Brief Explores Portfolio Districts

In response to the United States’ “failing” public schools, portfolio districts have been loudly championed as a new approach to school reform. In this approach, independently operated schools working under different vendors are complied and run by a school superintendent. Under-performing schools in a portfolio (each school’s success is assessed on test scores) are closed and then reopened as charter schools, which are then assessed and follow the same pattern. The main idea is that competition among the schools will create the most successful learning environments — those that perform will continue with business and those that fail are rebooted into something more along the lines of the successful schools.

A number of school districts in large cities including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well as New Orleans, have implemented this approach. Despite this, there are no peer-reviewed studies of this approach and only anecdotal evidence of success in New Orleans.

With this in mind, Professor Kenneth Saltman of DePaul University in Chicago recently released a brief, “Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of ‘Portfolio Districts,’” funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. In his brief, Saltman states, “[T]he portfolio district is conceptualized as a circuit of ‘continuous improvement.’” But, as he notes, there is little evidence to prove claims made by the proponents of this type of reform, which is expensive to implement and could negatively affect student achievement.

Saltman notes that portfolio districts shift control to educational contractors (including “for-profit and non-profit charter school operators, educational management organizations or charter management organizations”). Administrative decision making does fall more on local educational units, but the real control bypasses communities, local administrators and unions, decentralizing control.

Decentralization may not be the main concern of the portfolio approach, Saltman explains, as “[t]he close of traditional public schools and the opening of charter schools are central elements of the portfolio district approach.” He suggests that this could more be a movement towards privatization. The view that American public schools are failing students may be helping fan the flames of this trend.

Portfolio districts may be an answer to the need for “extreme measures” in the times of extreme distress, but the lack of concrete evidence to their success suggests that this approach could be more risk without clear rewards. For districts considering this approach, Saltman suggests caution and thorough investigation of the following questions:
  • What credible evidence do we have, or can we obtain, that suggests the portfolio model offers advantages compared to other reform models? What would those advantages be, when might they be expected to materialize and how might they be documented?
  • If constituent elements of the model (such as charter schools and test-based accountability) have not produced advantages outside of portfolio systems, what is the rationale for expecting improved outcomes as part of a portfolio system?
  • What funding will be needed for startup, and where will it come from?
  • What funding will be necessary for maintenance of the model? Where will continuation funds come from if startup funds expire and are not renewed?
  • How will the cost/benefit ratio of the model be determined?
  • What potential political and social conflicts seem possible? How will concerns of dissenting constituents be addressed?

Saltman’s brief can be read in full at The Great Lakes Center Website.