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The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance

BOULDER, CO (March 29, 2016) – A new but widespread policy approach called “portfolio districts” shifts decision-making away from district superintendents and other central-office leaders. This approach is being used in more than three dozen large districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Denver.

But the policy’s expansion is not being driven by evidence of success.

In a new brief released today, The “Portfolio” Approach to School District Governance, William Mathis and Kevin Welner explain that changes in governance involve complex trade-offs and that there exists a very limited body of generally accepted research about the effects of portfolio district reform. But research evidence does exist concerning the four primary reform strategies that provide the foundation for portfolio districts: school-level decentralization of management; the reconstitution or closing of “failing” schools; the expansion of choice, primarily through charter schools; and performance-based (generally test-based) accountability. The research into these strategies gives reason to pause— it provides little promise of meaningful benefits.

In the end, student outcomes in under-resourced communities will continue—absent serious policy interventions—to be driven by larger societal inequities, including structural racism and denied opportunities related to poverty. While best practices in schools can mitigate some of this harm, the evidence indicates that simply imposing a changed governance approach will do little to overcome these core problems. In fact, Mathis warns, “the focus on governmental structural changes is a false promise, distracting from real needs and deferring needed efforts to address true inequities.”

Mathis and Welner explain that instead of changing the governance structure of urban school districts, equity-focused reformers call for a strong and comprehensive redirection of policy to address concentrated poverty. They nevertheless conclude that this equity-focused approach can be undertaken in a more decentralized, portfolio-based structure—should a community wish to take its district in that direction. The starting point of such a reform would be a restricting of authority, but a research-based model must also include elements that address opportunities to learn. They offer the following five reforms:

  • Adequate funding provided to our neediest schools,
  • Stable school environments,
  • Meaningful and relevant curriculum and pedagogy,
  • Highly qualified teachers, and
  • Personalized instruction.

Welner is Director and Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. This brief is the third in a series of concise publications, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, 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 William Mathis and Kevin Welner's brief on the NEPC website at:


This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: