“Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One

When I first read the term “portfolio” in an official document put out by the Baltimore City Public School System, I pictured an artist’s portfolio. Then my brain did a little Rubik’s cube turn. The word wasn’t coming out of the art world. It was borrowed from the world of finance and investing.

The document bears the name of Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer.

Pause there: Chief Executive Officer. Alonso is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. Call a school superintendent a CEO and, just like that, you turn a government entity into a corporation. The highest aim isn’t to do whatever it is your office is responsible for doing – in this case, educating a city’s young people. It’s to turn a profit.

What’s in the BCPSS portfolio? Schools. Our CEO is keeping the ones that perform and dumping those that don’t. What constitutes “performance,” at least right now, isn’t measured in dollar gains and losses. It’s measured in test scores – the currency of the public school market. Its measured in the percentage of students who are passing state tests.

Critics of education reform – the most outspoken of whom has been education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch – say testing and choice are undermining the American public school system. Whether or not you’re a fan of test-based accountability or vouchers or the charter school movement (or even of Diane Ravitch), it’s difficult to argue that test scores say very much about what’s gone on in a particular classroom. What is clear is that performance on tests is being used to justify significant decisions about whether or not to close individual schools and give merit pay to individual teachers.

In Baltimore City, more than two dozen public schools have been closed since 2007 with more slated for closure. An even higher number of charter schools have been founded. And some of them have been closed.

My question isn’t whether those closures were needed. My question is whether we’re using the right metaphor. Are schools stocks? Is the system a portfolio?

In the world of investing, ads for mutual funds, stocks, and bonds are always accompanied by this caveat: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s a warning to investors – especially beginner investors – to resist the impulse to chase high returns. (Click here for a primer on “performance chasing” by Joshua Kennon.)

It would be great if school system CEOs would repeat that to themselves like a mantra. As “stakeholders” in the education of our children and our nation’s public, we might want to repeat it to ourselves, too. Here’s how that might sound:

  • Think it’s a good idea to close a school because passing percentages are low? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Tempted to weight your portfolio toward charter schools because a few have raised test scores dramatically and seem to have narrowed the achievement gap? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
  • Won’t look at your neighborhood public school because only 85% of students are proficient in reading? Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If these analogies don’t work, it’s because the public school system is not a portfolio. Schools are not companies. Test scores are not currency. Though it has become serious business to think as if they are.

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System gives an account of when American public school leaders started thinking this way. It’s an important book to read right now. Hers is an important voice. But it’s up to us – parents and guardians, students and teachers, principals, taxpayers, school system employees and advocates for reforms that work for all students – to evaluate whether treating our public schools like stocks is a good idea.

What do you think?

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14 Responses to ““Portfolio”: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One”

  1. I think we should think of schools not as a business in which we are shareholder, but instead stake holders! We all have a stake in our neighborhood public schools, whether we choose to send our children there or not. They are a benchmark for whether we value the neighborhoods we live in and wish to support our local community.. Bussing was surely the worst idea anyone came up with in the past: it weakened the entire system under the guise of democratic integration. Choice and change are not exclusive.

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  2. @Jeff, my best friend’s mother was a public school teacher in the Bronx in 1998 and I can verify your blanket statement – she often lamented not being able to teach her kids, who were invariably poor, and usually from Puerto Rican and Domincan families. But the context of her words is key, her full statement was reliably, “I can’t teach my kids when my school has no working air conditioners/because they’re not getting meals at home, they’re starving by 10am/when there isn’t a parent who is willing to come to a teacher conference…” THAT is indeed something to find offensive.

    As a nation our treatment of children is criminal, however it is far easier to blame teachers than to address tax rates that would be non-starters in the eisenhower era, wages that have quite literally stagnated for decades and mass deindustrialization that has left cities like Baltimore barren of jobs. I am not a teacher, I don’t know how they do it, frankly my mother was a sickly wreck after having a knife pulled on her in the NYC public school system by a 12 year old. I am friends with many who have not given up hope that they can impact the lives of poor urban children. These teachers are career educators, people with over a decade of teaching under their belt, as opposed to the TfA model where teaching is a notch on a resume – no offense to any Teach for America folks out there who realy are lifers. It just seems that teaching is an art, one that requires years to hone your craft.

    But to address Edit’s post, education has been the next frontier in capital markets for years. I am greatly fearful of a public education system that has all teachers teaching to tests administered by Testing corporations. Such a trend disservices everyone, including my daughter, who will be lucky enough to attend a strong public school with an active pta and fewer children coming from poverty. Yet is the “reformers” have their way, her education will consist of learning to fill in bubble sheets. Bill Gates, one such “reformer” has never EVER taught 13 year olds in the south bronx, or Baltimore, or even Brentwood. So how did he become an expert on best practices in teaching? Because of the value we place on his ability to steer a company. But the central point I think remains, is a school a company?

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    • Claudia – I want to meet your friends!

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      • I think Yyou’d find the ideas of one of my closest teacher friends quite interesting, he actually teaches at a charter in your neighborhood (Independence High School). He’s taught in Baltimore City Public Schools for over 10 years. The prism through which he views charters is a bit different from the norm that’s currently in vogue, it’s sort of the reverse of it. In his view charters shouldn’t be the solution or fix for schools if their goal is to offer the “good” kids to learn in a different environment away from the at risk kids. Instead, he teaches at a specific type of charter, a small school that tries to serve the needs of the few at-risk kids who would be disruptive and unable to learn in a “traditional” school environment. Because many teachers will say that even when they’re teaching in poor communities, their classes aren’t filled with kids who won’t learn, but rather, a select few who disrupt class activities to the detriment of everyone else.

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  3. The description of a system schools as “Portfolio” bothers you more than the fact that 60% of Baltimore’s kids can’t read or write at proficient levels? Schools are not companies? What are they then if not a corporation, and institution, a collective, or, yes, a business? The problem with people who resist the influence of business-types invovlved in education is that they have no answers themselves for poverty. In fact, all of the public educators that I came across prior to 1998 or so, believed that it was impossible to educate poor kids, particularly minorities. Talk about sublte bigotry.

    Now that offensive nomenclature has assaulted your sensibilities, you are up in arms. Why weren’t you offended before when teachers widely believed that “You can’t teach THOSE kids”?

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    • Thanks for writing in. You raise a number of rhetorical questions, and I feel I’m not meant to answer. So here are some questions you might think about as I ponder yours: Are the new managerial-style school leaders doing what they’re doing to solve poverty? Can the corporate growth model that sees poverty as an “externality” be counted on to fix that problem?

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  4. A great post. I love your wit and your grit.

    Is closing a school a way around firing ineffective, older teachers? The problems in large public school systems are so big and our solutions are so ugly, inelegant. There are teachers who aren’t doing what they could or should, but it’s so hard to fire them. If we just close a school, then we can throw up our hands in despair…

    I hate the corporate analogy, but I don’t have a better one to replace it with. And I do understand the frustration–and sometimes feel it–when you see gross problems and wonder how a system can be so bloated, so ineffective….

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    • Thanks for your comment. I’ve taken a two-pronged approach to working through my frustration with the system. One is this blog. The other is making a commitment to organize my community to help my neighborhood public school thrive. (Click around this blog for some posts on that.) It’s incredibly important to me that every American – not just parents – thinks about what we’re doing when it comes to education policy. We need to be thoughtful about the models we’re using, the analogies we’re making, the roots of terminology that we’ve come to take for granted. It’s also important that parents think about the ramifications of the choices we make about schools. One investor divesting from a company on the stock exchange won’t kill that company. A school system divesting from one of its schools will. One parent moving to the county or starting a charter school won’t kill public education. A tide of parents running from neighborhood public schools will. I want to help turn the tide.

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  5. Perhaps this is a tangent to your post, but it’s the part that got me riled up. School choice is killing public education? Well, maybe, but it’s the choices that are made by the wealthy elite that are doing it, not charters. So, let’s get rid of school choice from the top down. No more schools that you can go to only if you have money – private and parochial. Then, let’s get rid of wealthy school systems that you can buy your way into by buying a new home. Then, homeschooling, which only single income, dual parent homes where there’s a level of education and savvy that allow one to become a full-time teacher for their kids.

    Imagine if al of those folks saw that the quality of their kid’s education were tied to all the kids in this country – rich and poor, black and white, special needs and gifted and talented. You get that to happen and the whole charter movement would disappear. BUT…until you ask the wealthy to give up their choices, it is totally unfair to saddle parents and kids in certain neighborhoods with a mandatory, dangerous and failing education.

    After spending the first five years of my kids education in a stagnant, failing school system, change, for me, was a great thing. Is the business analogy the best? Probably not, but it sure beats staying with the cronyism that had no interest in satisfying parents or students.

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    • A parent – Thanks for writing. “Choice” is another vocabulary word I’d like to unpack. Stay tuned.

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      • Choice seems like a totally appropriate word to me. Choice means you have options and you pick one. If you have the money, selecting a private or parochial school is a choice. If you have the grades to attend a City-wide school, that is a choice you can make. If there is a charter that you want your child to attend and there’s a seat for you and you send them there, that is a choice you have made. It’s not a choice when a school says you’re child can’t attend here because we can’t deal with his or her needs, for example no elevator so no kids in wheel chairs. That’s exclusion. It’s not a choice if a school administrator looks up your address on a map and says you go to school #123. That’s an assignment.

        Seems like standard, non-doublespeak English to me.

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