John Thompson is a teacher and historian in Oklahoma. He writes often about education policy. In this post, he recounts the recurring failure of “the portfolio model,” a reformer favorite.

Matt Barnum’s three-part series on the national corporate reform campaign to expand the “portfolio” corporate school reform model provides a balanced appraisal of the movement which is very different than the alt-facts presented by reformers seeking privatization and union-busting.

Barnum’s first post starts with Indiana’s Mind Trust which “has called for dramatic changes to schools; recruited outside advocacy, teacher training, and charter groups; and spent millions to help launch new charter and district schools.” He then warns, “A Mind Trust–style organization may be coming to a city near you.” Barnum further describes “their idealized vision,” known as the “portfolio model,” with an enrollment system which helps families choose schools, and where the local district’s role shrinks to holding schools accountable, often (mostly?) by closing ones that supposedly don’t measure up.

The Mind Trust and other portfolio advocates have assembled teams of “quarterbacks” to contribute money to initiate the portfolio approach and recruit the same privatization team players – Teach for America, Relay Graduate School of Education, TNTP, and Stand For Children.

Barnum writes that it is unclear how much money has been invested in promoting portfolios. He notes that 1/3rd of the $77 million raised by the Mind Trust since 2006 came from national groups, but it is clear that “prominent philanthropies, including some that have also spent millions in recent years funding charter schools nationwide, are investing heavily.” In particular, he cites the Walton, Arnold, and Broad foundations. He points out the role of David Osborne’s book tour, funded by Walton, Arnold, and Broad, where Osborne “recently compared teachers unions’ opposition to charter school expansion in Massachusetts to George Wallace’s promotion of mandated school segregation.”

The thing that jumps out to me with Barnum’s first two posts is that the record of these political campaigns is mixed. And organizing an attack on unions and school boards is much, much easier than actually improving schools. This ambiguity is an even more important theme of his third piece, as well as the sources he footnotes. National reformers may believe that they can come into localities that they know nothing about and push through their privatization schemes. They may have tons of money to gamble on risky social engineering experiments, but they have little or no evidence that the tumult that they instigate would benefit students, and remain oblivious to the damage down by failed experiments.

Barnum cites conservative reformers and research from a range of scholars to puncture the public relations spin of big-bucks portfolio advocates. Even the cornerstone of the experiment, a common enrollment system, has prompted pushback by conservatives who note the way that it would promote more teach-to-the-test malpractice and by patrons who were confused by the systems. Even one of the most highly praised centralized enrollment system, in Denver, did not increase access of special education students to charters or have a statistically significant effect on the number of low-income students in charters.
Advice to the Arnold Foundation

Something similar applies to school closures which is the silver bullet being promised by portfolio advocates. Those who trust the increase in test scores in New Orleans attribute much of the gains to closing schools that were low-performing. As Barnum acknowledges, that only works when there are better schools available, and I would say that it would take more than a portfolio of silver bullets to create them in our most challenging districts. Barnum also links to his compilation of research which showed gains for students in closed schools in only 1/4th of the studies. He showed no examples of closures where displaced students benefitted but the outcomes in receiving schools didn’t decline.

And the question of costs versus benefits brings us to New Orleans, which is typically cited as the proof of the concept of portfolios. It is the only serious gripe that I have with Barnum’s wording. While he acknowledged that test score growth is a flawed metric, Barnum doesn’t mention why it is so much more problematic in evaluating NOLA and other experiments that focus unflinchingly on bubble-in accountability. Test score growth might or might not mean more learning, and as I hope any teacher would understand, it often means the learning of destructive habits. Personally, I can’t see any scenario where test score growth in a place that stressed such growth as much as the NOLA portfolio can stand by itself as evidence of meaningful learning that beneficial to students.

Regardless, Barnum cites a “national analysis [which] also found that New Orleans students made large academic gains between 2009 and 2015.” I wish he’d been more precise in noting that NOLA only had three years when the growth rate exceeded that of the old failing system. However, Barnum notes that the gains occurred when New Orleans was most generously funded, and was free to suspend or push out large numbers of students. He mentions the lack of clear evidence that gains can be sustained without those tactics, and that “more recent test scores in the city have suggested that schools are backsliding somewhat.” Corporate reformer Peter Cook called the decline “The Great NOLA Train Wreck.”

Barnum also notes “another concern: expansion of charters in New Orleans coincided with a decline in the number of schools offering prekindergarten.” And regarding NOLA, Newark, and elsewhere, he addresses the conflicts between outside reformers and communities.

Portfolio advocates should also explain the disappointing results of Memphis and Newark. Barnum writes, “A Vanderbilt analysis found that a state takeover effort known as the Achievement School District failed to raise test scores, even as it was dubbed a “national exemplar” in implementing the portfolio model.” I wish he’d also reported that Memphis became #1 as New Orleans became #3 in “disconnected youth,” or students out of school without a job.

Barnum notes a recent, revisionist (and I would say flawed) study which indicates the $200 million Zuckerberg reform investment in Newark was a “mixed success.” In a longer analysis he writes:

Journalist Dale Russakoff wrote a largely critical account of changes that focused on how a large share of the Zuckerberg money went to high-paid consultants. Since, media reports have largely suggested that the approach failed and that the money was wasted.

Given the thorough research by Russakoff, and the work of other excellent journalists, it’s hard for me to take seriously the special pleading by reformers who deny that Newark was a failure. It’s especially hard to fathom how social scientists would get away with spinning the conclusion that Newark portfolio might have worked because it might lead to future gains, but without offering evidence that the happy ending might occur, and “eventually alter system-wide productivity for future cohorts.”

Click to access newark_ed_reform_nber_w23922_suggested_changes.pdf

Finally, Barnum writes, “There is little or no rigorous research comparing gains in Denver, Indianapolis, and Washington D.C. to similar districts that have gone in a different direction.”

Denver was identified as having the largest achievement gap in the nation, indicating that like D.C. the gains may be due to economic growth and/or gentrification. And a recent scandal shows that D.C. still hasn’t shown the ability to curtail the cheating that portfolios would invariably encourage. And as far as Indianapolis, recent research can help estimate the gains that occurred when the Mind Trust and other corporate reformers invested in the city. Median income in Indianapolis is $10,000 or 1/3rd greater than that of the resource-starved Oklahoma City schools and 3rd grade scores are much higher. During the next five years, however, student performance grows at the same rate in both cities, 4.4 years.

Now that the claims of gains for portfolios have been largely debunked in Newark, D.C., Tennessee, and Indianapolis, and the extreme exaggerations regarding Denver and New Orleans cut down to size, what are the prospects for the new portfolio public relations campaign? We educators have seen this dog and pony show repeatedly. We need to keep reminding political leaders of the Billionaires Boys Club’s sorry record in education policy.