It Takes a City: How the Portfolio Strategy Can Bring Schools, Districts, and Communities Together to Transform Special Education

September 2019

America’s schools must improve outcomes in special education. Students with disabilities remain 25 percent less likely than their peers to graduate high school despite the belief among researchers that 80 to 85 percent of students with disabilities should be able to meet the same academic standards as their peers.

We convened leaders from cities around the country to explore ways that school districts can use the portfolio strategy to help cities improve education for students with disabilities—and ultimately for all students. The goal of the meeting was to identify strategies that would improve outcomes for special populations—a group that includes English language learners, homeless students, students in foster care, those who are gifted and low-income, and those who have experienced trauma.

Portfolio managers must coordinate the development of new, differentiated programs that can better serve students with disabilities who require unique programming. Drawing on their cities’ experience, participants defined the principles that will help cities rise to meet this challenge:

  • Citywide leadership is required to improve special education. The right organization or governing body to take on this leadership role may vary by city.
  • Portfolio leaders can drive citywide action by using data to shine a light on groups of students with unmet needs.
  • Schools need the flexibility to solve problems around students’ unique needs. But citywide leaders can help drive adult learning to ensure problem solving and innovation that builds on a foundation of quality teaching and evidence-based interventions.
  • Parents benefit from having options, but they need help navigating the system and making sense of the options that exist. School system leaders must ensure that funding, facilities, and the local talent supply give schools the incentive to develop new programs for students with disabilities.

The portfolio strategy helps cities strike a balance between empowering schools and community organizations to develop new ways to serve students with disabilities, and ensuring their efforts cohere into a meaningful citywide strategy that results in better outcomes for every student.