March 29, 2016

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Daniel J. Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

"Portfolio" approach shifts decision-making away from local leaders

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Mar. 29, 2016) — A new concise policy brief considers the research evidence of "portfolio" districts. According to the brief, the approach shifts decision-making away from local school district leaders. Despite concerns, the approach is now being used in several large urban districts across the country.

The brief, The "Portfolio" Approach to School District Governance, is part of a series of short policy briefs produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. William J. Mathis and Kevin Welner, University of Colorado Boulder, author the brief.

According to Mathis and Welner, there exists a very limited body of generally accepted research about the impact of "portfolio" district reform. However, they do find that research evidence does exist for four reform strategies associated with the model: (1) school-level decentralization of management decisions; (2) reconstitution or closing "failing" schools; (3) expansion of school choice, primarily through charter schools; and (4) performance- or test-based accountability.

After investigating the available research on these portfolio-related strategies, the authors concluded that there is little promise of meaningful benefits associated with the governance changes.

Mathis and Welner caution that larger social inequalities, including structural racism and denied opportunities related to poverty, will continue to drive under-resourced communities. They state that changing the governance structure creates a "false promise" for communities and distracts from larger efforts to address societal inequities.

Instead of changing the governance structure in urban districts, Mathis and Welner suggest equity-focused reforms that call for addressing poverty.

Nevertheless, the authors conclude that taking an equity-focused approach can be undertaken in a portfolio-based structure. They suggest several strategies that "portfolio managers" could apply to help address opportunities to learn:

  • Adequate funding for the neediest schools;
  • Stable school environments;
  • Relevant, responsive curriculum and pedagogy;
  • Highly qualified and prepared teachers;
  • Personalized instruction with small class size; and
  • On-site, wrap-around services.

The authors also suggest that if school choice policies are under consideration, they must hold the "portfolio managers" accountable, ensure high standards and fiscal accountability, and public funding should be transparent and subjected to strict auditing procedures.

This is the third part of Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, a multipart brief that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

Find the brief on the GLC website:

This brief is also found on the NEPC website at:

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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

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