Monday, June 9, 2014

A Year After Merger, New Report Assesses Shelby County Schools’ Readiness for Portfolio Strategy

Assessment shows strong progress in some areas, but much work needed in others

Seattle, WA - On the heels of the nation’s largest school district merger, the former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools—now called Shelby County Schools (SCS)—is taking steps to dramatically increase student achievement and success beyond graduation.

As part of its work to build a strategic plan, SCS commissioned the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to assess the district’s readiness to implement a portfolio strategy for managing its public schools (the district’s initiative is titled “Multiple Paths to Achievement”). In a report issued today, CRPE—the nation’s leading expert on the portfolio strategy—provides a baseline assessment of where SCS stands in early 2014 that will help the district and its communities shape priorities going forward.

The portfolio strategy is being used in over 40 cities across the country. The strategy replaces a centralized system with a diverse portfolio of schools, allowing families to choose their neighborhood school or other options, empowering principals to make decisions at their schools, and holding all schools accountable for high performance.

According to CRPE’s assessment, SCS is doing well on two of the portfolio strategy’s seven key components. It has a robust talent strategy and is working with promising operators to open new schools. At the time the research was conducted, several areas required more work, such as embarking on extensive public engagement (to better understand community needs and to share district plans), empowering all school leaders to run their schools, and developing fair, performance-based accountability for schools. In recent months, SCS has taken steps forward in some of these areas: the district has launched a principal empowerment pilot with its 13 Innovation Zone schools and is developing a set of performance criteria to assess both district and charter schools (to take effect in the 2015-16 school year).

However, the district has real work ahead. Foremost in its future is tackling a central office mindset shift away from directing and controlling schools and expecting them to conform to one-size-fits all services and solutions, toward supporting individual school needs and treating schools as customers.

Additionally, the report’s recommendations for SCS moving forward include:

  • Identify the types of schools the city needs and drive the expansion of quality charter schools to address those needs.
  • Offer more empowerment to more principals and support and train them to take advantage of freedoms.
  • Develop a fair and usable performance-based accountability system for schools; use that to guide all school intervention and expansion decisions.

Having survived the many challenges the merger brought in its first year as a unified district, SCS appears to now be focusing on how to create better opportunities for students, a more financially sound district, and, as this report illustrates, a more self-reflective, transparent organization. CRPE will continue to assess the district’s progress with twice-yearly Portfolio Implementation Snapshots, which will be updated in July 2014. The snapshots and the report, In-Depth Portfolio Assessment: Shelby County Schools, are available at