Portfolio Strategy goes mainstream: CRPE report

I think Jim Shelton and I coined the phrase “portfolio strategy” in reference to cities developing a managed choice/multiple operators educational strategy.  More important than where the term came from, a bunch of us landed on this idea 7 or 8 years ago as the charter and accountability movements simultaneously matured.  Portfolio strategies emerged in NY, Chicago, Philadelphia, and DC.  It happened most quickly and effectively when the school district was leading the way, but in some places it has happened in spite of district opposition (e.g., LA).
The Center for Reinventing Public Education just released a study on this approach, Portfolio School District Project, and it describes three key strategies this way:

1. The school, not the district, is directly responsible for instruction and must therefore have the freedom of action necessary to adapt its use of time, money, talent, and instructional materials to meet the particular needs of its students;

2. Differences among schools are good and necessary as long as they represent efforts to meet distinctive needs of groups of students, take advantage of special teacher talents, or represent disciplined efforts to try out new ideas; and

3. Schools’ existence and freedom of action are contingent on performance, so that every school is under pressure to improve and the district as a whole is constantly searching for a mix of schools that will better meet the needs of the city’s population.

My view is a little different–it’s not a portfolio of schools, but primarily a portfolio of networks.  Most schools benefit from participating in a network–it’s the big idea that has emerged full force in this decade.  Whether a school developer (KIPP, Big Picture) or a managed network (Green Dot, Alliance, Aspire, HTH), networks provide templates, training, support systems and investment that make it far easier to develop a great school than starting from scratch.
Two very different forces create portfolio strategies–demand for choice (often just better choices) and a lack of internal improvement capacity in school districts.  Some cities like New York respond favorably to this inside/outside pressure and tap regional and national talent to support new school creation.  Others like San Francisco and Seattle attempt a circular loop DIY school improvement strategy.
CRPE draws the following conclusions:

Our four localities have many elements in common yet are individualized in important ways based on community histories, availability of financial resources and necessary expertise, and local politics.

1. The Louisiana Recovery District, anticipating the return of students to a city (New Orleans) with few undamaged school buildings and no intact school staffs after Hurricane Katrina, sought to open new schools immediately, and to staff them with educators, both traditional and from alternative sources, from across the country.

2. New York City took a first step toward becoming a portfolio district by creating an autonomy zone in which less than one-fifth of the district’s schools gained freedom over hiring and use of funds in return for accepting performance-based accountability, and by adopting pupil-based funding of schools citywide. Within three years the autonomy zone expanded to include the entire district.

3. Chicago committed to the creation of 100 new schools in a Renaissance 2010 zone on the near south side, where low-performing district schools were most concentrated, closed many schools to make room for new ones, and slowly expanded the numbers of new schools in the rest of the district. Chicago uses several approaches to the creation of new schools, but it is not yet committed to citywide implementation of the portfolio strategy.

4. The D.C. Public Schools, which have no relationship with the city’s more than 50 charter schools and 54 voucher-redeeming private schools, de-emphasized new school creation, choosing first to lure new teachers and principals from outside the district and negotiate a new teacher contract that traded tenure for much higher productivity based pay. Once teacher contract negotiations are finished, D.C. school leaders hoped to create new schools internally and by attracting charter school providers, and to create a common accountability system for all schools.

These differences in approach reflect local needs and capacity, as well as political circumstances and leadership preferences. As we shall see below, all starting places might not be equal. The D.C. and Chicago initiatives will take a new commitment from city leadership if they are to take new schools and closure of low-performing schools districtwide.

By embracing a portfolio strategy, city leaders have the opportunity to create equitable school choice with multiple operators, a range of options that leverages community resources, and a dynamic system that responds quickly to new challenges and opportunities.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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