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October 8, 2009

Study: Portfolio school districts are still works in progress

Portfolio school districts are promising new developments but they still have big problems to solve,” is how Paul Hill describes reforms in the four big cities being studied by his team at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at UW Bothell.

In New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, school officials are revamping the traditional school district model: from being an operator of a uniform set of schools and related services to being a holder of a diverse portfolio of schools, each meant to meet a particular need, and all subject to evaluation in light of evidence.

“A portfolio district is built for continuous improvement via expansion and imitation of the highest-performing schools, closure and replacement of the lowest-performing, and constant search for new ideas,” says Hill. “So far we’ve found that each city is taking a different approach to developing their portfolio. By the end of our study (in 2011), we think this will tell us a lot more about this approach to public education.”

Portfolio School Districts for Big Cities: An Interim Report, published Monday by CRPE, introduces the subject of portfolio districts and opens a window on the particular approaches being taken in the four cities.


  • New York City — gave schools freedom over hiring and use of funds in return for accepting performance-based accountability and by adopting pupil-based funding of schools citywide.
  • Chicago — established a “Renaissance 2010″ zone for 100 new schools on the near South Side where many low-performing schools were most concentrated, closed many schools to make room for new ones, and gradually expanded new schools throughout the rest of the district.
  • Washington, D.C. — committed to, but delayed new school creation in favor of attracting new teachers and principals from outside the district and trying to negotiate a new teacher contract that traded tenure for much higher productivity-based pay.
  • New Orleans — decimated by Hurricane Katrina, the district has opened new schools and staffed them with educators both traditional and from alternative resources from across the nation.

In the interim report, Hill says a portfolio district is based upon three key ideas:


  • 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;
  • 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
  • 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.

Hill says there are encouraging signs in each of the four districts under his team’s microscope. But he adds this cautionary observation: “Rebuilding a school district on the portfolio model involves challenges of many kinds: technical, organizational, and political. Reform leaders in the districts we have studied have made great progress but they are still learning what needs to be done to provide effective schools for all kids.”

Portfolio School Districts for Big Cities: An Interim Report is available at www.crpe.org

The study is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Joyce Foundation. A portfolio project in the Denver School District will soon be added to the study, Hill said.