In the latter half of the past decade, school districts in several large cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and post-Katrina New Orleans, have implemented a new model of urban school decentralization often called “portfolio districts.” Others, including those in Denver and Cleveland, are following suit in what appears to be a growing trend. The portfolio strategy has become increasingly prominent in educational policy circles, think tank and philanthropy literature, and education news reporting. The appointment of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as U. S. Secretary of Education suggests administration support for the concept. Duncan embraced such decentralization in Chicago in the form of Renaissance 2010 and continues promoting its elements in such national policy as Race to the Top and in proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind legislation. The premise supporting portfolio districts is that if education vendors compete on the basis of proposed innovations, with a school superintendent monitoring activities, children will receive greater opportunity for academic success. This brief examines the available evidence for the viability of this premise and the proposals (for example, making all schools in a district charter schools) that flow from it.
A number of urban districts have embraced or are considering adopting the portfolio model. National policy also favors the idea. However, there have been no substantive studies of the portfolio district approach. The only relevant research to date has been on its constituent elements, which include 1) decentralization; 2) charter school expansion; 3) reconstituting/closing “failing” schools; and 4) test-based accountability. As detailed below, the available scholarly peer-reviewed evidence on these various constituent elements shows no effect or negative effects on student achievement and on educational costs.
The published policy literature advocating implementation of the portfolio model and its elements most often makes assertions without providing credible evidence for its claims. For example, all of the relevant six articles available from the scholarly database Academic Search Premiere write favorably of the portfolio model, but none of them either constitute or reference careful empirical study reviewed by a community of policy scholars. Much of such advocacy writing published about the portfolio model and its constituent elements is generated by authors housed in or connected to policy think tanks that tend to have political and policy agendas.
h/t Schools Matter