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Oversold Report Attributes Denver’s Strong Gains to Portfolio Reforms

BOULDER, CO (February 7, 2023)—A recent report from the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver claimed that portfolio reforms in the Denver Public Schools led to substantial academic gains for students. As the report’s lead author told the Denver Post, “This study makes clear that the reforms helped students and strengthened the district.” A review of the report concludes, however, that claims attributing those gains specifically to the portfolio reforms are not valid.

Robert Shand, a professor at American University, reviewed The System-Level Effects of Denver’s Portfolio District Strategy: Technical Report and determined that any specific policy prescriptions from the report are premature.

The report analyzes changes in academic performance as measured by test scores and graduation rates versus comparable schools in Colorado over 11 years of the district’s experimenting with the “portfolio” approach to school district management. The portfolio approach includes central-office oversight of different school types (such as charter schools, innovation schools, and district-run schools), with widespread parental choice under a single enrollment system. The model looks to choice, competition, and accountability to drive gains in student performance.

The report’s lead author, who “worked as director of charter schools for DPS during part of the period studied,” has been joined by other reform backers in insisting in newspaper articles that the study provides firm support for the district to recommit itself to the full slate of portfolio policies.

While the reported gains in math and ELA scores, as well as graduation rates, are indeed dramatic, Professor Shand points out that they were not experienced equally and may have widened achievement gaps.

Further, claims attributing the gains specifically to the portfolio reforms are premature for at least three reasons. First, many other changes, beyond the portfolio reforms, were occurring in the district at the same time. These included changes to funding, curriculum, leadership, teacher policies, and student demographics. Second, some gains, particularly among marginalized groups of students, predated the reforms. Third, the “portfolio” reforms themselves are diffuse and difficult to parse.

For these reasons, Professor Shand explains, though the report succeeds in documenting and drawing attention to real academic gains in Denver over the past decade, it is less useful in ascribing causation or as a guide to how other districts could replicate that success.

Find the review, by Robert Shand, at:

Find The System-Level Effects of Denver’s Portfolio District Strategy: Technical Report, written by Parker Baxter, Anna Nicotera, Erik Fuller, Jakob Panzer, Todd Ely, and Paul Teske and published by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, at:


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