Portfolio district reform meets school turnaround

Julie A. Marsh (Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)
Katharine O. Strunk (Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)
Susan Bush (Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Publication date: 28 June 2013



Despite the popularity of school “turnaround” and “portfolio district” management as solutions to low performance, there has been limited research on these strategies. The purpose of this paper is to address this gap by exploring the strategic case of Los Angeles Unified School District's Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) which combined both of these reforms. It examines how core mechanisms of change played out in schools and communities during the first two years of implementation.


The paper draws on a mixed methods study, combining data from surveys, case studies, leader interviews, observations, and document review. It is guided by a conceptual framework grounded in research on school turnaround and portfolio districts, along with the district's implicit theory of change.


The paper finds early success in attracting diverse stakeholder participation, supporting plan development, and ensuring transparency. However, data also indicate difficulty establishing understanding and buy‐in, engaging parents and community, attracting sufficient supply of applicants, maintaining neutrality and the perception of fairness, and avoiding unintended consequences of competition – all of which weakened key mechanisms of change.

Research limitations/implications

Data from parent focus groups and school sites may not be representative of the entire population of parents and schools, and data come from a short period of time.

Practical implications

The paper finds that developing processes and procedures to support complex reform takes time and identifies roadblocks others may face when implementing school turnaround and portfolio management. The research suggests districts invest in ways to ensure neutrality and create a level playing field. It also indicates that leaders should anticipate challenges to engaging parents and community members, such as language and literacy barriers, and invest in the development of unbiased, high‐quality information and opportunities that include sufficient time and support to ensure understanding.


This paper begins to fill a gap in research on popular reform strategies for improving low‐performing schools.



Marsh, J., Strunk, K. and Bush, S. (2013), "Portfolio district reform meets school turnaround ", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 51 No. 4, pp. 498-527. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578231311325677

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