How’s our portfolio doing?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Portfolio management is a hot trend in school reform, and Philadelphia school leaders have embraced the concept. Nationally, Democrats, Republicans, and big foundations are on board. It’s a strategy for cities like Philadelphia that have many students in low-performing schools and want them in high-performing ones.

How is it supposed to work? For starters, shrink the size and role of the central office. Shift its focus to identifying and closing poor performing schools and finding managers who can operate better ones.

Two key but tenuous assumptions are that no harm is done to communities by closing low-scoring schools and that enough talented school managers are available to start up good new ones. Under a portfolio approach, these managers are given autonomy to run their schools. Parents then should have more choices to migrate out of poor schools and into good ones.

Most experts agree that the model is still experimental. It looks different in each of the few dozen districts that are pursuing it. There’s not much research yet, which is reason to be cautious.

Philadelphia officials are encouraged by early results of their signature reform initiative: turning over schools to outside managers through the Renaissance School program. In the first year, there were signs of improved performance, and neighborhood students flocked back to some of these schools. Schools are trying out some innovative new approaches to discipline. But it’s premature to proclaim the initiative a success at all 17 schools. And most of the city’s low-performing neighborhood schools are untouched by this effort.

Another SRC strategy in recent months has been to increase the numbers of slots in high-performing schools – both District and charter. Sounds simple, yet we know about successful small schools that expand and lose their mojo.

The idea of a system run by an array of providers is firmly entrenched in Philadelphia. One out of every four publicly funded schools is now managed by a charter organization. But there’s much to figure out about how to oversee this new system – an enormous challenge for a gutted central office. Low funding levels also make it hard to attract school operators to Philadelphia; charter managers say state cuts are undermining their model.

Strong monitoring of school performance is vital. But we should not rely on questionable test score results that have been the basis of accountability systems. New metrics are needed; that can’t happen without a strong accountability office. Nor is a charter school office with a staff of six going to be adequate to evaluate more than 80 schools and protect against abuses.

Equity concerns must be central to the monitoring process. A recent District study of charters found that most had created significant barriers to entry, contrary to the spirit of the charter law. If charters are siphoning off the most motivated families, we are further stratifying the system.

A key question: Are we actually increasing the number of students who are doing well, or just shifting around high-performing students? We won’t know we’re succeeding until the city’s full portfolio of schools starts graduating significantly more students who move on to postsecondary success.