Churning the School System
June 2, 2010

Brief finds fault with radical "portfolio approach" to school reform

Contact: Kenneth Saltman – (773) 325-4689;

EAST LANSING, Mi., (June 2, 2010) –A new reform approach, whereby school district leaders compile and run a "portfolio" of independently operated schools, is being used in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington D.C., and it is being considered by other districts. Yet little or no evidence supports the expansion of such radical experimentation, a new Policy Brief reports.

The brief, written by professor Kenneth Saltman of DePaul University in Chicago was funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The portfolio approach has unclear advantages, no proof of past success, and known high costs, according to Saltman. Yet it's been promoted by some education reform theorists as a vital and necessary solution to the problems especially of urban public education, and the Obama administration has signaled its support.

Explaining the concept, Saltman writes: "The district superintendent is imagined as a stock investor who has a portfolio of investments (schools)." These schools are run by different contractors, generally as charter schools. The superintendent "holds the investments that 'perform' (in terms of student achievement) and ends the contracts for (sells) those investments that 'don't perform.'"

Accordingly, Saltman continues, "the portfolio concept puts into place what has been increasingly discussed in educational policy literature as market-based 'creative destruction' or ‘churn.'" 

It's an idea that appeals to those who see market principles as useful to adopt within public schools. But Saltman's brief contends that the reform's advocates employ a double standard: they insist that test-based accountability measures show city schools have "failed," and yet they want the portfolio approach to move forward without being subjected to comparable scrutiny. "No expectation exists for the development of analytic tools capable of measuring the portfolio approach's effect on achievement, its central promise. This situation presents administrators and legislators with the difficult task of justifying ‘reform' with no supporting achievement evidence and no foreseeable possibility of such evidence."

And indeed, Saltman writes, there simply is no evidence to support the idea. Moreover, elements of the model, such as charter schools, have been found to be ineffective in raising achievement.

In sum, the portfolio district approach looks like a recipe for high risk and no clear reward. To date, there is little evidence to either support or reject it. Instead, Saltman recommends that policymakers considering the reform not do so without closely questioning its rationale, costs, potential unintended consequences, and likely resulting social conflicts.

Find Kenneth Saltman's report, Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of "Portfolio Districts" on the web at:


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