Portfolio School management for dummies
One of the issues plaguing the Los Angeles teachers’ strike is the idea of portfolio management; UTLA says Superintendent Austin Beutner has already has a prepared plan to convert LAUSD to a multi-portfolio model. This is a difficult question to address because so few people understand exactly how a portfolio model is supposed to work.
So here, with oversimplified issues and shortcuts, here’s your dummies’ guide to portfolio management.
The first thing to understand about the portfolio model is that no one knows exactly what a portfolio model is. In 2010, it took three writers to Education Week (Jeffrey R. Henig, Katrina E. Bulkley, and Henry M. Levin) to find this pretty good explanation:
The strategy is, rather, a conglomeration of loosely coupled ideas, held together by the metaphor of a well-managed equity portfolio and the unwavering belief of its proponents that the first step to successful reform must be to dismantle the institutions bureaucratic and political structures that have been built around the status quo.
That’s the second thing to know – this “portfolio” here is based on the idea of an investment portfolio (Austin Beutner, for what it’s worth, made his mark in investment banking). With a financial portfolio, you move your money to and from various investments based on their performance and your goals. With a school portfolio, you move your resources in and out of schools — all schools, including public and charter — based on how well those schools perform.
the Center for Reinventing Public Educationa Washington State Education Reform Think Tanktried to develop a portfolio model strategy guideand they list seven characteristics of portfolio strategy: unbridled school choice, school autonomy with strong principals, funding per student (money follows the child), talent recruitment, “outside partnerships”, performance-based accountability and public engagement.
There are ideas here that are implied but not always said out loud by wallet fans. A big problem is the idea that all the old educational bureaucracy will be wiped out. Each school is headed by a top-level CEO who reports to the top-level super-CEO (or board of super-CEOs) who manages the entire portfolio. That means removing as many rules as possible and, ideally, union protections for teachers. These hero CEOs could do whatever they want without dealing with regulations, bureaucracy and elected school board members.
Another idea is for public schools and charter schools to be rolled into the same portfolio, so that charters have easy access to the same stack of public dollars as public schools. Portfolio templates promote the Common Enrollment System, a one-stop shop that turns all students in the system into potential customers.
Even less openly is the fact that portfolio models are privatization writ large. In places like Indianapolis, the wallet model has been pushed and overseen by a group of “civic-minded” private operators. Indianapolis Mind Trust has flexed its political and financial muscles and worked its way into a “partnership” with the public school system, pushing for the expansion of charters in a perhaps calculated way destabilize public schools and create financial peril for low-scoring schools. There is a certain bold aggressiveness to the way the portfolio models are set. Step One: Bob sets up a snack stand in the lobby of a local restaurant. Step Two: When the owner complains about how Bob is draining business, Bob smiles and says, “Look, let’s just become partners under one brand. And I happen to know a guy who would be great to run it.”
In other words, another way to understand the portfolio model is a forced merger between public and charter schools, with the charter school management model being used to manage the new entity.
A variety of wrinkles can be added. Beutner’s idea for LA involves thirty-two separate “portfolios” which would compete with each other for resources. The results of such competition are easy to predict: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
The problems with the portfolio model are numerous.
At the center of the model is the ability to measure success in schools, so that the less “successful” ones can be closed down and their resources redistributed, their functioning replaced by a new hot eduppreneur. The problem is that in 2019, we still don’t have a reliable and valid way to measure academic achievement, still defining it most often as scores on a single standardized math and reading test. Trying to close this assessment gap gives schools a powerful incentive to skim the best students and weed out the rest. (just one of the problems to emerge in New Orleans, another supposed example of wallet genius). The result is a school choice system that is really a system in which schools choose their students, and low-performing students who struggle have no choice. And there’s no room for parents to voice that concern, because by sweeping away the bureaucracy, the portfolio model also sweeps away the local voice.
At its heart, the portfolio model is about the school czar being able to move resources in and out of the best and worst schools, like dollars that flow between stock portfolios. But dollars don’t care where they are invested. Students, on the other hand, do not benefit from a system in which they are shuffled around like poker chips on a tilted table. In his discussion of portfolio strategy, Written PERC “Portfolio towns make sure there are good schools in every neighborhood.” But cities and states could do it now, simply by fully investing in the public school system, delivering on the promise that every child in this country should be able to attend a great school without leaving their community.