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Roundup Blog Series

Using research to support a System of Great Schools strategy

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By Susan Bowles Therriault, Ph.D. | October 15, 2018

With this post, we continue our series examining how REL Southwest, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and other partners in the Southwest School Improvement (SWSI) Research Partnership are collaborating to examine and improve support for district and school improvement in the state. REL Southwest Managing Researcher Susan Therriault’s blog post brings a research perspective to this conversation about the System of Great Schools (SGS) model being implemented by participating member districts in Texas. (Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.)

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) and 13 Texas districts across two cohorts are embarking on a multiyear initiative that shifts the traditional way in which we think about education systems and improvement. Called the System of Great Schools (SGS), this approach supports district leaders and community stakeholders working together to increase the number of students who are enrolled in high-quality schools and to ensure a fit between community and parent priorities for their students’ education and the schools within the district. The focus on increasing the number of seats in schools demonstrating high levels of student achievement is a change in traditional thinking that focuses on improving existing schools in which students are enrolled.

Studies suggest that some districts using this approach, sometimes called district portfolio management, have achieved improvements in student outcomes (e.g., Hill,, 2013; Osborne, 2016; Sperry, 2012). Districts including Atlanta, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City demonstrated significant improvement in reading and math proficiency over a three-year period. San Antonio and New Orleans have closed the gap in graduation rates to be on par with the state average, although some districts studied struggled to achieve improvements (Campbell, et. al., 2017). Research also demonstrates the complexity of implementation that, without community support, can devolve into conflict over school closures and charter school openings (e.g., Marsh,, 2013; Adamson,, 2015).

Portfolio management is driven by continuous improvement strategies in education. Continuous improvement is a centerpiece of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The underlying idea is to take a look at the systems in which the key delivery centers—in this case schools and districts—are located in order to identify bottlenecks, boundaries, or rules impeding the best possible outcomes—in this case the success of students. To implement the key components of a portfolio management strategy like the Texas SGS program, districts must have the capacity to manage the following aspects of the work:1

  1. A plan to identify and expand schooling options and choices for all families and a strategy to eliminate options that are not serving students
  2. School autonomy to make key decisions about needs of students
  3. Pupil-based funding for all schools to be used by school leaders to specifically meet the needs of their students
  4. School leader and teacher talent-seeking strategy that aligns with community priorities for schooling
  5. Needs monitoring and sources of support for schools (formative indicators)
  6. Performance-based accountability for schools that establishes a vision for a high-quality school and provides detailed information on the expectations for schools to achieve the vision outcomes (summative metrics)
  7. Extensive public engagement in planning, design, and ongoing implementation

An examination of portfolio management implementation suggests that while most districts are able to establish strong summative metrics (#6), they tend to underperform in terms of establishing formative indicators (#5) that serve to offer feedback and support to schools (Bush-Mecenas,, 2016; Lake,, 2016; Sperry, 2012). Additionally, research suggests that summative metrics tied to formative indicators that have been developed with stakeholders are critical to ensuring stability and sustainability of the portfolio approach (see Finnigan & Daly, 2017; Gross & Jochim, 2016; Bush-Mecenas,, 2016).

Support for and research on the implementation for this approach thus requires the ability for districts to assess their capacity, strengths, and weaknesses and develop a clear plan for addressing these components. With continuous improvement as its centerpiece, the SWSI research partnership with TEA has an important role to play with the roll-out of SGS. The partnership will focus on devising strategies to improve data collection efforts in order to improve stakeholders’ understanding of implementation strengths and challenges as well as associated intermediate and longer term impacts.

1Derived from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, 2017.


Adamson, F., Cook-Harvey, C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Whose choice? Student experiences and outcomes in the New Orleans school marketplace. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.  

Best, J., & Dunlap, A. (2014) Continuous improvement in schools and districts: Policy considerations. Denver, CO: McREL.

Bush-Mecenas, S., Marsh, J., & Strunk, K. (2016). Portfolio reform in Los Angeles: Successes and challenges in school district implementation. In A. Daly & K. Finnigan (Eds.), Thinking and acting systemically: Improving school districts under pressure (pp. 119–146). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from

Campbell, C., Heyward, G., & Gross, B. (2017). Stepping up: How are American cities delivering on the promise of public school choice? Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from

Finnigan, K., & Daly, A. (2017). The trust gap: Understanding the effects of leadership churn in school districts. American Educator, 41(2), 24–29.

Gross, B., & Jochim, A. (2016). Incomplete reform in Baltimore: A shift in authority to school leaders falls short. Education Next, 16(4), 26–35.

Hill, P., Campbell, C., & Gross, B. (2013). Judging the results of the portfolio strategy. In P. T. Hill, C. Campbell, & B. Gross (Eds.), Strife and progress: Portfolio strategies for managing urban schools (pp. 90–101). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. Retrieved from

Lake, R., Posamentier, J., Denice, P., & Hill, P. (2016). Sticking points: How school districts experience implementing the portfolio strategy. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved September 2017 from:

Marsh, J., Strunk, K., & Bush, S. (2013). Portfolio district reform meets school turnaround: Early implementation findings from the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(4), 498–527.

Osborne, D. (2016). Creating measurement and accountability systems for 21st century schools: A guide for state policy makers. Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute.

Sperry, S. (2012). Better schools through better politics: The human side of portfolio school district reform. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.

For more information about school transformation, REL Southwest suggests these resources:

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Susan Bowles Therriault

Managing Researcher | REL Southwest