National Education Policy Center Releases Profound Analysis of Portfolio School Reform

In a new policy brief, the National Education Policy Center has published a lucid and pithy summary of the tragedy happening today in urban public school districts across the United States:

“As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding… This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty…. But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.”

And the proposed governance solution is portfolio school reform. In The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, the National Education Policy Center defines the concept of portfolio school reform as it has been adopted in 39 school districts that include New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Denver.

Portfolio School Reform is a theory and a project—“the brainchild of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and it has caught fire.”  “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. When reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration.  In theory, this process of closing, re-bidding, and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing. These approaches have been described (positively) as ‘creative destruction’ or (negatively) as ‘churn.'”  Such school restructuring takes place primarily in school districts under state or mayoral control with local school boards “typically shunted aside.”

Evaluating the research about the specific effects of such policies is difficult—“hampered by messy reform contexts, where portfolios are only one of several major ongoing reforms… and also hampered by definitional problems—elastic labels with different components and different names… applied in different places.”  Despite these research challenges, however, the brief concludes that charter schools seem not to have much impact on test scores; school closures result in instability; turnaround approaches in schools have been disappointing; and research on mayoral control shows mixed evidence when measured by test scores.

Such school takeovers have usually happened in African American and Latino communities.  “Looking specifically at portfolio approaches, the private management of a community’s schools eliminates democratic accountability, substituting a system where schools are held accountable (by a central-office manager) for meeting performance standards or are held accountable through market forces.”

The brief recommends that governance changes can neither replace adequate funding for schools in the poorest communities nor  substitute for the careful selection and retention of quality school leaders and teachers.  “Children living  in our most unstable environments need stable school environments.”  The reforms most likely to serve children and support their learning are responsive curriculum and pedagogy, a stable staff of well-qualified teachers, small classes that promote relationships between children and caring adults, and on-site wraparound services to bring medical and social supports for families.

The brief concludes: “(A)ll the evidence suggests that no governance approach will come close to mitigating the harms caused by policies generating concentrated poverty in our urban communities.”

I urge you to study carefully this simple, direct, and profound analysis of our society’s dogged determination to ignore educational inequality and the effects of poverty and segregation as we pretend that mere imposition of governance changes and privatization will improve the schools across our cities.

3 thoughts on “National Education Policy Center Releases Profound Analysis of Portfolio School Reform

  1. The worshippers of the Free Market just can’t see any solution to societal poverty other than capitalism as the cure despite all the contrary evidence. And the poor in America no longer have the Democratic party as their voice in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. As Senator Sanders keeps saying, “We need a revolution in this country.”

  2. thanks, Jan, for continued and relentless analysis that begs for the political will to address these failures of policy and legislation and action.
    Because .. children are the recipients of these failures. Children in great need.
    We refuse to address the real problem, massive inequality, incredible poverty. But the literal poverty of many children in greater Cleveland is only matched by the poverty (of imagination and commitment) of our political leaders and our American (and greater Cleveland) culture. A culture obsessed w distractions of entertainment, sport, and wealth … And this obsession finds its home in much middle class culture, with its glorification of education that has no heart, no moral center, other than achievement and technology .. well, where’s the surprise when our institutions (e.g., public education) are hollowed out by consumer capitalism?
    So, we see a curious unity (though it has its cracks) as Democrats join Republicans in policies, legislation, actions that destroy and undermine public education.
    Why did Democrats do such a thing? Well, one does not have to look very far. So many cities, run by democrats, (and activists who made it into city hall … Cleveland) have served the wealthy interests (sports stadia, conventions (RNC)) and undermined labor unions, teachers unions, catering to charter schools.
    (While public education has its deep flaws, they are the flaws of the country, not uniquely theirs.)
    The democrats should be regularly and roundly critiqued, criticized and pilloried for what they have done to public education. But they are not. Too impolitic.
    The republicans … well, they, for the most part (entirely?), have hated public education for so long i don’t know a different history. And my analysis sees it as due to public schools being the source of labor unions, anathema to republicans generally, who serve ‘business interests.’
    But, a much larger vision, critique, is required by those surveying our political landscape and will not easily receive a hearing…. The deeply personal commitment of one’s body and mind to a ‘revolution’ .. a revolution of mind and heart that serves (and is persecuted for) the common good and each individual .. . each child, each student… that indeed ‘loves’ them. The Chicago Teachers’ Union in many ways understands this. They understand that they must not only ally with parents, but must love them and their students. A deep unity of ‘family.’ All teachers ultimately try to practice this principle, but it is the most challenging practice as it is a daily discipline to treat/love your students as would treat/love your own children or better…..
    well, this is a ramble, i suppose, but it’s an effort to stave off despair and point to a place of hope, as best as i can see it.

  3. Pingback: National Education Policy Center Releases Profound Analysis of Portfolio School Reform – Ministry of Public Witness

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