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Elizabeth DeBray, (706) 542-6249,
Dan Quinn, (517) 203-2940,

Think Twice Review Finds Need for Further Study of Portfolio Districts

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Oct. 8, 2013) – Recent presentations by representatives from alternative, state-run school districts in New Orleans and Memphis to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce described the successes and challenges of implementing a portfolio governance model for local schools. The presenters aimed to encourage other districts to adopt such governance structures although no rigorous research has yet examined their effectiveness. A review released today finds that the presentations fail to provide the research base to be of any use to policymakers.

The review focuses on two PowerPoint presentation slide sets: Building the Possible: The Achievement School District's Presentation in Milwaukee, presented by Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the Achievement School District in Memphis, and The Recovery School District's Presentation in Milwaukee, by Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

The presentations were reviewed by Elizabeth DeBray, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, and Huriya Jabbar, a doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley. The review was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Portfolio districts, such as the Recovery School District (RSD) and Achievement School District (ASD) remove schools from the governance of the locally elected school boards and superintendents and place them into districts that answer to a state authority. The presentations touted New Orleans and Memphis performance under state-takeover district laws as evidence that this reform should be scaled up to urban systems nationally. A third state takeover district exists in Michigan under the control of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Detroit.

"Although no rigorous research has yet examined the effectiveness of portfolio governance structures, the presentations are aimed at encouraging their adoption," DeBray and Jabbar write in their review. Policymakers, they caution, should not attempt to implement such significant changes to the structure and governance of school systems "without a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of relevant evidence."

The presentations' "strong assertion of positive results"—namely, improved student achievement—omits any acknowledgement of "the thin evidence base on portfolio governance," the reviewers add.

Both presentations report "teacher and administrator human-capital improvements," but fail to provide any specifics about the kinds of improvements, their cost, or how widespread they were across the district.

Just as importantly, the cost of the portfolio model as it was carried out in each district is possibly underestimated, because both districts benefited from additional federal and philanthropic funds, which were not included in the PowerPoint analyses.

DeBray and Jabbar conclude that the presentations lack the research base policymakers require to make sound decisions about implementing the portfolio model, and therefore do not serve the interests of taxpayers, communities, or schoolchildren.

Find the Think Twice Review on the Great Lakes Center website:

You can find the presentations on the web:

Think Twice, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policymakers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The review is also found on the NEPC website:


The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and 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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