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From AERA: The 'portfolio model' and where it's headed in Philadelphia





The American Educational Research Association conference is taking place in Philadelphia. These are prepared remarks from a presentation on Friday by Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar in a session about "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia." He was asked to discuss the "portfolio model" and how it has developed in Philadelphia; subsequent comments by Philadelphia School Partnership head Mark Gleason have spurred controversy. [Listen to the entire panel discussion below.]

First a cursory definition: Portfolio school districts rely on a variety of operators of public schools within the city, with the stated aim of providing high-quality learning opportunities … so ultimately every family can choose a slot in a good school. The term is borrowed from Wall Street: You're going to hang on to the successful companies in your stock portfolio and dump the losers. Proponents here talk about replacing “low-performing seats” with “high-performing seats.”

So what’s interesting about Philadelphia’s portfolio approach? It’s got plenty of company nationally as a district adopting the portfolio model. It stands out for having a high percentage of students in non-District schools – 35 percent of students are in charters. It also stands out because of the move by Philadelphia School Partnership and some officials to welcome Catholic and private schools into the portfolio and to downplay the distinctions between public and private schools. So for instance, Mayor Nutter has said that debates about public vs. private vs. charter are “esoteric” and don’t matter to children. More on that later.

Philly started down the path of outsourcing school management in 2002 – after the state takeover of schools. The newly created School Reform Commission’s plan included a portfolio approach of sorts – called a “multiple provider model.” It turned over 45 schools with low test scores to outside education management organizations, or EMOs, and restructured 21 other schools under District management. The contracting-out of so many schools was highly controversial from the start. A for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc., got a multimillion-dollar contract from the governor to come up with a plan for the District. Their plan recommended hiring themselves to run dozens of schools. … Edison said they could produce higher achievement in the worst-off schools for less money, while turning a profit. Results did not pan out. … Edison became a lightning rod spawning anti-privatization sentiment. And the School Reform Commission over time re-assumed control over most of these schools. Since the brush with Edison, the emphasis here has been on outsourcing to nonprofit charter management organizations.

But during the early 2000s, the District was also facilitating rapid growth in the charter sector and also an expansion of the choice model within traditional District high schools. And in 2010 the District launched a school turnaround initiative that relied on charter conversions. What we call Renaissance Schools are turned over to outside charter operators while remaining neighborhood schools. We have 20 of those, and some examples of dramatic turnaround.

By the end of 2011, the School Reform Commission had formally adopted the portfolio model as its theory of change.

But the big issues flagged in the literature about the portfolio model are clearly playing out in Philadelphia. One is the question of whether you still have enough of a center and a central office left to manage this portfolio. Philadelphia’s central office has been decimated by cuts. The charter school office, never large, is now six people overseeing nearly 90 charter schools. Limited central office capacity makes it difficult to get comparable data about charter vs. District schools.

Another issue playing out here is about equity of access across the portfolio. The District has recently been documenting inappropriate barriers to entry at many charters. Since the District began working on barriers to entry, some of the egregious problems have been addressed – like the charter school that required applicants to attend an open house at a suburban country club.

Many other issues are still unanswered.

  • Is it a priority to ensure that all operators take their fair share of students who are far below grade level, or students with disciplinary records?
  • Is there any consequence for the charters that don’t take a proportional share of severely disabled students and English language learners?
  • On the inclusion of nonpublic schools in the portfolio: Does this mean it’s OK to use scarce public resources to encourage and support students to attend private and parochial schools?
  • Do private and parochial schools have to meet any of the standards applied to public schools to include them in the portfolio of options for families?

And with school closings an intrinsic feature of the portfolio model, there are questions from our experience of closing down 24 schools here:

  • Do we know that students are moving to higher-performing schools? 
  • Do we really even know what happens to students displaced by school closings?

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Paul Socolar

Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.