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?