Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of … achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools.  The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others.  Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do.  This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’  It was a deliberate and prominent part of may of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic  The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)

School Choice Fails to Create Equity and Justice for Our Society’s Poorest Children

Early this week, in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss published an important reflection on Why It Matters Who Governs America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education. Burris and Ravitch are responding to a major report from the Learning Policy Institute’s Peter Cookson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Patrick Shields, a report which endorses the idea of “portfolio school reform.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s report, The Tapestry of American Public Education, promotes a lovely metaphor, a tapestry of school options woven together—open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and specialty schools based on distinct educational models. The Learning Policy Institute declares: “The goal and challenge of school choice is to create a system in which all children choose and are chosen by a good school that serves them well and is easily accessible. The central lesson from decades of experience and research is that choice alone does not accomplish this goal.  Simply creating new options does not lead automatically to greater access, quality or equity.”  Here is how the Learning Policy Institute proposes that such fair and equal choice might be accomplished: “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures. Too often, questions related to the number of charters a district should have address school governance preferences, rather than the needs of children… Work to ensure equity and access for all. Expanding choice can increase opportunities, or it can complicate or restrict access to convenient and appropriate opportunities, most often for the neediest students… Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities, and resources to inform decision making for families, communities, and policymakers… Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

The Learning Policy Institute’s recommendations sound familiar. They are the same arguments made by the Center on Reinventing Public Education as it describes its theory of “portfolio school reform.” Portfolio school reform imagines an amicable, collaborative mix of many different schools: “A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy is a problem-solving framework through which education and civic leaders develop a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public schools. It moves past the one-size-fits-all approach to education. Portfolio systems place educators directly in charge of their schools, empower parents to choose the right schools for their children, and focus school system leaders—such as school authorizers or those in a district central office—on overseeing school success.”

Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

This rhetoric is all very nice. But the realities on the ground in the portfolio school districts I know fail to embody equity and justice.  I believe it is a pipe dream to promise a great school choice for every child in every neighborhood.  For one thing, there are the political and economic realities, beginning with the operation of power politics which is always part of the mayoral governance that is at the heart of this theory. There is also the unequal access parents have to information, and the unequal political, economic, and social position of parents.  And finally there is the devastating impact of the ongoing expansion of school choice on the traditional public schools in the school districts where charters are proliferating. CRPE calls its governance theory “portfolio school reform.” Many critics instead describe parasitic school reform.

Fortunately Burris and Ravitch promptly offered their critique of the new Learning Policy Institute report: “What concerns us… (is) the report’s insistence that school governance doesn’t matter. The authors deny the negative impact that charter schools have on the viability of neighborhood public schools, the very schools they acknowledge the vast majority want. We know from experience that charter schools and vouchers drain finances and the students they want from the district public schools, causing budget cuts, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the schools that enroll the most children. Yet the report suggests that charter school caps should be removed, which is likely to further destabilize public schools… From the first recommendation of the report: ‘Debates that focus on questions such as how many charters a district should have are focused on adults and their preferences for school governance, rather than on the needs of children.’ This claim is wrong. School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students… Public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”

Burris and Ravitch explain that research confirms the fiscal damage caused by charter school expansion. Here is some of that research:  In a November 2016 report for the Economic Policy Institute, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, the Rutgers University school finance professor Bruce Baker outlines the catastrophic consequences of state laws permitting rapid and unregulated expansion of charter schools: “One might characterize this as a parasitic… model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools….”  “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide…  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Confirming Baker’s conclusions, in a May 2018, report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how, in California, charter school expansion has been undermining the fiscal capacity of several local school districts: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Lafer continues: “Indeed it is the district’s obligation to serve all children that makes it difficult to close schools in line with failing enrollment… School districts—unlike charter schools—are charged with enabling children to attend nearby neighborhood schools; this too is an obstacle to school closures.  Finally because districts cannot turn students away, they must maintain a large enough school system to accommodate both long-term population growth and sudden influxes of unexpected students—as has happened when charter schools suddenly close down.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

We now also more fully understand that the damage of portfolio school reform reaches deeper into communities and neighborhoods than just the fiscal distress for public school districts. After 14 years, researchers have been able to investigate the meaning of portfolio school reform in Chicago, where Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010 portfolio school reform in 2004.  At the end of the school year in May, 2013, fifty traditional neighborhood public schools were shed from the school district’s portfolio of schools—shut down because the District said they were “underutilized” after families experimented with school choice in an ever-growing number of charter schools. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research describes the devastation to neighborhoods and the community mourning that followed the school closures—80 percent in the poorest African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.  In her stunning new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explores the personal responses of children, teachers, and parents to the closure of their schools.

Bruce Baker reflects more theoretically in a brand new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance, on our foolishness when we conflate of the expansion of school choice with educational justice: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both.  But it’s never that simple.  A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another.  While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same.  Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another.  Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker continues, confronting the argument implicit in school choice, that any school exists to satisfy the desires and the needs of the particular families and children doing the choosing: “The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the demands—preferred goods and services—of that community within the constraints of the law. Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Public schools promise access for all children to a stable network of schools—across poor neighborhoods just as public schools are are maintained as a stable network in wealthy communities.  Jitu Brown, the Chicago community organizer who now leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, describes how school choice has undermined this promise in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities:  “There is no such thing as ‘school choice’ in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

The public schools are our mutual responsibility through public governance—paid for and operated by government on behalf of he public. We have a lot of work to do to realize this promise for all children.  Bruce Baker describes our responsibility: “More than anything else, our system of public schooling requires renewed emphasis on equitable, adequate, and economically sustainable public financing at a level that will provide all children equal opportunity to achieve the outcomes we, as a society, desire for them.” (p. 31)

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?

Charter Advocates Demand that States Reform Failing Online Academies

When the largest pro-charter school advocacy organizations publish a report demanding major reforms in the sector for which they are themselves the primary advocates, you have to pay attention. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN (the pro-charter, pro-school “reform” network of state astro-turf advocacy groups) just published a scathing report on the abysmal performance of virtual, online academies.

These pro-charter organizations explain that the huge online academies are failing to educate students at the same time they are cheating taxpayers:  “(T)he well-documented, disturbingly low performance by too many full-time virtual charter… schools should serve as a call to action for state leaders and authorizers across the country.  It is time for state leaders to make the tough policy changes necessary to ensure that this model works more effectively for the students it serves. It is also time for authorizers to hold full-time, virtual charter schools accountable for performance, using measures and metrics suited to their programs and closing those that chronically fail their students.”

The new report presents facts about the growth of the online charter sector: “Of the 43 states and D.C. that have enacted charter school laws, 35 states plus D.C. allow full-time virtual charter schools. The eight that do not allow these schools are Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Virginia…  As of August 2014, according to National Alliance research, there were 135 full-time virtual charter schools operating in 23 states and D.C….  According to National Alliance research, enrollment in full-time virtual charter schools is highly concentrated in three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California—which collectively enroll over half of full-time virtual charter school students nationwide… Full-time virtual charter schools serve a higher percentage of white students (69 percent vs. 49 percent), a lower percentage of Hispanic students (11 percent vs. 27 percent), and roughly the same percentage of black (13 percent vs. 15 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (2 percent vs. 5 percent), Native American (1 percent vs. 1 percent), and multi-racial (4 percent vs. 3 percent) students as compared with traditional public schools.”

The report’s scathing critique of online charter schools is grounded in a trio of reports by academic think tanks, jointly published in the fall of 2015 by Stanford CREDO, Mathematia Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Here is a summary of the concerns raised in the new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and 50 CAN: “Full-time virtual charter school students experience 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading in comparison to traditional public school students.”  “The mobility rates for students after they leave full-time virtual charter schools are extremely high…. (Students who leave full-time virtual charter schools have a more chaotic school experience after they leave full-time virtual charter schools than they did before they enrolled in such schools.)”

The new report’s authors recommend that states ought to beef up their regulations to ensure “minimum academic performance standards” and ought to have the leverage to close schools that are not serving their students.  States ought to regulate authorizers to ensure that all the money they collect for oversight is being used for its intended purpose. Non-profits should not be beefing up their operating budgets with the funds intended to cover charter school oversight, and tiny local school districts should not be padding their own budgets by collecting state fees to sponsor huge charter schools that poorly serve children from other districts across the region.

Virtual charter schools do not have the same costs as brick and mortar schools, and states ought determine what it really costs for online schools to operate and additionally “require full-time virtual charter school operators to propose and justify a price-per-student in their charter school applications” based on the real costs of full-time virtual charter schools.

And finally, the new report recommends that as states establish valid costs for operating full-time virtual charter schools, they also consider  a performance-based funding system that reimburses schools only for the students who are actively participating in the online school’s academic program.  The report encourages states to consider paying for the students who stay in the schools and graduate: “As states develop policies in the specific area of performance-based funding, we recommend that they look to the emerging efforts in four states that are experimenting with completion-based funding systems: Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah.”  While online schools ought to be open to all, schools ought also to be required to have some admissions requirements to ensure that parents are able sufficiently to oversee their child’s participation.

States also ought to be monitoring the performance of the authorizers themselves.  And states ought to be setting limits on the size and expansion rates of these schools which sometimes enroll thousands of students. “When the large size of many full-time virtual charter schools is combined with research showing that full-time virtual charter school students have much weaker academic growth overall than traditional public school students, caution is justified.”

We will have to wait to see whether state legislators are moved by the advice of the pro-charter advocates to clean up the most notorious operators in the charter sector, the until-now untouchable online academies. After all, the same advice has been given before.  The Annenberg Institute for School Reform released similar recommendations in 2014, and the Center for Popular Democracy has been releasing an annual demand for more accountability in the charter sector.

In Ohio, at least, it is apparent that academic and think tank reports have been unconvincing to legislators in the pocket of the for-profit charter operators who regularly make the necessary political contributions.

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.

Mathematica, CRPE, and CREDO Condemn Online Charter Schools in Three-Agency Report

You can learn exhaustively about cyber charter schools in the National Study of Online Charter Schools, a major, three-part report released earlier this week.  Significantly, although one of the think tanks presenting the data—the Center on Reinventing Public Education—and the funder of the three-part report—the Walton Foundation—actively endorse school choice and charter schools overall, the report’s conclusions about the giant online academies are scathing.

What are online charter schools?  Mathematica Policy Research, author of the report’s first volume, Inside Online Charter Schools, explains: “Online charter schools—also known as virtual charters or cyber charters—are publicly-funded schools of choice that eschew physical school buildings and use technology to deliver education to students in their own homes.  These schools typically provide students with computers, software, and network-based resources, while also providing access to teachers via email, telephone, web, and/or teleconference.”  Mathematica examines 200 virtual schools that together serve approximately 200,000 students.  “Student enrollment in online charter schools is highest in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California, each of which had more than 25,000 students enrolled in 2012-2013; together those three states account for half of the online charter enrollments nationwide.  In a short summary brief, Mathematica warns: “Our analysis indicates that the greatest challenge for online charter schools, in which student-teacher interactions are more limited than in conventional schools, is maintaining student engagement… Perhaps to compensate for limited student-teacher interaction, online charter schools expect parents to provide significant instructional support.”  Mathematica’s longer report concludes that cyber schools generally provide students with less live contact with a teacher each week than students in conventional schools have each day.

The report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), whose focus is the public policy environment for virtual charter schools across the states, identifies some of the giant providers that dominate the online sector: “These mega-providers, the largest of which are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, operate schools nationwide. In Ohio, K12 Inc. provides curriculum for the Ohio Virtual Academy which enrolls approximately 13,000 students.  Similarly, in Pennsylvania K12 Inc. provides curriculum for the Agora Cyber Charter School that enrolls nearly 10,000 students, and Connections Academy operates the Commonwealth Connections Academy that serves a little over 8,000 students.”  CRPE warns: “With such high enrollment in a limited number of schools and spread across few providers, a program that is lacking in quality may affect many thousands of students within one school and even more nationwide, especially if it is permitted to operate year after year with no accountability.” CRPE concludes that the laws states may have created for oversight of brick and mortar charter schools are frequently inappropriate for regulation of the giant cyber academies: “Our analysis shows that few states have created intentional and robust regulatory environments for online charter schools.  For the most part, online charter schools have been squeezed into a more generic charter school regulatory framework that may not suit them.  As a result, attempts by states to deal with very specific issues around enrollment, accountability, the educational program, and funding have been largely reactive and piecemeal, resulting in uneven policies that do not always serve the best interests of the students, schools, or states.  Most charter laws are not designed to address the unique challenges posed by online charter schools….”   CRPE adds: “The political environment may also be a factor.  In Pennsylvania, K12 Inc. spent over $1.25 million lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature between 2007 and 2015.”

Through a complicated algorithm, Stanford CREDO’s extremely technical, 114 page report compares the academic achievement of students in online schools to matched-pair brick and mortar schools. But the results are simple and clear. In math, students accomplish the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning (a whole school year) than their traditional public school peers and the equivalent of 72 fewer days of learning in reading.  The researchers conclude: “(T)he sizes of the coefficients leave little doubt that attending an online charter school leads to lessened academic growth for the average student.”  “(E)ven the students who attended the highest performing online network schools had academic growth which was weaker or not significantly different….”  The report continues: “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.  Online charter schools provide a maximum of flexibility for students with schedules which do not fit the TPS (traditional public school) setting… Not all families may be equipped to provide the direction needed for online schooling.”  The CREDO researchers go so far as to suggest that states should limit expansion of the online charter sector until the performance of current online schools has been carefully assessed; after all, there are natural constraints that limit such rapid growth of brick and mortar schools including the schools’ capacity to build or locate facilities.  “Without these natural constraints, online schools have the potential to expand more rapidly than traditional schools. This makes it critical for authorizers to ensure online charter schools demonstrate positive outcomes for students before being allowed to grow and that online charter schools grow at a pace which continues to lead to improved outcomes for their students.”

This research is welcome though very troubling from the point of view of the 200,000 students enrolled in online charters and from the perspective of states’ investment of tax dollars.  Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is quoted commenting on the study by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell: “These are not the happiest of findings.”  Overall there is an urgent need for better regulation of cyber academies. Whether state legislators, enriched by campaign contributions from the giant, for-profit online charters, will take these reports to heart is another question.

When Choosing Schools, Parents Often Pick Close-to-Home Over Test Scores

School choice is framed on the idea that if our society provides parents with enough choices, they will select the schools said to be excellent and their choices will drive up the academic quality of all schools because schools will compete to achieve excellence in order to be chosen by consumers.  The mark of excellence for which parents are assumed to compete these days is the school’s rating as defined by standardized test scores.

Last fall, however, some of the most prominent proponents of school choice as the driver of school quality began to express some skepticism.  Maybe marketplace school choice that has been so rapidly expanded across America’s big cities isn’t working the way it was supposed to.

First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Then in mid-December Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Now in January we have two new academic reports that suggest one primary reason why school choice does not seem to be driving up school quality as measured by standardized test scores. Parents are more discerning than anyone expected, and they are looking at other factors besides a school’s test score ranking when they choose a school for their children.  (One can, of course, explore a whole range of other possible reasons why competition doesn’t work—including whether schools can control the factors that drive test scores and whether uneven financial support for schools limits any real capacity for competition.)

In a major new study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that when Chicago closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, children were assigned to a “welcoming” school, but families could make another choice if they wished.  Of the families who opted out of their assigned “welcoming” school, some parents chose schools with higher test scores, but many chose lower rated schools.  Why?  “Overwhelmingly, families that enrolled in lower-rated CPS schools did so because of proximity to home… Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.” “Access to transportation and the cost of transportation to and from welcoming schools was prohibitive for many of the families.”

The Chicago researchers list several other factors that influenced parents as well: “Some parents relied on their social networks for information…. A few families had prior experiences with school staff or students and either strongly considered or ruled out schools based on these prior experiences… Simply knowing about a school through a personal or family connection often put that school into consideration… Some children needed very specific kinds of supports or programs that were not offered at every school…. Families with multiple children had more complicated choice sets because these families often prioritized keeping their children together…. Some parents wanted their children to move to a more racially diverse school because they wanted their children to be exposed to multiple cultures.  Others ruled out some schools if they believed their child would be in the racial minority… Parents not only wanted their children to have a safe commute to and from school, but they also wanted them to feel safe while at school.”

The Chicago researchers conclude: “Academic quality for these families meant anything from schools having after-school programs, to having certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, and one-on-one attention from teachers in classes.  In addition, several parents stressed the importance of enrolling their children into schools that were not overcrowded… Many of these same parents expressed concern over larger class sizes at the welcoming schools and wondered whether their children would be able to get what they needed from their teachers.”

In another study released this month, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University examine the reasons parents choose schools in New Orleans, a district where school choice among charter schools has become almost universal because the school district has undergone massive charterization since the hurricane in the fall of 2005.   The school’s published academic rating is one of the factors parents consider but not the only factor: “Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels  Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have ‘legacy’ names that were used pre-Katrina.  For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important… For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important.” Factors that discouraged families from applying to particular schools include longer driving distances and a longer school year.

What these reports document is that parents are considering the needs of their children through the lens of a far more complex set of factors than mere test score rankings.  Parents are valuing and carefully considering a range of factors that will affect their family life and the needs of their children. One must wonder, considering that distance from home and transportation problems seem to be the biggest issues for parents in Chicago and New Orleans, whether our society needs to take another look at the importance of investing in and improving the neighborhood public schools that parents seem to value.

Charter School Promoters Discover School Choice Catastrophe in Detroit

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.  Here is how the Center describes itself: “CRPE’s research and policy analysis is focused on the complex systemic challenges affecting public education. We develop, test, and support evidence-based solutions to create new possibilities for the parents, educators, and public officials who strive to improve America’s schools… CRPE is based in Seattle and affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. Our work is funded through private philanthropic dollars, federal grants, and contracts.”  CRPE is the founder of a school reform theory based on the expansion of school choice.  The CRPE web page declares: “In portfolio cities, families have the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.” In other words, CRPE and its “portfolio school reform model” feature school choice for parents as the key to improving urban education in America.  CRPE has endorsed the concept of the growth of charter schools through its Charter-District Collaboration Compact.

It is therefore pretty shocking to see Robin Lake, in the pages of Education Next, condemning school choice as it is operating in Detroit.  Lake and her team from CRPE visited Detroit earlier this year to assess how portfolio school reform has been working.  She first publicly expressed deep concerns in comments reported in a week long, Detroit Free Press expose on the city’s charters.  Earlier this week, an extensive analysis, Fixing Detroit’s Broken School System, to appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next, went on-line.  It is a scathing condemnation of unregulated charter expansion in Detroit:

“Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the chidren they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…'”

Lake and her co-authors paraphrase the critique by a community leader: “Detroit’s marketplace is as unregulated and unmanaged as any in the country, and tilts strongly toward favoring the supply side. It’s like a flea market… anyone can set up a table to sell their magic, and anyone can come shopping and make a deal, but buyer beware.  In Detroit, more parents exercising choice has not resulted in better schools, and more charter schools has not resulted in better choices.”

Lake and her colleagues identify specific problems in today’s Detroit school marketplace.

  • “For parents… a lack of information, confusing paperwork,and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child.”
  • “With a dwindling student population and an expanding array of education options, Detroit’s schools are in an all-out battle for students… Some estimate there are currently 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in the city’s traditional and charter schools.”
  • “Poor performance plagues schools in both DPS and the city’s large charter sector.”
  • “Parents with the least education are much less likely than parents with college degrees to say their child is in a school that was their first or second choice…”
  • “The proportion of IEP-eligible students in DPS is growing rapidly in large part because a number of Detroit charter schools simply don’t offer many special-education supports.”

However, Lake and her colleagues do not suggest that school choice be eliminated in Detroit.  They advocate that thoughtful community activists and parents should engage in “strong civic leadership” and create “a plan for investment and action, and creative problem solving.  It will need to be strategic about what’s required to solve these complex problems, but also opportunistic about when and how they are solved.”   Advocates will need to “address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools,” “develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector,” help “parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability,” “double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers (Teach for America is the example provided.), engage leaders “like the mayor and local developers,” and “develop a plan to replace DPS (Detroit Public Schools) with a community ‘portfolio manager’ board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly.  This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.”

The conclusion here is troubling:  “Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders.”  District leaders, charter authorizers, and school association leaders should collaborate and “take a stand for quality.”  A nonprofit agency “with sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body,” should coordinate all the fragmented pieces around facilities, services for family, transportation, enrollment, and parent information.”

Doesn’t this all sound nice!  I think the problem is that money and power politics have affected Michigan’s legislature to ensure there is little oversight of a marketplace where a lot of money is to be made.  Michigan is packed with for-profit charter schools.  And I know that well-intentioned not-for-profit advocacy agencies rarely have the clout or capacity to gain control of a maelstrom like what is described as the flea-market education sector in Detroit.  In places with democratically elected school boards, there is a public forum where consensus can sometimes be developed and formal policies passed and implemented—usually through a long and messy process—to counter powerful business interests.  To imagine that good people can come together on their own in community groups and non-profits to retake control of a huge city school district—especially on top of the overwhelming economic collapse of the region and bankruptcy of the city—is dreaming.

Inventor of Portfolio School Reform Confirms It Isn’t Working Well

The portfolio strategy of school reform embodies the idea of school choice. The provision of a range of privatized charter schools and the elimination of assigned school attendance zones are central to the theory, which was developed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, whose website declares, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.”  Robin Lake, the Center’s director, might be called the mother of this theory that envisions the governance of education through the lens of creative disruption—schools managed like a business portfolio, with new schools continually introduced and failures dropped from the portfolio.

I was impressed that when Robin Lake recently visited Detroit, she was quoted in the Detroit Free Press investigative series on charter schools in Michigan criticizing the management of school choice.  I have always hoped that proponents of privatization might take a second look if it were proven that charters and vouchers are not accomplishing what was promised: closing achievement gaps and significantly and measurably improving the education of children who are struggling in public schools.  I was encouraged to read in the Free Press that Lake agreed with critics that school choice in Detroit these days is a morass.  In Detroit, Lake said charters “have created a lot of new opportunities, and a lot of great new schools are up and running as a result.”  She added, however, that “not enough attention has been paid to quality and equity access in Detroit.” She said that today Detroit has a massive oversupply of schools but “a lack of high-quality seats.”  She said parents “are having a difficult time navigating their options.”  “What’s happening in Detroit is very messy right now.”  “It’s not clear who’s keeping an eye on the city’s schools and making sure that every neighborhood has access to a high quality school.”   Lake’s conclusions, however, at the end of her Free Press interview disappointed me.  She reverted to ideology, minimized the problems she had just described, and affirmed choice and creative disruption: “You don’t want to close off the door to innovation by saying everyone has to have a cookie-cutter approach.” “You’ll end up with the same public schools we’re trying to get away from.”

This month the Center on Reinventing Public Education followed up on Lake’s Free Press critique by publishing a scathing report about the problems Lake observed in Detroit.  Lake and her colleagues, Michael DeArmond and Ashley Jochim  base their conclusions on a survey of 4,000 parents in Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., although the report includes a significant section on the special problems in Detroit.  Here are some of the concerns raised by Lake and her colleagues:

Lack of Access:  “Many parents—especially those in the most disadvantaged circumstances—face barriers that limit their ability to choose a school for their child, including inadequate information, lack of convenient transportation, and uneven school quality.”  The lack of guidance for parents is a problem in traditional public and charter schools today, as many school districts have eliminated assigned attendance zones.  In Detroit, the problem is described for parents as severe: “a lack of information, confusing paperwork, and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child…  ‘There are no watchdogs in Detroit to make sure parents… get what they need from schools,’ said a charter school leader.’ ‘They’re on their own.'”

Lack of Opportunity:  An over-supply of schools exists in Detroit and competition for students is intense: “The biggest challenge facing parents… is not a lack of choice but a lack of good schools.”  Neither traditional public schools nor charter schools in Detroit are posting significantly increased test scores.  Parents’ education is identified again and again as a barrier to their participating fully and effectively in school choice.  “For example, 40 percent of parents with less than a high school diploma cited problems understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend compared to 24 percent for parents with a BA or more.  Less-educated parents were 72 percent more likely to cite transportation as a barrier and 58 percent more likely to cite problems getting the information they needed to make a choice than more educated parents.”

Fragmentation of Services:  “Who is responsible for ensuring that choice produces a good set of options for families in urban education?  For Detroit and many other cities, the answer to this question is no longer the traditional public school district.  Increasingly, a range of agencies and organizations–including local school districts, state agencies, charter school authorizers, and nonprofit providers—oversee and operate schools in American cities.  These groups compete for students and often have few incentives to cooperate on crosscutting issues that shape how school choice works (or does not work) for families.”  “This state of affairs makes it difficult for city leaders to address crosscutting issues (such as parent information systems or transportation) that affect everyone but are no one’s responsibility.”  School choice exists across states with a range of school governance.  Sometimes a city has one school district, but a city like Phoenix has 28 different school district jurisdictions within the city itself.  “These multi-district systems pose special problems for charter operators who might draw families from a dozen or more nearby school districts.  If a charter operator in one of these cities wanted to coordinate with local school districts on enrollment timelines or collaborate to share data on feeder patterns, for example, they might have to negotiate separate agreements with each school district.”

Lack of Oversight: Because nobody is in charge, oversight is too often entirely lacking.  “… some districts are overseen by traditionally elected school boards, but others are overseen by mayors or states; some charter school authorizers are local school districts, but others are state education agencies, independent boards, higher education institutions, nonprofits, or municipal governments.  In some places such as Ohio nonprofit charter authorizers may contract with for-profit organizations to manage the authorization process… By dispersing oversight authority across many different groups and putting those groups in competition for resources, it becomes much more difficult for city leaders to drive improvements… or address the challenges facing parents citywide.”  A serious problem documented here is that lack of authority for oversight is making it impossible in many cities to put the worst charter schools out of business.

In this report the Center on Reinventing Public Education has published a scathing indictment of the way its school reform strategy is being implemented across America’s big cities.  One would hope to read some accompanying concern about the validity of the strategy itself, but that is not the case in this report: “However it manifests in a particular city, school choice is increasingly the new normal in urban education and shows no sign of going away.”  The authors title the report: Making School Choice Work.

But how to make the theory work?  In their section of recommendations, the researchers plead with those who oversee the fragmented mass of education options to work together voluntarily with good will.  “In many cities, however, the situation is too dire to wait for people to come together voluntarily.  In those cases, state leaders, mayors, and others need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face large barriers to choice…. In other cases, formal governance changes may be necessary to reduce the number of authorizers involved, take away some agencies’ authority to open new schools, or create specialized agencies or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice.”  Of course such reforms are dependent on the politics of state legislatures, where money and influence flow freely, but the report does not acknowledge such political realities.  The report documents that the adoption of portfolio school reform across America’s big cities has opened a Pandora’s box of structural school governance problems that no state or city, to my knowledge, has been able to control.

It is fascinating to me that Lake and her colleagues persist—despite all their evidence that such school choice has brought neither access, nor opportunity, nor coordinated services or nor quality oversight—in declaring that traditional public schools are something that society needs to get away from and parents must have the right to escape.  Why refuse even to consider that traditional public education—with the advantages of a coherent and coordinated system of services and a long and growing history of oversight to protect school quality, financial stewardship, equal access, and equal opportunity—may be the best kind of school governance to serve the needs and protect the rights of the greatest number of children?

Portfolio School Reform: What Does It Mean in Chicago? Newark? New York City?

Controversy about charter schools has heated up this spring in New York City, over whether charter schools should be co-located into buildings shared by traditional public schools and whether charter schools ought to be charged rent; in Newark, over Governor Chris Christie and state appointed caretaker superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark Plan that would close traditional schools and fire teachers; and in Chicago, where traditional public schools continue to be closed because they are, supposedly, under-enrolled but at the same time new charters are permitted by the school district to open right down the block.

What’s happening in these and other cities raises questions about the theory of “portfolio school reform” that is driving school district policy in many cities these days. NYC and Chicago count themselves among the over 40 districts in what the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington calls its Portfolio School District Network; Newark is implementing the strategy as well.

Portfolio School Reform is the idea developed and promoted by the Center, which posts on its website a map of over 40 school districts that have formally adopted this strategy. When you cut through the rhetoric,”portfolio school reform” means that the district is managed like a business portfolio—sloughing off the schools whose scores are low and opening new, and it is to be hoped, more successful schools—all in a perpetual cycle.  Stability is not a virtue sought in “portfolio school reform” strategy.

If you dig a little deeper into the website, you will find that the Center’s current funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Walton Family Foundation.  These are all reliable supporters of privatization and school choice.

The Center proclaims, “The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child….  And it relies on district leadership to support and expand successful schools until every child in the district is in a great school.”  Notice that while this definition features the concepts of freedom and choice, it doesn’t really explain how this is to be accomplished—through closing public schools and opening privatized alternatives. Nor does the definition wrestle with the question about whether all children can be provided a great school through a system of school choice driven by standardized test scores. After all the portfolio strategy is a competitive strategy and all competitions have losers as well as winners.  Because test scores reflect family wealth more than any other variable, what this usually means in practice is that children in the big city neighborhoods with the most concentrated poverty will find themselves in the schools being closed.

Some of the most penetrating analysis of today’s “portfolio school reform” theory may be found in a book written by Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine and published by Teachers College Press in 2012: Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education.  Fabricant and Fine write: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas.  This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of public education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities…. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention…  Ultimately charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (p. 87)

Two articles this week update concerns about portfolio school reform:

In Chicago: Dan Mihalopoulos who has been investigating the implications of “portfolio school reform” in Chicago for the Sun Times collaborates with Darnell Little, editor of the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University in a Sun Times front page report, A Push for Charter Schools, But Little Difference in Test Scores. Despite that “Chicago has ordered the closings of dozens of neighborhood public schools while approving a new wave of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools, in a much-touted effort to improve education,”  Mihalopoulos and Little report data to confirm that students in traditional public schools are scoring comparably to, or sometimes outscoring, their charter school counterparts on standardized tests. The Sun Times investigation quotes Terry Mazany, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Community Trust, formerly interim CEO of the Chicago schools, and longtime supporter of portfolio school reform, who expresses concern about the new  data: “The growth of charter schools is based on the hypothesis that choice drives improvement. What we’ve seen from your analysis is that choice is not sufficient…. It’s not a silver bullet.”

In Newark: Bob Braun, 50-year reporter for The Star-Ledger, posts a new investigation on his blog of the operation of Cami Anderson’s school administration and those working with her to implement the “portfolio,” One Newark Plan by which she has said she will close a mass of schools and fire one third of Newark’s teachers.  In the context of this upheaval and purported cost-cutting, Braun examines enormous raises recently granted to administrators who are charged with implementing One Newark. “A third of Newark’s public school teachers face layoffs.  The contracts of seven employee unions, including nurses, cafeteria workers, and laborers, have expired and the administration of state (appointed) superintendent Cami Anderson refuses to settle.  Counselors were laid off.  Public schools have been stripped of assets and allowed to crumble.  Cami drove the district into a $40 million budget hole but, despite all that, she has given hefty raises to the district’s top administrators…. The sizable ‘leadership’ team raises began in the summer of 2012 and continued until a few weeks ago… Of the 18 highest paid administrators in Newark, 12 have ties with Cami through the various organizations she served—New York City schools (under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein), Teach for America, New Leaders, or charter schools.  The nine who make $175,000 or more draw as high a salary as the governor himself, sometimes higher  The Newark school administration is to Cami Anderson what the Port Authority was to Chris Christie before Bridgegate–a publicly funded home for cronies.”

In New York City:  A recent post summarizes this blog’s extensive coverage of the ongoing conflict—about portfolio reform and protection of charter schools—between Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Fabricant and Fine conclude their excellent book, Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education, with this observation: “Entering the contested terrain of public education is an essential act of citizenship precisely because it demonstrates our commitment to preserving a racially and economically just public sphere and larger democracy.  Either we are prepared to struggle for a future built on a rock-solid foundation of a well-funded education system available for all children, or we all suffer in the quicksand of shifting resources from a starved public education system to privatized alternatives.” (p. 130)