Portfolio Management School Districts and Teacher Quality

February 1, 2016

Note: It has long been speculated that Detroit Public Schools may transition to a portfolio management school district model. What is a portfolio management district and what does the research say about the effectiveness of this type of model? Check out Green & Write all week for new posts on what we know and what we can learn from the portfolio management model.

By Dave Reid

Portfolio management is a relatively recent reform in public education where a district’s central office, rather than managing a set of uniform public schools, operates a more diverse set of schools (including traditional public schools, charter schools, and non-profit organizations) as a portfolio. Urban school districts are increasingly considering this model as a way to reform their school systems, believing that it can ensure equity in school choice and better hold schools accountable for performance.

What Do Portfolio Districts Do Differently With Regard to Teacher Policy?

Photo Courtesy of Ryan McGilchrist

Photo Courtesy of Ryan McGilchrist

A paper from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) notes there are four distinct approaches portfolio districts tend to take when considering who teaches in their district:

1) Assign talent strategy to a senior reform executive: The thinking behind this strategy is to have a single person responsible for the hiring, development, retention, and firing of teachers in the district. In this way, teacher policies would become more streamlined and consistent, which CRPE argues would improve the talent in the district.

2) Distinguish strategy from routine transactions: The thinking behind this strategy is to have a separate team in the district handle the transactional dimensions of running a district. Whereas the senior reform executive would be in charge of strategically hiring, developing, and firing teachers, the transaction team would handle the day-to-day activities, like paperwork and payroll. Basically, the traditional responsibilities of a Human Resources Department would be broken up into two distinct entities. CRPE argues this would help leaders be more responsive to questions teachers may have regarding payroll, leave, and benefits.

3) Redesign policies and practices to support flexibility and performance: The goal of this strategy is to make teacher employment decisions more quickly. As opposed to traditional districts which get “bogged down” in paperwork, portfolio districts adopting this approach would give principals greater discretion over who they hire and fire. Teachers would not be hired, reassigned, or let go due to seniority, but instead based on their effectiveness as determined by school leadership. This would, CRPE argues, help attract and retain quality teachers.

4) Change the culture to focus on performance: The thinking behind this strategy is to hire new people (even from fields other than education), provide training, and create new accountability systems that focus solely on the performance of teachers and schools. CRPE argues this would help keep only the best teachers in classrooms.

Have These Strategies Improved Teacher Quality and Student Achievement?

In short, we don’t know. There is no research that identifies which types of teachers tend to work in portfolio districts and if these teachers have more desirable characteristics or are more effective compared to teachers who teach in non-portfolio districts.  Supporters of the portfolio district model argue that districts which adopt this policy are constantly focusing on “talent management” with regard to the hiring, development, and retention of high-quality teachers.  However, other research suggests portfolio districts fire teachers too quickly, hire non-certified teachers, and lack teachers with experience. Additionally, these people argue that new teachers often do not understand the communities in which they teach.

What research has been done on portfolio districts and student achievement shows that, as in traditional public schools districts, there is great variation in average student achievement both between and within the schools.

Everyone involved in education reform would be well-served to remind themselves of the goal of these reforms – to serve the nation’s students. While portfolio districts may have the potential to reform districts in ways that will improve students’ educational experiences, policymakers should wait for more empirical evidence of the effects these districts are having on students before abandoning the more traditional district model.

Contact Dave: reiddav1@msu.edu