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What is the portfolio model?

• Sam Duell

Last week, Neerav Kingsland announced the formation of The City Fund, a $200 million fund to support cities “to increase educational opportunity for all children.” Though Neerav doesn’t mention the “portfolio model” in his announcement, Chalkbeat speculates that The City Fund will fund portfolio models across the country.

I think their work will be a bit broader than that, but with all this talk about the portfolio model you might be wondering, “What is the portfolio model?”

There are several interpretations of the portfolio model of schooling. Some relate to a diversity of school types within a specified geographic area—STEM, Montessori, classical, Waldorf, project-based learning, “no excuses,” and the list goes on. (For more on that, check out this recent study that uses the Simpson Diversity Index to understand the diversity of school options in Denver.)

But likely the oldest and most established understanding of the portfolio model directly relates to traditional school districts and the way they manage their individual schools.

This kind of portfolio model focuses on the decentralization of power and control from the district office to individual schools. It is based on the idea that local school boards and district offices should trust principals and schools as opposed to micro-managing nearly every decision.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), has been studying and writing about the decentralization of large urban districts for at least the last 21 years. Hill’s 1997 paper A Public Education System for the New Metropolis describes “the degree to which school systems’ reform efforts have in fact created decentralization.”

Over the years, CRPE developed their approach to decentralization into a seven-component continuous improvement system they now refer to as the “portfolio strategy.” Here are the seven components of a portfolio model, according to CRPE:

  1. Good Options and Choices for Families – Parents should be able to choose the setting that best fits their student’s unique needs from more than one school option. To facilitate these options, districts can and have provided common enrollment systems that allow parents to access critical school information while efficiently choosing the best school option. Examples exist in New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C.
  2. School Autonomy – This component argues that outcomes will improve for students when districts empower principals to (a) select and remove their own staff (by permitting them to control their budgets and how their staff are paid) and (b) to select the best curriculum for their students. In my experience, this is one of the more difficult autonomies for school districts to implement, but we have seen some large efforts with the creation of charter-like schools within districts. For example, Denver has Innovation Schools that are given some latitude to waive district standard procedures and policies. And Indianapolis has their own version with the Innovation School Network.
  3. Pupil-Based Funding for All Schools – The allocation of funding should be based on where students attend school. This might seem straightforward to many, but it’s actually contrary to the way most school districts allocate funds between their schools. Centrally-based funding, the opposite of pupil-based funding, allocates public dollars based on staff salaries at a given site. This means that some schools with highly-paid, highly-experienced teachers are subsidized by schools with concentrations of lower paid, less-experienced teachers. That can lead to inequities between schools and in outcomes for students. The solution is student-centered funding, something ExcelinEd extensively supports.
  4. Talent-Seeking Strategy – This component essentially advocates for allowing principals to procure the best talent wherever they can find it. That could mean recruiting teachers from an alternative credentialing program or from industry. At the same time, educators should be evaluated based on their performance as it relates to student outcomes. For instance, there was a time when many reform efforts depended on Teach For America and when many school districts were focused on evaluation systems that led to teacher-pay structures based on student achievement on standardized tests.
  5. Sources of Support – Principals and schools should be able to develop sources of support and they should be able to choose those relationships even if they reside outside the district office. For example, schools may be supported by non-profit organizations in the community or principals may decide to engage with independent providers of professional development for teachers.
  6. Performance-Based Accountability for Schools – Districts should adopt a practice that is already prevalent among chartered public schools, that is the development and enforcement of performance contracts. Metrics measure outcomes in at least three areas: academic performance, financial management and organizational management. For examples of performance frameworks, check out Texas, New Orleans and New York. This kind of management can be described as tethering, allowing some forms of flexibility while maintaining fixed anchors of accountability.
  7. Extensive Public Engagement – Districts should regularly, intentionally engage the public to solicit input and communicate plans for transformation. At the same time, principals should be leading the communication with their students and families.

CRPE’s network of districts who have adopted this version of the portfolio model includes 35 cities in about 20 different states across the U.S.

Keep in mind that people often assign different meanings to “portfolio model.” Over the last few years, the meaning of portfolio strategy broadened to include district-charter compacts and the role of city-based quarterbacks (formerly known as harbormasters) who lead an education reform strategy within a specific geography. Organizations like The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, Choose to Succeed in San Antonio and New Schools for New Orleans led the way in the late aughts and early teens. These two efforts, district-charter compacts and city-based quarterbacks, are like cousins to the previously described portfolio strategy and it is common in the media and policymakers to combine all three under one umbrella term: the portfolio model. This is probably part of the reason why the term is controversial. When we don’t define our terms, it leads to misunderstanding.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.