Chicago Sticks to Portfolio School Reform Despite All the Evidence that It Isn’t Working

Inertia is a scientific term from physics: something in motion will stay in motion unless some kind of external force changes its speed or trajectory.  In a less technical way, inertia is also a principle applicable to social policy. Inertia and commitment to “implementing the plan” are such strong forces that they will block out evidence that the plan is not working—has never been working.  All evidence to the contrary, the plan just keeps on being implemented.  Take, for example, portfolio school reform in Chicago.

We’ve had over a decade now to watch what has happened in the second large school district to institute portfolio school reform.  (Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already launched a similar program in New York City.) Wikipedia, which can be trusted for such basic factual information tells us: “Renaissance 2010… was announced in June 2004 by the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago. Renaissance 2010 called for 100 new schools by 2010. Under Renaissance 2010, the Chicago Public Schools closed over 80 public schools, and sought to create 100 charter schools by 2010. These schools were to be held accountable for test score performance through 5-year contracts while following one of three governance structures: charter, contract, or performance.”

The academic outfit that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell.  (CRPE is not an academic division of the University of Washington but is instead a Gates-funded think tank located at the university. That distinction is important.) CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”  CRPE also lists seven components of a portfolio strategy: good options and choices, school autonomy, pupil-based funding for each school, talent-seeking strategy, schools choosing from an array of independent providers, performance-based accountability, and extensive public engagement.  All this, claims CRPE, will ensure “a great school for every child in every neighborhood.”

Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, Arne Duncan’s project before he became the U.S. Secretary of Education, epitomizes portfolio school reform. And Renaissance 2010 became the template for the sort of governance reform Duncan brought to the U.S. Department of Education as the basis for the ill-fated School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top programs.  The theory is competitive: you give parents school choice; you attach funding to the school on a per-student basis so that when students leave, their funding follows; you reward winning schools by keeping them open; and you punish losing schools by closing them. Chicago has experienced an unprecedented number of school closures on the mostly African American South and West Sides.

And today, February 28, 2018, the Chicago Board of Education will vote on another school closure or phase out plan centered in Englewood, the South Side neighborhood just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The board will close or perhaps phase out four high schools and one elementary school and set in motion a plan for a new high school to open a year in the future. Families have been furious that their high school students would be displaced over the next year. Protests have perhaps been effective enough that the school board may phase out rather than abruptly closing three of the high schools, which would allow current students to graduate from the schools they have been attending.  But nobody is proposing to end portfolio school reform in Chicago;  once a portfolio plan is in place, the CEO is hired not so much to run the public schools as to manage the portfolio plan.

Here are merely some of the factors that the theory of portfolio school reform seems to have missed.

First, as Chicago has continued to launch new charter schools and specialty schools and selective schools, parents have been enticed by the advertising along with the idea that at least at the selective schools, their children will study with a more elite peer group. Parents have been willing to try out the choice schools and have their children travel long distances to elite schools and thereby abandon the neighborhood schools, whose funding drops as children leave. This process has hollowed out the comprehensive neighborhood high schools, which have been left serving a very vulnerable population with a higher percentage of students in special education. Last week’s Chicago Sun-Times reported that there has even been cheating on the lotteries, cheating in which school leaders have been able to find space for their children or relatives’ children in more elite schools, leaving behind students without powerful connections. This is a lifeboat strategy gone bad—a system that saves the privileged and leaves behind on the sinking ship the children who lack means or power or extreme talent.

Reporter Sarah Karp for WBEZ News describes the response of Janice Jackson, the current CEO of the Chicago Public Schools: “Jackson casts the dire situation of these Englewood schools largely as the result of circumstances beyond the school district’s control, like a hurricane. Families make choices, she said, by moving out of the area or sending their children elsewhere—options she insists all families deserve.” Karp reviews the history: “Daley (former Mayor Richard M. Daley) and Duncan also wanted to apply pressure on poor performing neighborhood schools across Chicago by creating competition with new, privately run schools. To advance this goal, in 2004 Daley announced Renaissance 2010, a plan to open 100 new schools within the decade. Many of the new schools were charter schools. Those are run by private organizations but are publicly funded.  Englewood, where many of the schools were poor performing, got an influx of new schools. Between 2005 and 2015, CPS opened nine high schools within about two miles of Hope (one of the schools now threatened with closure)… Chicago has always tied school budgets to enrollment, but in recent years as CPS has adopted a market-based approach to education, the relationship has become stronger. Starting in 2013, CPS implemented student-based budgeting, where money follows students. That thrust schools into fierce competition for students.”  Karp calls all this “A death spiral.”

Chicago has experimented with portfolio school reform at the same time its poorest neighborhoods have been decimated by the foreclosure crisis. Population declined in very poor neighborhoods like Englewood due to the financial crisis, but there is evidence that destabilization of the neighborhood’s schools has also contributed to a trend of families looking for more stable school districts in which to rear their children.  In December 2017,  Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracked “thousands of black students leav(ing) Chicago for other segregated districts.”  Belsha describes families who feel pushed out of Chicago, a city that has come to feel unwelcoming: “Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its black population, or more than 250,000 people. In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 black students. Now, the school district which was majority black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts… (S)ome academics blame city officials for making it harder for poor African-Americans, in particular, to live in Chicago: They closed neighborhood schools and mental health clinics; failed to rebuild public housing, dispersing thousands of poor black families across the region, and inadequately responded to gun violence, unemployment and foreclosures in black communities. ‘It’s a menu of disinvestment’ says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. ‘The message that public policy sends to black families in the city is we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.’”

Here is the conclusion of a March 2017, Roosevelt University study of how portfolio school reform may have contributed to this trend in Chicago: “CPS’ approach to saturating neighborhoods with declining school-age population with new charter schools is stripping all middle-class, working-class and lower-income children, families, and communities of education security, where schools are rendered insecure by budgetary cuts, deprivation, or closure. Education insecurity is the product of the school reform agenda focused on cannibalizing the neighborhood public schools in order to convert CPS into a privatized ‘choice’ school system. While new charter schools continue to proliferate in low demand neighborhoods, all CPS neighborhood public schools experience debilitating budget cuts that lead to the elimination of teaching professionals and enriching curriculum. The most vulnerable communities are stripped of their public schools, or their remaining neighborhood public school is rendered unstable by the proximity of new charter schools… The cuts and deprivation across CPS neighborhood public schools underscore the problem of opening too many new schools in a system caught in the vice grip of austerity—there are not enough funds to provide all schools with the resources needed to succeed.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in a 2016 brief for the National Education Policy Center, The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, remind us that portfolio school reform has substituted accountability-based school governance changes for the more expensive and likely more effective reform that could have been tried: investing in addressing poverty and financially supporting the schools serving children in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  Here are Mathis and Welner: “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. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  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 as a vital companion to school reform.  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.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio’ districts, and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack… School turnaround approaches have, in general, been very disappointing, in large part because of the problems with closures and charter schools. The churn in the system, loss of institutional knowledge and loss of culture results in community and school disturbance and instability. Closing even low-performing schools can prove disruptive as community support dissipates….”

We’ll need to watch what action is taken today by the Chicago Board of Education—an entity, incidentally, appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not elected by Chicago’s citizens. Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who was instrumental in the 2015, month-long hunger strike that eventually re-opened Dyett High School as a neighborhood high school and who leads the national Journey for Justice Alliance, is reported to be concerned by the kind of displacement that has been repeated endlessly across Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods in the past decade due to school closures: “Stopping the schools from closing, it’s only a small part of the issue. What is the vision for public education for working and low-income black families? Who shapes that vision?”

Brown’s question is really at the heart of the school choice debate. Should education for the children of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods be driven by the invisible hand of the school-choice marketplace as parents are lured by advertising to try out the latest charter school—and as their child carries funding from the neighborhood school? And what about a tiered system of selective schools and neighborhood schools, but where funding follows the child? Does the school district have an obligation to the children who are not selected or who elect to attend school in their neighborhoods?

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4 thoughts on “Chicago Sticks to Portfolio School Reform Despite All the Evidence that It Isn’t Working

  1. In a flash of the blindingly obvious we announced some time ago that the performance levels of students in urban centers seriously lagged behind that of their suburban peers. The years following this “astounding” observation are fast becoming a part of what will be described by future observers as a tribute to human arrogance and a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.

    Having announced the obvious our “thought” leader/ reformers charged schools with the responsibility for a result only partially of their making while simultaneously stripping away the resources required for schools to deal with the complexity of causes for the underperformance as if such causes began with and were contained within the walls of the school.

    Sadly, having raised blaming the victim to an art form, the architects of such gems as portfolio approaches to school reform, will neither recognize nor accept responsibility for the damage they have helped to create in the communities further damaged by their arrogance.

  2. Thank you for this very helpful overview of the issues behind Chicago’s relentless assault on public education. Yesterday’s Sun Times reported on issues related to the proposed closure of four high schools in Englewood. Community activists are fighting the decision and pointing to the unsavory tactics CPS officials have been using to highlight alleged community support: “The support officials have pointed to in Englewood largely came from the school system’s Community Action Council there, a group led by a CPS contractor who doesn’t live in Englewood. . . . Another group that’s been outspoken in calling for the schools to be closed has been the West Englewood Coalition, incorporated last year by members of a single south suburban family.” Additional support has come from some prominent African American clergy who are regularly put in front of the camera by the Mayor to support various agendas. Few would argue against a new high school being built in Englewood. Unclear in the debate thus far, however, is why students in the schools to be replaced could not be consolidated into one neighborhood school where they could complete their high school education with peers while the new school is being built.

  3. Pingback: 2018 Medley #5 – Live Long and Prosper

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