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Elements of 'Portfolio' Strategy Taking Root in Some Districts

Earlier this year, Education Week spent some time in Lawrence, Mass., schools, a small district about 30 miles north of Boston that was taken over by state education officials in 2011.

Two of the strategies highlighted in the stories that explored the gains the district has made since state takeover were expanded autonomy for school principals and teachers, and a change in the composition of the district to one that now includes both traditional and charter schools. Both of these strategies are part of the "portfolio" school district model.

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In the annual snapshot of portfolio school districts released today by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Lawrence climbed a few notches to fifth place, gaining "national exemplar" status for autonomy, talent, and support—three factors among seven key areas the center measures. (The portfolio school strategy is characterized by seven building blocks: good school options for parents and families; autonomy for schools; pupil-based funding for all schools; a talent-seeking strategy; support for schools; performance-based accountability for schools; and extensive public engagement, according to CRPE.)

In a blog post on the report, Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst and policy director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Jordan Posamentier, deputy policy director at the center,  noted Lawrence's "rigorous talent strategy" since the state takeover. They pointed to state-appointed Superintendent Jeffrey Riley's creation of the Sontag Prize, an award given to high-performing teachers that allows them to spend weekends at Harvard University with similarly stellar teachers. Teachers are also paid extra to teach at vacation academies, which are designed to help struggling students.

(Interestingly, The New York Times ran an editorial today on Lawrence, calling attention to the improvements the district has made since the takeover, but also noting that the district "clearly has a long way to go." It ended on a more optimistic beat, adding that  "structural reform, starting with school leadership, can lead to progress in a system that had lost hope a few years ago.")

On the CRPE snapshot, New Orleans' Recovery School District and the Achievement School District in Tennessee took the top two spots (again), earning national exemplar status in six of the seven categories.

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According to the group, New Orleans' Recovery School District was a national  exemplar in choice, autonomy, funding, talent, support, and accountability. It still has work to do on engagement. The ASD in Tennessee was a national standout in the areas of autonomy, funding, talent, support, accountability, and engagement. From the outset, the New Orleans and the Tennessee districts were modeled on portfolio strategies, Campbell and Posamentier wrote.  

But Denver, a traditional school district, ranked third on the snapshot. Denver uses a similar approach to those districts that, from the outset, embarked on a portfolio model approach. It has expanded autonomy to schools and allows schools to have more say in how funds are spent and the services they want from the district, they wrote.

Some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and Jefferson Parish, La., lost ground, with L.A. moving from 4th to 9th place on the snapshot and Jefferson Parish sliding from 14th to 19th.

CRPE researchers found common factors among the districts that were doing well in implementing the portfolio approach.

"Top implementers have prioritized talent above other components, approaching it with intentionality, constancy, and rigor," they wrote. "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."

Among the challenges portfolio districts continue to encounter: obstructive state laws and district contractual obligations.

Districts like Spring Branch Independent—with about 35,000 students in the Houston area—and the Fullerton district of about 13,700 students in Southern California, have also caught CRPE's attention.

Spring Branch got mentions for school choice and talent, and was making headway in the accountability and engagement categories. Fullerton had some elements of all seven categories in place, but nothing yet to raise its profile to national exemplar status in those categories, according to the snapshot.

You can check out the snapshot here. You can compare the districts' progress over time and compare districts with other districts.

Image source: Center on Reinventing Public Education

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