Portfolio School Districts for Big Cities: An Interim Report

October 2009

This is the first report from an ongoing study of four urban school districts (New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and the District of Columbia) that are experimenting with new school designs and new ways of holding schools accountable for performance. The report introduces the idea of a “portfolio school district,” and shows how some leading school districts have put the idea into practice. A portfolio district is built for continuous improvement through expansion and imitation of the highest-performing schools, closure and replacement of the lowest-performing, and constant search for new ideas.

CRPE’s research team conducted extensive case studies of the four localities to understand what leaders in those localities have tried to do and what they have learned in the process. For each of the cities, the report identifies the events that led to adoption of the portfolio idea, tracks key decisions about how to redesign the district to support a diverse and changing set of schools, and identifies technical and political problems that arose and how these affected the district and its relationships with independent local groups. The report also analyzes sources of support and opposition to the portfolio idea in each locality, and poses issues about sustainability after current leaders go on to other things.

As this report shows, rebuilding a school district on the portfolio model involves challenges of many kinds—technical, organizational, and political. Reform leaders in the four districts studied have made great progress, but they still have many problems to solve.

A concluding section argues that it is too soon to make a bottom-line assessment of the effects of the portfolio idea on student achievement, but suggests how such an assessment can (and in what ways it should not) be done.

The report’s goal is to help district and community leaders throughout the country judge whether a similar approach could improve the schools in their localities, and if they decide in the affirmative, how to approach building a portfolio strategy of their own.