Rethink School – The District Role

Business is evolving at a frantic pace. Uber is a verb, there’s an app for that, and ‘YouTuber’ is a viable career option, and that’s just in the past ten years.

Careers and even industries that didn’t exist a decade ago are commonplace today, so much so that if we looked back in time we’d be hard pressed to recognize a business landscape without them. Yet one thing would look the same ten, twenty, even thirty years ago, as it does today; education.

Consider, growing up did you:

  • Attend school five days a week for six hours a day – check
  • Sit through lectures in each class – check
  • Memorize facts for a test that you might never see again – check
  • Walk two hours in the snow just to get there – you get the idea

Some of the learning strategies have changed over the years but the curriculum itself hasn’t, meaning schools aren’t introducing students to the skills that are now basic requirements for a job. Since schools teach what state or federal requirements mandate, bringing the curriculum up to speed often starts at the state or district level. However, sweeping changes across multiple schools, implemented at the same pace as business innovates, is a tall order.  

Keeping pace with businesses may require districts to shift from a “school system” to a “system of schools” (Mathis/Welner, 2016). By giving schools the autonomy to set their own course districts can provide support without hindering the school’s efforts to adapt at the pace they are equipped to maintain.

Two models for autonomous district management have emerged over the years; portfolio and innovation. Both seek to give individual schools the flexibility to manage their operations, including curriculum selection, in the manner they see fit to best meet the needs of their community, provided students are learning the core skills mandated by the district.


The portfolio model of schools is based on the premise that schools should be managed like stocks in a portfolio; successful buildings should expand while failing ones should be closed. This model is characterized by four tenants:

  • Decentralization of management
  • Closing of failing schools
  • Expansion of choice (i.e. charter schools)
  • Performance-based accountability (generally with testing)

Portfolio models are appealing to many schools that appreciate the support services of a large district, such as transportation, HR and food services, but who want to be empowered to make their own decisions on staffing, budgets and in some cases, curriculum. The portfolio approach allows individual schools to focus on their core initiatives that best meet the needs of their community, without sacrificing access to or becoming bogged down with external operations.

Proponents of the portfolio model say that students will be most successful when the adults closest to them are empowered to make decisions (Phenicie, 2017). For example, the closest adults (including teachers and administrators), are likely to have a better understanding of how that particular school can use technology, funds, teacher time and community resources than the district itself, which out of necessity views all schools collectively rather than individually.

This methodology is also appealing to parents, given that funding follows students in this model. Therefore, if a parent elects to put their student in a portfolio school instead of their neighborhood school, they can feel confident that the financial resources allocated to their child will flow to the school that child is attending, where the teachers and administrators on the front lines can determine how those funds are used.

The portfolio model assumes that decision-making data for each school uses data from that school, not the entire district, to ensure resources are allocated according to what each individual school needs. This effectively puts educators directly in charge of their schools, empowers parents to choose the right school for their children based on the school’s attributes, and directs school system leaders to oversee rather than drive school success.

Schools that have the autonomy to make their own decision, such as those following the portfolio model, are thought to be more nimble and able to adapt to external factors that may impact operations. Consider, one school may choose to spend money on new equipment while another may choose to hire an additional teacher, because the available resources and the size of the student body are different at each school.  

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is one example of the portfolio model in action. Says Principal Kurt Dennis of McAuliffe International Middle School, “I think the district recognizes that  with 100,000 students in the city of a million people you can’t control things centrally.” The portfolio model lets principals make decisions that are best for their community rather than handing down directives that might not work for all schools.  

Aurora Schools are another example. As a neighbor to Anschutz/CU Medical they are working to build a program including curriculum, clubs, internships and other health services partnerships with the community where much of their workforce resides. Their demographics and proximity to a healthcare hub makes such a partnership realistic for their community.

However, being nimble may not equate to better student outcomes. School districts are constantly changing, from demographics to policies, which can impact any attempts to discern how effectively the portfolio model is working. Further, districts typically identify and enforce policies district-wide, regardless of whether a school falls into a portfolio category or not, taking away some of the autonomy the portfolio model is supposed to provide.

For the portfolio model to be accurately studied, and implemented, districts need to develop evaluation criteria that can quickly measure what’s working or not, and adjust as needed. This is not easy to do given the constant changes in demographics and state/federal requirements, but it can help districts evaluate the best operational structure for them.


The innovation model is characterized by increased autonomy in curriculum selection, personnel, scheduling and budgeting, just as it is with portfolio schools. However, a key component of this model is innovation, which can include everything from new and unique ways of teaching to the setting used for instruction.  

Innovation schools are considered district schools, and the policies they operate under will vary based on the district they reside in. However, many innovation schools are able to waive district policy, state statutes and collective bargaining agreements and replace them with innovative practices designed to improve student outcomes, provided the solution is in keeping with the intent of the original policy.

Innovation schools tend to focus more on personalized or blended-learning than traditional neighborhood schools. For example, classes may be structured by ability level not grade, and learning may be accomplished through projects and collaboration rather than lectures. According to Stephen Wheeler, characteristics of innovation schools include:

  • Viewing students as unique individuals rather than groups, and educating them accordingly
  • Connecting schools with the outside world to develop skills and competencies necessary to thrive once formal education is complete
  • Delivering curriculum in a way that encourages critical and creative thinking to make connections between the process of learning and what is actually learned
  • Designing a creative learning space or mixing on-site and off-site learning to encourage risk-taking and experimentation

There is no one model for innovation schools. For example, Clintondale High School in Michigan has flipped the traditional schedule so that students watch lectures outside of school, but complete homework in school, where teachers are available to help them apply what they’ve learned. Pathways in New York goes to grade 14, allowing students to graduate with an Associates Degree that saves them money on college and puts them at a starting salary of roughly $10,000 above their peers with just a diploma.

Every student learns differently, and every student has different interests. Innovation schools can therefore benefit the students that fall into their ‘niche,’ whether that be learning style, curriculum, schedule or some other factor, offering a form of personalized learning that is hard to accomplish in a school that doesn’t have the autonomy to build out its operations in the manner that best suits is student body.

Do Portfolio/Innovation Schools Work?

There is limited data both for and against portfolio and innovation models. Supporters say giving individual schools more freedom makes them better equipped to manage their own budget, staffing and curriculum decisions to best meet the needs of their community. Detractors say the evidence doesn’t indicate that these freedoms consistently improve student learning.  

To determine the effectiveness of these models districts need to be diligent about identifying and tracking data that measures student success. Each district will need to determine the measurement criteria that works best for them, but two new data models, prediction and portfolio, may be viable options.

Unlike traditional measurement tools, which use data from large-scale standardized assessments, these models use value-added data from common assessments created by teachers in the district. Students are given a pre and post-test on the subject matter identified by the teachers, which gives the teachers an “effectiveness profile” that identifies strengths and areas for growth for each student.

There is also a new framework, developed by Scott Marion from the Center for Assessment, that helps States and districts understand the critical decision points and trade-offs associated with different approaches to measuring student growth (RNS, 2015). The framework enables districts to prioritize the evaluation criteria that best suits their needs while also identifying areas for improvement. It consists of:

  • Determine how growth measures support a theory of student learning that explains what should be measured, and how students acquire new knowledge and skills
  • Utilize assessments and tasks that gather data about student learning at a given point in time to determine a student’s baseline, and measure growth achieved by another point in time
  • Identify an analytic approach that converts assessment data into some indicator or score, such as value-added analysis, growth percentiles or pre/post test score evaluation
  • Identify a classification method that turns the results into a set of performance levels, such as exceeds, meets or does not meet expected growth
  • Clearly define an attribution scheme that links student performance to educators, to determine whether a skill is learned from an individual or shared group of teachers

Though the data collected may vary from school to school, identifying and matching the appropriate criteria with the corresponding instructional method could give a more accurate picture of performance by school than large-scale standardized testing can provide.

Join the Discussion

Giving schools the flexibility to try something different is a scary prospect for districts considering that so much value is placed on test scores and assessments, which may suffer an adjustment period when a new practice is implemented. However, fear of change shouldn’t detract from the benefits that might be realized.

Working with schools to identify data points and measurements to track success will go a long way towards evaluating which operational structure breeds success. Helping schools communicate with current and prospective families can foster transparency and garner support that enhances the implementation of new instructional models.

Ultimately it’s up to the districts themselves to decide if they want to allow their schools more autonomy when it comes to their operations, and how to record the effectiveness of any autonomy given. This will vary by district based on their unique demographics. However, given the pace of innovation in the workplace, which schools can’t currently keep up with, districts need to find ways in which they can support their schools without hindering their ability to stay relevant by forcing them to adhere to a model that may be outdated.

Does your district support autonomous models of education such as portfolio and innovation? How would you measure the success of these models in your own district?


Barnum, M. (2017) – Chalkbeat. Advocates for the Portfolio Model of Schools Say it Works. Are They Right?

Center on Reinventing Public Education Staff (2017) – CRPE. Portfolio Strategy


Dupere, K. (2016) – Mashable. 9 Innovative Schools Looking to Redefine Public Education in the U.S.


Mathis J., & Welner, K. (2016) – National Education Policy Center. The “Portfolio” approach to School District Governance

Phenicie, C. (2017) – ‘Best of Both Worlds’: Denver Evolves Portfolio Strategy With New Innovation School Model.

Reform Support Network Staff (2015) – Reform Support Network. Emerging Approaches to Measuring Student Growth. (

Wheeler, S. (2017) – Teach Thought. 4 Things Innovative Schools Have in Common. (