charter collaboration compact grants.

Getting Started
Though implementation is challenging, both politically and technically, the payoffs to portfolio management are considerable. “Having a portfolio mindset has meant we’ve had to really begin to think deeply about notions like choice, accountability and autonomy for schools,” says Christine Fowler-Mack, chief of new innovative schools and programs, in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “It has really created a different learning environment for our students, a different teaching environment for our teachers. It has engaged families very uniquely and appropriately in the selection of quality school options and has given them choices that never would have existed in our city.”

The first step toward creating a portfolio district is developing strong portfolio mindsets and capacities among central-office leaders. Job descriptions will need to change, and some leaders who were well-suited to run a highly centralized district may not fit with the new approach. This has played out in Cleveland.

Some school districts begin by creating a dedicated portfolio office that reports directly to the superintendent and has significant authority to replace ineffective schools with promising new ones and to push autonomy to effective existing schools.

New Realities
Some small and homogenous towns and suburbs may best serve students by offering a limited set of tightly aligned neighborhood schools where top-down administration works well. However, the portfolio components make good sense for any district, large or small. All districts benefit by a thoughtful talent strategy that attracts and grows the best people or gives school leaders autonomy or seeks new schools, resources and training from new providers.

In fact, many small or rural districts already do a number of these things by necessity. In south-central Washington state, the 1,200-student White Salmon school district has the slimmest central office. The high school principal, with support and encouragement from the superintendent, has significant autonomy on how to spend his budget and how to build out creative schedules to double down on subjects where students struggle. In many ways, he exercises portfolio ideals.

Two new realities make portfolio management the only viable strategy in most of today’s midsize to large districts. First, students in most urban areas have intense and diverse learning needs that are not served by one-size-fits-all schools. Most districts must find ways to get their schools to specialize, personalize and redesign. Centrally managed training or directives will not accomplish those goals. Instead they will be met by unleashing teacher innovation, by allowing schools to develop strong teams and by focusing the central office on creating the conditions that make strong schools the norm.

Second, choice already is a significant factor in most urban districts. Whether charter market share is growing or advantaged parents are moving to certain neighborhoods to get better schools, someone needs to ensure that the most vulnerable students can access quality schools and that parents can navigate options efficiently and knowledgeably.

School districts facing these new realities can either insist on running some portion of the schools, or they can take responsibility for innovating and collaborating on behalf of all students.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. E-mail: rlake@u.washington.edu. Twitter: @RbnLake


 

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