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.