Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Front-Runners and Dark Horses: How Districts Are Faring on Portfolio Strategy Implementation

Every spring for the past three years, CRPE has reviewed how school systems implementing the portfolio strategy are faring. Through phone interviews with key contacts in these districts—sometimes the superintendent, sometimes a cabinet member—we look at each of the strategy’s key components, catalog work underway in each area, and score results based on a rubric. We rank the results and publish them on a dashboard that provides a visual of progress (see the full dashboard here).


Looking across the cities, we think some things stand out:

Intentionality, Constancy, and Rigor Drive Success
Top implementers have prioritized talent above other components, approaching it with intentionality, constancy, and rigor. In the most successful districts, efforts to develop talent are led by people with a vision of the end game who surround themselves with district staff, charter leaders, and community leaders who are creatively thinking about how to get there together.

The Tennessee Achievement School District is among the top two portfolio districts for the second year in a row (neck and neck with Louisiana’s Recovery School District). The ASD identified strong teaching as a critical need to meet their goal of moving schools from the lowest 5 percent to the top 25 percent. Their solution: bring back Memphians who moved away to teach, and attract new teachers to the city through “Teacher Town,” a hub for recruiting, developing, and retaining top teacher talent.

Lawrence, Massachusetts, rising several spots to 5th place overall this year, is a small district outside of Boston with a long history of under-performance leading to state takeover. The district has advanced a rigorous talent strategy. Among other efforts is its Sontag Prize, which offers a unique win-win: outstanding teachers are rewarded with a weekend at Harvard with peers, and as part of the award, they receive financial incentives to teach at school “vacation academies” at which struggling students receive targeted support.

“Fresh Start” Districts Have an Advantage, But Some Dynamic Traditional Districts Are Holding Their Own
It’s no surprise to see the Louisiana Recovery School District and the Tennessee ASD as implementation front-runners again this year. These “fresh start” districts modeled themselves on portfolio ideas from the outset, giving them a head start. Integral to their approach has been constant iteration: regularly taking stock and developing new solutions to new challenges.

For example, as the RSD grew to an all-charter district, schools struggled with how to support students with special needs, as the cost to serve some was more than others. In response, the RSD re-tooled its funding formula to address intensity of student needs by hours of service, not just category of disability. The RSD now plans to do the same for English Language Learners.

In contrast, Denver Public Schools is a traditional district, holding steady at 3rd place again this year. As a traditional district it works with established schools and an elected school board, but it models the same continuous improvement mindset as the “fresh start” districts, carefully tracking what works and what doesn’t. DPS’ growing number of charter and innovation schools has enjoyed wide autonomy, and this year their traditional schools are starting to move toward those same autonomies. The district sees itself as becoming an “opt-in” district, allowing schools to opt into services or programs rather than default to them.

We also see smaller, dark horse districts with unique demographics and contexts that are finding success with the portfolio strategy. We are paying particular attention to Spring Branch Independent School District outside of Houston and Fullerton School District outside of Anaheim. Similar to the regular front-runners, these districts are led by skilled, creative leaders who apply a constant improvement mindset to the challenges they face. We are postulating that one possible advantage for these smaller districts is their ability to advance strategy with the support of more united staffs and families. Looking again to Lawrence, it avoided the challenges of turning schools over to chartering and has instead worked with traditional schools and selectively contracted some out, giving all schools greater autonomy. Lawrence has actually made the most gains on our portfolio strategy dashboard over the last year and is also seeing promising student achievement gains.

Stalled Districts Suffer From Tight Reins and Changes in Leadership
As we have seen, leadership transitions at the superintendent and board levels affect the portfolio strategy. Los Angeles experienced abrupt leadership change, and dropped from 4th to 7th place. The city is losing ground on moving funds to schools and students and is struggling to communicate a coherent plan to district staff and the public. Hartford, Connecticut, also with a new leader, has stalled on creating a fair accountability system as well as on implementing strategies to address chronically under-performing schools. We suggest that leadership alignment, empowering department leaders to solve problems, and a willingness to tackle deferred issues are what is needed to reboot the work across these cities.

Most Districts Struggle to Grant Freedom and Funds, and Miss the Real Goal of Portfolio Management
Over a decade into the portfolio work, we see that some components of the framework have taken deeper root than others. Many of the school systems in the portfolio network have tackled low-hanging fruit: getting smart about talent and building stronger community engagement. Other components reflect hard but crucial work—making big changes to rework how money flows into schools and allow school leaders control over their staff and budgets. Districts consistently tell us that obstructive state law and district contractual obligations are the predominant reasons why they feel stuck in these areas. Over the coming year, CRPE researchers will be working to uncover the challenges behind implementing these ideas and finding ways to help districts move forward.

Making progress on all parts of the portfolio strategy is important; however, school systems and their supporters should not confuse tackling various portfolio components as the goal—more important is rising to the twin challenges of growing more strong schools and addressing or replacing struggling schools. This is the hallmark of true improvement.

Related Research: 
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