Before Accepting the Portfolio Model, Shouldn’t We Check to See if It Works?

It is commonly expected that Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, will be announcing that some version of the “portfolio model” will be put in place somewhere in Michigan.  It likely that this model will be imposed on our most marginalized communities, because that’s essentially how colonialism tends to spread.

Before accepting this model, it would have been really nice if Snyder and friends would check into the evidence that shows whether or not the portfolio model does indeed work.

Part of this assumes, of course, that we know what we mean by saying something “works.” And within this assumed understanding are obscured questions: How does a system function?  Who does the system benefit? Who is hurt? Who are the winners? And who are the losers?

In this particular case, when determining whether or not it works, the question becomes, how does the portfolio model function as a system?

And, if we look at the portfolio model in this way, we find that it does work!

It works to dispossess communities from their commonly held social capital.  It works to provide much profit for those that own charters, publishing companies and those that produce educational software.  It works to benefit those who already hold power and are looking to extend that power.  So yes, it works.

However, there is little to no evidence that it works to benefit the students it purportedly is designed to benefit.

How does it dispossess communities from what has been commonly held and then is used to profit others?  Let me point you to the important writing of Kristen Buras, who has studied in-depth  the way that the portfolio model has functioned in New Orleans:

“Educational reforms in New Orleans are not designed to respond to oppressed communities or to enhance public school performance, even if they are often couched in such language. Rather, this is a feeding frenzy, a revivified Reconstruction-era blueprint for how to capitalize on public education and line the pockets of entrepreneurs (and their black allies) who care less about working-class schoolchildren and their grandmothers and much more about obtaining public and private monies and an array of lucrative contracts...These reforms are a form of accumulation by dispossession, which David Harvey defines as process in which assets previously belonging to one group are put in circulation as capital for another group. In New Orleans, this has included the appropriation and commodification of black children, black schools and black communities for white exploitation and profit.” (Emphasis added)

It seems a bit ironic that Governor Snyder has been palling around with former Louisiana Schools Chief Paul Pastorek (paid for by the Broad Foundation- kind of like some weird escort service) and receiving his advice through the Fall of 2014. So, although we have already experienced the dispossession brought on by the establishment of Michigan’s own state-wide Educational Achievement Authority, it is clear, and shocking, that the lessons available through the continued failure of the EAA have not been learned.

While this dispossession is bound to continue, there is little evidence that students have benefited as much as from the portfolio model system as others have.  The National Education Policy Center has put out a report written by Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia, and Huriya Jabbar of the University of California, Berkeley, entitled, Review of Two Presentations on the Portfolio School Model.  This report is important, because it actually looks at the evidence behind the so-called “New Orleans Miracle.”

The report aligns with Buras’s findings. As DeBray and Jabbar write, “Professor Lance Hill of Tulane, for example, described the perceptions of some local residents who believe they have lost democratic control of the schools. He wrote in a local blog in 2011:

The corporate education forces that advocate a free-market business model have developed a ‘beachhead’ strategy in New Orleans. Taking advantage of the evacuation of 90% of the population after Katrina, they set in motion educational changes that bypassed the elected school board and destroyed virtually all local democracy and accountability.” (Emphasis added)

For those who follow the EAA, this may sound familiar.

DeBray and Jabbar start their report by restating the positive claims of the New Orleans Recovery School District and the Achievement School District of Memphis, Tennessee. It then provides the context of teaching in New Orleans during the time leading up to their study (a crucial step that “no excuses” reformers refuse to consider- the “social context” that reforms occur within) and then continues on to evaluate the claims made by the two school districts.

Portfolio Model 2

On the purported student gains:

“The presentation makes several claims about student achievement in New Orleans, including the assertion that RSD schools outpace the state, displaying a graph with impressive growth from 2007 to 2013, and that New Orleans is closing the achievement gap. A greater percentage of African American students in New Orleans are proficient on state high-stakes tests than their peers across the state. However, whether these reported gains are due to the portfolio model or to demographic changes in the city overall is unclear. Researchers such as Gumus-Dawes et al. contend that the modest performance seen in the New Orleans community may be the result of student selection. Therefore, while the audience is led to assume that the improvements are due to the portfolio related educational reforms post-Katrina, it is not possible to make causal claims with these data.” (Emphasis added)

In other, words, though it is true that “modest gains” have occurred, it remains unclear what caused the gains, and the suggestion is that the gains may be due to the students who were selected for attendance in the new model.  (Hmm…) As the writers state, it is “not possible to make causal claims with these data,” though, in spite of this impossibility, the Recovery District has done so.

On school closures and accountability:

“The RSD has acted to close or transform low-performing charters. Since 2005, 11 charters have been shut down and two have changed governance.30 Therefore, this essential piece of the portfolio mechanism—closing failing schools—has indeed been accomplished. Yet the problem of reconstitutions and closures is a great deal more complex than these slides portray.
The ‘shifting the bell curve’ slide raises a larger question about the sustainability of continuous reconstitution by the RSD. Any district that accepts the portfolio/reconstitution and closure model must deal with the questions of where students go when schools are shut down and whether the educational quality will be higher. As Jennifer King Rice and Betty Malen wrote in their review of the literature on school reconstitution:

Reconstitution may enhance the stock of human and cultural capital in schools, but the evidence we reviewed does not establish that reconstitution is a dependable or effective mechanism for attracting and retaining large pools of highly qualified educators in low-performing schools or for enhancing social capital in those settings. Indeed, some studies reveal that reconstitution may deplete those critical resources.  School closures in 2012–2013 have been especially contentious and some reports by investigative journalists have reported that students are ending up in similarly failing
schools. (Emphasis added)

Again, this “reconstitution” of so-called “failing schools” will sound familiar to those following the EAA.  Though there is no evidence that this “reconstitution” does anything positive, (in fact, the evidence suggests that it has a negative impact on the all important and already frayed social capital) the portfolio model continues to “reconstitute.”

On improving “human capital.”  (I think “improving ‘human capital'” is code for making better teachers.  Because we know that “failing schools” are full of “failed teachers.” Please.):

“The presenters do not define what they mean by ‘improving human capital,’ and it is thus a questionable claim. Given what we know about post-Katrina human capital shifts, and a greater reliance on programs such as The New Teacher Project and TFA, it is unclear whether these teachers are all qualified to work well with students and whether they have had any significant impact on student learning in New Orleans. In fact, there is no system wide reporting of exactly who teaches in New Orleans, their background and qualifications, or their teaching practices, let alone impact studies. Furthermore, while programs like TFA bring college students with degrees from prestigious institutions, the research on their effectiveness is mixed, typically with small effects in either direction.” (Emphasis added)

Does anyone else think that it’s strange that this education reform movement, which has been so dependent on a  twisted sense of accountability, goes to great lengths to avoid accountability?

It actually works to destroy the locally held accountability of democracy by extracting schools from their community, and replace it with….what?



I’m left wondering.

The evidence suggests that it certainly doesn’t have to do with forgotten kids.

I don’t do DeBray and Jabbar’s report credence.  Please be sure to read the whole thing here:


3 responses to “Before Accepting the Portfolio Model, Shouldn’t We Check to See if It Works?

  1. I am so confused. When I first saw “portfolio” I imagined educators and students empowered to collect a portfolio describing and documenting real-world experiences and containing work samples, references/communications that demonstrated their progression as a learner and a collaborative young citizen…setting aside reliance on the big-box crap-for-the-masses standardized test data as evidence. I feel so dirty now. Like I’ve seen something I can’t un-see.

  2. Once again the other side has co-opted and hence spoiled a word that meant precisely what is described above. We may need a new word to describe the kind of high quality learning and self-assessment experience that portfolios-as-we-knew-them-to-be could provide.
    Thanks, Bill, for the deep dig on the “Portfolio Model” scam.
    In reading a fair bit about NOLA, it is also true that the post-Katrina corporate takeover has ensured consequences that were also part of the plan – that NOLA is not as “poor” as it used to be; many people never returned, and others have been pushed further beyond the city borders which has replaced housing “projects” with restrictive “town homes” that few can qualify or comply with if they do. They are almost carceral. And the reported crime stats have gone down and blah, blah, blah.
    Everything you assert is true, and this is by design…even the co-opting of the name of a sound educational practice, in order to make this diabolical, destructive “plan” sound appealing. I’m not feeling particularly clever at present, but I’d be all for renaming the “portfolio” scam, which will also have Wall St. appeal. Someone will have some ideas…this has to be reframed in a simple and clear way.
    George Lacoff (2004) had it right: “If nothing else, if we all can understand the lesson of ”don’t think of an elephant’ – that attacking our opponents’ frame reinforces their message-we will have taken a giant step forward.”
    New words will help. So will {r}evolution, which is also happening thanks to some great activist-educator thinking and writing. Thanks, Bill.

  3. The district where I taught for thirty years did the portfolio experiment decades ago and it flopped horribly. The only thing it achieved was giving teacher more useless paperwork and taking away time from instruction and learning.

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