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The new school reform model: ‘dumping the losers’

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Since 2011, the state-run Philadelphia public school district has adopted what is called the “portfolio model” of school reform as its “theory of change.”  The model is a move away from the traditional school district, in which a centralized administration controls a set of public schools, to an arrangement in which a group of different kinds of schools, which could include traditional public as well as charter and privately run schools, are overseen by a central entity. Supporters think it gives parents more choice; opponents think that the choice most parents get is phony and that the portfolio model is a step toward the privatization of public education.

Several districts have followed the portfolio model, including New Orleans, but what makes Philadelphia distinctive is the extent to which it has pursued this effort without regard to cost (the District is $400+ million in the hole today) or consequence. Around 35 percent of Philadelphia students are now in one of the district’s 86 charter schools. City and district officials – at the urging of education reformers like the Philadelphia School Partnership – have also welcomed private religious schools into the portfolio and downplayed the distinctions between public and private.

Cue last weekend’s American Educational Research Association’s national conference in Philadelphia, where a panel was held on the “Landscape of Ed Reform in Philadelphia.” The panel features a number of speakers, most notably the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership which is raising $100 million in venture philanthropy funds to “accelerate the pace” of ed reform in Philadelphia. In the following post, Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education and a frequent writer in local media circles, writes about comments made by the Philadelphia School Partnership that the portfolio model is about “dumping the losers.” This appeared on the website of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia.


By Helen Gym

How shocked should we be really?

Philadelphia School Partnership’s Mark Gleason recently embraced a stunningly blunt description of the city school district’s “portfolio model” at a session of the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. Gleason — whose organization raises funds for the creation of new schools in the city — was attempting to explain why the portfolio model depends on school closings in a system where multiple operators run schools. He said:

“So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally. … you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”

The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent. A group confronted Gleason afterward about everything from the “losers” framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles. The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Supt. William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks.

But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality. More important, they describe what is actually happening in the district. If district and city leaders take issue, they need to explain how their policies – and the impact of them –  are so much different.

Let’s take a look at the facts.

Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools. In the last few years – fueled in part by “philanthropic” venture capitalists like PSP – this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools. Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent. Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,000-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually – and there’s no end in sight.

This year, the district is instituting a de facto parent trigger vote at two public schools that exemplifies the moral bankruptcy of this approach: Convert to charter – a move the district concedes will result in so-called “stranded costs” of up to $4,000 per student – or opt to stay within the district with no promise of additional resources. In other words, the district will sacrifice some $5 million to see a school convert to a charter but won’t spend additional resources if a school remains under district management.

Hite has called those costs a “wise investment.” I call that an abdication of your mission.

District and city leaders may not like the word “losers,” but they have employed some pretty extreme language themselves in defense of this model.

Mayor Michael Nutter has dismissed differences between public, private, religious and charter schools as mere “esoteric debates.” He’s also described mass school closings as something “we all need to grow up and deal with.”

Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn recently wrote a journal article titled “Innovate or Perish?” in which he stated that the District was “committed to a set of innovations in infrastructure and service provision to facilitate the development and sustaining of new school models that better meet the needs of all students.” Ensuring adequate resources to deliver quality schools? Not mentioned.

In November, the District unveiled its approach toward creating “Options for Increasing Students’ Access to Better Schools.”

As you can see, this model assumes that:

  • School performance is static – unrelated to outside forces like basic funding, staffing, or provision of service.
  • Access relies almost entirely on movement – forcing students out of some schools and into others.
  • Investment is solely on the extremes: Good schools must be created or expanded to warrant investment, while poor performing schools must close or convert to charter.
  • Support for or stabilization of middle tier or successful schools is completely ignored.

The district has effectively deserted its internal turnaround model of Promise Academies. So whether or not they like the phrase “keep dumping the losers,” the district and dity’s refusal to prioritize putting appropriate resources toward schools and their latest policy regarding struggling schools – basically, charter conversion or closing them down – is effectively the same thing as what Gleason is saying.

Meanwhile the basic functioning capacity of our schools has fallen apart. Every single district school has now fallen into the “losing” category as far as resources go. According to court filings with the state Supreme Court, the district has lost 4,220 staff members this year alone, and is down nearly 8,500 staff members since 2011.

The impact on our schools has been devastating. This year was the most chaotic school opening since the state takeover – massive overcrowding, 100 split-grade classrooms in elementary schools, libraries shuttered, the tragic asthma death of a 12-year-old student whose nurse was assigned elsewhere that day, and schools completely bereft of resources.

Bartram High School has been a poster child for the consequences of this neglect – leadership upheaval, reports of school violence and chaos, and last month, a staffer whose skull was fractured in an assault. What’s not mentioned so much: Bartram has lost one-third of its staff since 2011. It’s gone from 148 employees down to 101, 91 teachers to 63, four assistant principals down to one, 32 assistants and aides down to 22. What educator thinks this happens with zero impact and consequence?

It’s not just struggling schools that suffer. Here’s what’s happened to the top three schools in the city under Gov. Corbett:


What’s outrageous about the portfolio model is that it’s purposefully indifferent to “details” like funding and staffing shortages. We have to start asking: Are our schools being set up to look like “losers”?

If district officials are so offended by Gleason’s comments, why do they continue to allow him and PSP to control and influence private meetings of the Great Schools Compact?

For two years now, Gleason and PSP have remained a driving force behind this agenda through the Compact, which brings together select providers in private meetings with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Mayor’s Office of Education, School Reform commissioners, and top district officials. Compact meetings are not announced in advance and are not open to the public. There are no parent, student, or teacher representatives to the Compact. As fiscal agent and staff to the Compact, Gleason and PSP have unprecedented access to press an aggressive agenda around school reform.

Gleason’s latest comments, coupled with his unlimited access to policy and decision makers, serve as another reminder of why the public lacks confidence in the integrity of district and city leadership. Meetings of the Compact must immediately be made open to the public, and full, unabridged minutes for all Compact meetings should be released.

We need to know where Hite, the district, the mayor’s office and the SRC really stand on the impact of the portfolio model on our public schools overall. Is Mark Gleason an outlier, or did he simply say publicly what is being said privately on matters of massive importance and consequence to our children, our schools, and our city?

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · April 11, 2014

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