Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rich DeColibus on Portfolio Districts: The New Trojan Horse

Rich DeColibus to Lisa Pogrebinsky
March 7, 2014
Dear Ms. Pogrebinsky,
While I don't know the particulars of your Collective Bargaining Agreement, nor the operational details of what exactly happens in "investment" schools, I did check around and some of what's now going on fits into a fairly detailed and scripted political plan to privatize public education. There have been intervention clauses in the Agreement for years, but the intent was always to increase the resources available to struggling schools; now, it seems, this appears to have been transformed into a twisted attempt to blame teachers for all ills, and use this philosophy as an excuse to dismantle the public school system in Cleveland.
The overall strategy comes from the political right and strives to create "portfolio districts."  ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), a beloved creation of the Reagan era anti-government and anti-union conservatives, assembles and disseminates legislative initiatives, mostly state level, in a variety of areas, not the least of which is a burning desire to privatize all public education. Public schools are always described as "failing" whether or not their test scores are, in fact, better or worse than local charter schools. In Cleveland, it's no secret the public schools are considerably better than most of the local charter schools; this data is clearly and easily established by recent State of Ohio test scores.
ALEC's not-too-subtle agenda involves passing legislation focusing on five ways to attack public education: (1) advocating vouchers; (2) advocating charter schools; (3) breaking teacher unions; (4) discrediting public schools, and (5) watering down teacher certification (for example, the Teach For America program). After you dissemble the flowery language and the extensive claims of how well this works elsewhere (it doesn't), the bottom line is focused on eliminating public schools and replacing them with charter or otherwise privately operated schools.
The portfolio approach is gilded in free market rhetoric and an unquestioning faith in "competition" to solve all problems. It assumes a successful manufacturing and marketing process of making and selling; for example, toothpaste should be transferred completely to the way schools should be run. Whether the overall education of Cleveland's children is really well served by a free market approach is deemed irrelevant and subservient to the purist ideology which drives the portfolio system of beliefs.
Here's how ALEC envisions it to work. Most administrative authority is retained by the central office, which implements Student Based Budgeting (SBB) at the building level.  The beauty of this concept is, when student achievement does not go up (remember, the goal is privatization, not better student test scores), the central office can place all blame on the schools, ignoring its responsibility to provide enough human and other resources to make whatever improvements are really necessary to help students succeed better.
After the student achievement fails to improve in a given building, the school is "churned" or, as pro-portfolio advocates like to say, undergoes "creative destruction."  (This is the actual term used in the literature!)  The current faculty and staff are dispersed elsewhere in the district (best case scenario) or simply terminated. A new charter school is then allowed to reopen in the empty building.  Needless to say, for a "new" school comprised entirely of teachers and others who have never worked together to be successful is rather unlikely, but that's OK in the portfolio version because it will simply be "churned" again after a few years.
This is not just my version of events.  Kenneth J. Saltman of DePaul University looked at the portfolio phenomenon a few years ago. Utilizing EPRU (Education Policy Research Unit, Arizona State University) and EPIC (Education and the Public Interest Center, University of Colorado), he analyzed some of the portfolio literature and related school reform efforts. Similarly, research-oriented peers in the field of educational statistics also have looked at portfolio-variant districts. The author can speak more eloquently about it than I can; here is an excerpt from his report [Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts]
The published policy literature advocating implementation of the portfolio model and its elements most often makes assertions without providing credible evidence for its claims. For example, all of the relevant six articles available from the scholarly database Academic Search Premiere write favorably of the portfolio model, but none of them either constitute or reference careful empirical study reviewed by a community of policy scholars. Much of such advocacy writing published about the portfolio model and its constituent elements is generated by authors housed in or connected to policy think tanks that tend to have political and policy agendas. Lacking to date are studies by independent scholars who are concerned with accurate information rather than with a result supporting a preconceived policy agenda.
There is much more but you catch the drift. The portfolio structure has nothing to do with student achievement, and everything to do with eliminating public education, rendering ineffective the local teacher union, advocating for charters and vouchers, and filling classrooms with enthusiastic and well-intentioned recent college graduates taking the equivalent of an internship until they figure out what they want to do with their lives for real.
I suspect your CBA needs some repair work if it allows the kinds of things to happen as envisioned by the portfolio model. Teachers are not the cause of poor student performance in any school I have ever visited; there is a wide-ranging set of interactions involving multiple factors and individuals in each case of student non-performance. The portfolio model simply ignores this entirely and casts all blame on the only individuals who do the real work of the system.
Rich DeColibus

Rich DeColibus, retired educator, is former president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. Ms. Pogrebinsky is currently running for that position.
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