portfolio pushback

As L.A. teachers threaten to strike, union leaders are fighting a controversial school reform strategy

Teachers and supporters of public education march against education funding cuts during the March for Public Education in Los Angeles, California on December 15, 2018. The rally, organized by United Teachers Los Angeles, drew thousands of educators who demanded wage increases and smaller class sizes. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If Los Angeles teachers go on strike this week or next, it won’t just be about dollars and cents — it will be part of a broader fight over the role of charter schools and an obscure but influential school reform idea.

“This approach, drawn from Wall Street, is called the ‘portfolio’ model, and it has been criticized for having a negative effect on student equity and parent inclusion,” teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed Monday.

The district says it’s not pursuing that approach, which relies on giving parents lots of school choices, including charter schools; giving power to school leaders; and holding schools accountable for test scores and graduation rates.

But there are other indications from the district’s leader, the consultants it’s hired, and school board members that Los Angeles Unified is considering similar ideas. As a strike looms in the country’s second-largest school district, Caputo-Pearl’s statements mean that particular debate over how city schools should operate is getting more attention than ever.

“They have the floor; they have the mic,” said Julie Marsh, a University of Southern California professor who has studied L.A. schools, of the teachers union. “They are trying to advocate for all the things they care about.”  

For United Teachers Los Angeles, that includes stopping the growth of charter schools, which are tied closely to the portfolio model. Instead of dictating how schools should be run, school boards should contract out their management to outside groups, portfolio advocates believe. The term “portfolio” came from comparing a school board to an investment manager.

“School boards would closely manage their community’s portfolio of educational service offerings, divesting less productive schools and adding more promising ones,” Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor who developed the idea, wrote in 2006.

A number of cities — including Denver, Indianapolis, Newark, and New Orleans — have adopted major aspects of the model. But it remains controversial, particularly because it often means expanding non-unionized charter schools and closing district schools that become under-enrolled or are seen as unsuccessful.

In Los Angeles, the new superintendent Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor and investment banker, is working on a restructuring plan that the district is calling “Reimagining Los Angeles Unified.”

“That model has nothing to do with the Reimagining effort,” a district spokesperson said of the portfolio model.

What Beutner has said is that principals and schools need more autonomy. The L.A. Times has reported that the superintendent’s plan would divide the district into 32 local networks.

“So [if] it’s the flexibility of charter schools that’s allowing them to excel, let’s bring that flexibility into the traditional school classroom,” Beutner said in December. “All schools should be looked at with the same tough set of standards.”

And the district has hired the consulting firm Kitamba, which has helped districts implement portfolio-style strategies, to work on the reorganization plan, using money from private philanthropies, including the pro-charter Broad Foundation.

In a 2018 presentation obtained by Chalkbeat, Kitamba highlighted its work launching unified district-charter enrollment systems, new funding formulas, and new ways of measuring school performance for districts nationwide. The document is not specific to Los Angeles and does not discuss plans for the district.

“In no way does this represent what Kitamba is actually doing for Los Angeles Unified,” said LAUSD spokesperson Janelle Erickson. She did not offer details on Kitamba’s work for the district.

The district already has some aspects of the portfolio model in place. About 20 percent of public school students in Los Angeles attend a charter school, with LAUSD authorizing nearly 300 charters. A number of district schools are run by a nonprofit known as the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

A previous superintendent, John Deasy, allowed charter and nonprofit groups to compete to take over struggling schools or start new ones. (Research would later find that students in those schools saw their test scores drop, then bounce back.)

But during contract negotiations in 2011, the union won a guarantee that schools in the program had to employ unionized district staff — effectively ending the role of charters. And Los Angeles does not have a common enrollment system for district and charter schools.

“Despite Superintendent Deasy’s efforts, the parallel systems of an independent charter sector and a traditional school district remained intact,” Marsh and other researchers wrote in a forthcoming study.

That means there is still plenty for Los Angeles to do, portfolio supporters say — namely combining enrollment systems and intervening in or closing low-performing schools.

The local advocacy group Great Public Schools Now, which is backed by pro-charter philanthropies, is pushing for a portfolio approach. It’s already given additional funding to high-achieving district and charter schools, in line with helping successful schools grow and replicate.

“To the extent that our expansion creates the urgent need for [district] realignment and closures, I think we would be very supportive of that,” Myrna Castrejón, Great Public Schools Now’s then-president, told Chalkbeat in 2017.

Great Public Schools Now has worked closely with a number of school board members, according to emails obtained by Chalkbeat last month. That includes Nick Melvoin, who was elected with the support of charter school advocates.

“Schools shouldn’t necessarily be things we think of in perpetuity if they’re not serving kids,” Melvoin told Chalkbeat in December. He said he’s pushing for a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools.

(Research on the portfolio model is limited and has produced mixed results. Studies in Los Angeles have found that charter schools generally outperform district schools on state tests. At the same time, a study of California charter schools showed that they improved substantially after they unionized.)

The union’s concerns about charter schools and the portfolio model are not a focus of its contract demands, but they are deeply wrapped up in their members’ rationale for striking. That strike could happen as early as Thursday.

“These are issues that drive to the heart of the future of public education,” said Daniel Barnhart, a UTLA vice president. “Teachers are no longer simply thinking about the narrow confines of what is in a contract.”

That suggests a disconnect between the district and the union that is far broader — and more significant — than any particulars in the contract.

Public sympathy for teachers nationwide at the moment could put charter advocates in an awkward position if teachers do strike, noted Janelle Scott, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There really does seem to be a general sense of support for public school teachers and the kinds of difficulties of their work, their working conditions,” she said. At the same time, “There is a general risk of a strike, which is that the community turns against you.”

Meanwhile, another high-stakes showdown is soon set to take place over Los Angeles schools: a special election to fill the seventh seat on the divided school board in March. The last set of LAUSD races were the most expensive school board elections in U.S. history.

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?



This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.