Last week this blog reviewed the concept of “portfolio school reform” as it is being practiced in Chicago, New York City, and Newark. It is a theory promoted actively by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which posts a map of the school districts identified formally as its network of portfolio school districts.
Last week’s post on this blog did not cover one school district prominent on the Center’s map, a district where controversy over portfolio school reform is roiling—Philadelphia. The controversy spilled over this month into a panel discussion at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which was holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Local activists involved in the portfolio school reform debate had been invited to be part of AERA’s panel.
Last Friday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss featured a guest column by Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist who was part of that panel at AERA. Gym describes portfolio school reform as it was defined on the panel by Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), Philadelphia’s primary cheerleader and fund raiser for portfolio school reform.
Gleason’s definition is blunt, honest, and very clear: “So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally…. you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”
Dumping the losers! Here is Gym’s description of the response at the AERA conference: “The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent A group confronted Gleason afterword about everything from the ‘losers’ framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles. The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks. But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality.”
Gym continues by describing what she, a parent of children in the School District of Philadelphia, sees as the reality today in Philadelphia: “Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools. In the last few years—fueled in part by ‘philanthropic’ venture capitalists like PSP—this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools. Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent. Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,00-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually—and there’s no end in sight.”
Philadelphia’s imposition of portfolio school reform has been compounded by a financial crisis, covered in this blog, due to drastic funding cuts from the state of Pennsylvania. While Gym does not detail the state funding cuts that have, along with the move to charterize, catastrophically undermined Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, she does accurately describe the consequences: huge classes, 100 split-grade classes in elementary school, closing school libraries, making nurses responsible for serving several schools, and slashing 4,220 district staff, many of them teachers and counselors.
Questioning Gleason’s definition of portfolio school reform, “dumping the losers,” Gym wonders, “Are our school being set up to look like ‘losers’?” I urge you to read Gym’s column because it does such a good job of connecting the dots.