‘Portfolio’ Idea Gaining Favor in Some Cities

March 24, 2006 8 min read
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With urban school districts wrestling with how to raise student achievement, education leaders are showing growing interest in the notion of creating what some are calling a diverse “portfolio” of publicly financed schools.

New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore are among the districts pursuing strategies, largely focused on high schools, to open new schools, bring in outside providers to run some of them, and offer a broader array of choices to families.

Philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York are making grants to underwrite such efforts, with an increased emphasis on ensuring that the new options are viewed as part of a districtwide strategy to improve student outcomes. The portfolio idea envisions holding schools accountable and removing those from the mix that are chronically failing over time.

“In some ways, we are on the edge of this explosion of diverse options,” Constancia Warren, a senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation, said at a March 21 forum in New York City co-sponsored by her organization and Education Week. The gathering explored the role of districts in high school reform.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said in an interview that the portfolio approach is “essentially an idea that’s been around for probably 15 years, but it’s finally getting traction.”

But even those who embrace the concept differ on exactly what a portfolio model should look like. The Gates Foundation, for instance, touts the potential of marrying the new choices to aligned instructional strategies across a district, while some believe that the schools need curricular autonomy to drive innovation.

And Mr. Hess says that political realities can hamper a portfolio model. In his view, teacher-licensing rules, budgetary and staffing requirements, and other constraints keep schools tied to traditional practices.

“It’s easy to imagine that we wind up building portfolio systems which have a lot of the same features of traditional systems,” he said.

‘Some Schools Will Fail’

Most school systems have long offered some choices beyond the traditional neighborhood school, such as magnets and other alternative schools. Even the movement to create publicly financed but largely independent charter schools, which now number more than 3,600 nationally, is now about 15 years old.

But some districts are getting more deliberate about expanding their school options. And the idea of getting outside organizations to run schools is gaining ground. Also, while some districts view charters with hostility, others see them as part of their own school improvement strategy.

Paul T. Hill

A leading advocate of the portfolio approach is Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle. His version of the approach entails districts overseeing a wide variety of autonomous, publicly funded schools, some run by the district and others by independent organizations.

“Like investors with diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds, school boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones,” he explains in a paper published last month by the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.

Under such a system, schools would be accountable both to school boards, through performance agreements, and to families through choice. At a forum last month hosted by the PPI, Mr. Hill said, “We need a system that is really open to new ideas, … that refuses to protect institutions or approaches that don’t work.”

In his paper, Mr. Hill calls Chicago the “most notable example” of a district exploring the portfolio approach, even though he says there are limits on the district’s strategy.

Chicago is assembling an array of new options for families, said Barbara Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer for the 424,000-student district, speaking at the Carnegie-Education Week forum. She cited as examples the city’s charter schools, which the district approves, Gates-funded small schools, and so-called “performance schools,” which have some autonomy from the district in exchange for committing to a five-year agreement with the district to meet specific achievement goals.

In 2004, the district announced its Renaissance 2010 Initiative, which aims to close low-performing schools and create 100 small schools by 2010, most to be run by outside groups.

“We feel that it is our responsibility to try to establish these high-quality options,” Ms. Eason-Watkins said.

The Philadelphia Version

The 205,000-student Philadelphia school system is pursuing what Chief Executive Officer Paul G. Vallas calls a “diverse management model.” It includes traditional public schools, charter schools, privately managed schools, and some run by universities and other nonprofit organizations.


“We use [the model] to expand choice,” Mr. Vallas said, “to expand our management resources.”

The city attracted attention in 2001, the year before Mr. Vallas came, for inviting outside providers, including the for-profit Edison Schools Inc., to operate a set of low-performing schools as part of a state takeover.

Then, two years ago, the district launched plans to start 30 small high schools, with about half run by the district and the reins of others handed to outside groups, Mr. Vallas said. So far, 22 schools have opened.

He said he considers the city’s 55 charter schools, which the district authorizes, part of the system’s strategy. Five more are set to open in the fall.

“When we look at those [charter] proposals,” he said, “we will weigh them not only on quality, but on whether they fit with the school district’s overall design.”

Baltimore also has been working to offer a wider range of school options, said Bonnie S. Copeland, the chief executive officer of the 85,000-student system. But she said the diverse school types can create challenges.

“This combination of kinds of schools and governance structures is enlightening and enhancing,” she said at last week’s forum, “but it is a lot to manage in terms of governance, in terms of contracts. … We just need to be mindful of that in terms of return on investments.”

Another challenge is to avoid race and class divides. “It’s really easy to do a portfolio that’s about stratification,” Michele Cahill, a senior adviser to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said at the forum. “It’s really difficult to do one that’s about dramatically increasing graduation rates.”

‘Centralizing’ Instruction

The Carnegie Corporation has directed its efforts to seven cities: Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Providence, R.I.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Worcester, Mass.; and Houston. The initiative has provided more than $60 million to those cities, with $20 million coming from the Gates Foundation.

“In these seven communities, what is emerging is a deliberate mix of different kinds of high schools that we call ‘portfolios of schools,’ ” Ms. Warren wrote in a June 2005 Commentary essay in Education Week. She said the model is not simply about creating diverse schools, but is “a strategy for creating an entire system of excellent high schools that uses universal choice as a central lever for change.”

Two key elements, she said, are a clear schoolwide focus and high academic expectations. Ms. Warren also said “careful accountability” and some degree of managed choice are critical.

Since 2000, the Gates Foundation has committed some $1 billion to support the start-up of small high schools or the restructuring of large schools into smaller units. It’s helping to underwrite the Chicago Renaissance 2010 effort, as well as initiatives in New York, Oakland, and many other districts.

The philanthropy, disappointed by some of its early efforts, has broadened its emphasis to related district-level changes, especially improving the quality of curriculum and instruction.

In a policy paper released last June, the foundation said its conception of a portfolio approach “builds on the benefits of an aligned instructional system while taking advantage of the benefits of school choice, particularly at the secondary level.”

‘A Tough Issue’

Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington group that promotes academic achievement for disadvantaged students, said consistency in curriculum and instruction is critical in city school systems.

“The risk here is that we throw out what we’ve learned,” she said. “The urban systems that are really moving have essentially centralized that function … in literacy and math.”

But Mr. Hill of the University of Washington said he worries about dictating too much from the top. “This is a very tough issue,” he said in an e-mail last week. Mandating a reading or math curriculum may have some merit in certain cases, he said, but such centralized approaches have limits.

“They can be reasonable expedients for a while, but they don’t accomplish what the portfolio approach seeks, which is continuous experimentation and improvement, abandonment of less productive approaches in favor of more productive ones,” he said.

Striking the right balance between handing diverse school operators room to innovate while ensuring instructional quality, especially for poor and minority students, is a big challenge for the portfolio model, argues Craig T. Jerald, a Washington-based education consultant.

“These two ideas do seem to be in tension,” he said, “but you know, if districts can figure out how to put them together, we might have the best possible system of all.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Portfolio’ Idea Gaining Favor in Some Cities


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