A Glimpse Behind the Curtain

A comment and partial transcript of the remarks of Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite and the Philadelphia School Partnership's Mark Gleason from the panel "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia" held at the American Educational Research Association convention in Philadelphia April 4th, 2014

by Ken Derstine

April 8th, 2014

This is a slightly edited version of this article which appeared in Chicago's Substance News on April 8th, 2014.

Given the closed door for both the School Reform Commission and Philadelphia School Partnership, it is rare to hear the thinking that is going on about what they are planning. The panel on Friday at the American Educational Research Association was revealing on many levels. Everyone should listen to the audio of the entire panel.

This is a rare occasion when Hite and Gleason are not speaking in front of a strictly controlled audience. The disadvantage was that the majority of the audience were AERA delegates and therefore naive to some of the claims being made.

A lot was said during the panel, but the most significant was towards the end of the program. (This is where Gleason made the infamous “Dump the losers” comment.) I have made a transcript of this portion of the panel so it can be studied closely.

One of many notable things Gleason says is that SRC meetings should be more open and transparent — as if PSP meetings aren’t hermetically sealed!!

He also said his model for what the PSP plans for Philadelphia is the New Oleans Recovery School District. In September New Orleans will be one hundred percent charters! Like all promoters of corporate education reform, he skews data to fit his agenda. To say that the New Orleans Recovery School District is a great success can only be characterized as delusional based on a wish, not reality.

He reveals other shocking aspects of his mentality. His acceptance of the state takeover in 2001, and his reason Philadelphia should not have its own elected school board, shows a racist, colonial mentality towards urban schools which underlies the state takeovers of urban public schools in many states.

My gut reaction: Hite and Gleason could have been talking about quality control in an automobile factory. There is a total lack of consideration of the human in their plans and in the consequences of their plans.


What follows is a transcript of the remarks by Mark Gleason and Superintendtent Hite which occured towards the end of the panel discussion.

Participants included: 

Moderator: Jonathan A. Supovitz, University of Pennsylvania

William R. Hite, Superintendent, Philadelphia Public Schools 

Mark Gleason, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership

Hiram Rivera, Philadelphia Student Union

Kathleen M. Shaw, Research in Action

Lori Shorr, Office of the Public School Family and Child Advocate, City of Philadelphia

Paul Socolar, Editor and Publisher of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook 


Moderator Jonathan Supovitz:

 So Mark. I know that the Philadelphia School Partnership is playing a key role in trying to support some innovation in some of the schools. How are you deciding  in choosing and making decisions about where you are putting your resources?


Philadelphia School Partnership Executive Director Mark Gleason:

As many of you know I am a proponent of the portfolio strategy in  education. Before I give three or four points on that I just want to offer two thoughts on the governance question. 

One is, while it’s imperfect, I think the current state and city hybrid appointed School Reform Commission is probably the best model. Here’s what’s wrong with an elected school board. If you’ve been in Philly lately you know we are engulfed in a huge scandal right now about elected officials taking cash payments. There is a lot of evidence of that in Philly’s history and in urban politics in general. The smaller the race the more opportunity there is for abuse.

Secondly, I want to build on Hirim’s point. That said, a  huge problem with the current School Reform Commission structure is that they don’t deliberate in public. That does disenfranchise the stake holders. All of the debate that goes on, and I assume there is debate that goes on, happens in executive session. In SRC meetings we see Commissioners occasionally ask questions, but there is very little dialogue between Commissioners and then votes just happen. I don’t think that is the right way to run the school board and I think that is a huge opportunity for improvement in local governance. 

All right, portfolio. So the first thing I’ll say is when we look at multi-metric evaluation of schools in Philadelphia, obviously you can argue over what are the right metrics, but using using a multi-measurement system, we looked at top schools in the city. Sixteen of the top twenty-five schools in the city are less than twenty years old. That is the biggest argument I think for portfolio. That’s one of the reasons we are focused on investing in startups, investing in expansions, investing in turnarounds at the Philadelphia School Partnership. 

The problem with the traditional model of managing the School District is that it becomes very compliance heavy, a very bureaucratic system, and you lose sight of what really drives schools. Schools is a talent business. So where the focus needs to be is in attracting, training, and retaining great talent at the leadership level and at the teacher level. In a compliance culture school systems are not very good at that. 

The great example of portfolio is in New Orleans. So New Orleans after Katrina went almost completely to a portfolio system. Almost all of the schools in New Orleans are charters now. Here is what has happened since then. When that started New Orleans was in the second percentile in the state in academic performance. In about six, seven years it has moved to the forty-seventh percentile. Seven or eight years ago in New Orleans, seventy-five percent of the kids were in schools rated F on the Louisiana school performance measure. That number is down to seventeen percent. So we have seen system wide improvement.

Why does that happen and what makes portfolio go? Two things: there is very little administration. So Philadelphia is not the lowest in terms of administrative overhead. (Editor Note: Superintendent Hite had claimed earlier in the program that at two percent Philadelphia was lowest in administrative  costs.) The Recovery School District in New Orleans is far lower. There is nobody in central office managing schools. All you have is regulators. Folks who are trying to keep track of which schools are doing a good job and which aren’t. And they actually do that. So every year in New Orleans, three or four or five, it’s a much smaller city, keep that in mind, fewer schools overall, are being closed. The lowest performers are being closed on continual basis. So those resources get shifted into new models, innovative schools, new leaders coming into the city. Over time you are gradually raising that bar, as you close the lowest performers you are slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally, as Paul described it, you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.

The last thing I’ll say is on accountability. There is this notion that high stakes accountability is problematic. It’s true, I would agree, state reading and math tests are not a way of judging school quality. They are too simplistic. They don’t cover enough of the bases. However, when you use multi-metric systems, and Philadelphia has a pretty advanced multi-metric way of evaluating schools. It used to be called the School Performance Index. It included seventeen different measures. When you rank schools by their PSSA scores and by a lot of other factors, you end up with rankings that look very similar top to bottom. So they do tend to be fairly good proxies. 

But why are they high stakes? They are high stakes because when we are educating future generations of America, it is high stakes. In this city we spend three billion dollars a year, and as recently as eighteen years ago only forty percent of our kids were getting a high school diploma in this city. That is very high stakes and that is why accountability is needed. We have to get better at measuring school performance and that will come as we get better and better and more strategic about how we manage this portfolio content.


Moderator Jonathan Supovitz, University of Pennsylvania

So Superintendent Hite: You are leading a portfolio school system. What are the challenges for you in leading a diverse provider system?


Superintendent William Hite:

Thank you and thanks for the questions. So to my buddy Mark, and we don’t have enough time to actually debate many of the items, but I just have to say this: I could not disagree more with some of the comments, particularly about how we think about this work. There are many factors in New Orleans that we have to share so there is a fairer comparison about what works and, quite frankly, what doesn’t work and who’s left in schools that don’t have the opportunity to get into some of the new models. So we have to careful and cautious with that.

I think that as we think about portfolio as well, this is not just a conversation about district verses charter. I think we have to think about it more broadly. The way we thought about  it is that looking across all of the schools, and not just district schools, but all of the public schools that exist, schools that are receiving public dollars for education, and yet to look across that to see actually what is working.

I’ll give you a few examples. The fact that we had a school, it is called the Sustainability Workshop, but now it’s called the Workshop School, it is now a District high school option. What is interesting about that is that school was created by teachers. And it was created by teachers who, one thing I will agree with Mark, the compliance structure that is set up sometimes a school district says you can do these things, but not these things. The teachers actually stepped out of the District in order to create a model that works for students. We felt like it is really important to provide that model for more students and look how we can replicate and expand those types of programs. 

The three new high school design models that we are choosing next year to invest in are design models that are going to be special high schools for students, not criteria based, but they are going to focus on several groups of students. For instance, over age - under accredited students or students who are English language learners. Using a project based approach that actually moves away from a traditional system of Carnegie credits to a system that talks about skills and abilities.

 (A protest from the audience that little time is left for questions.)

And the other thing is that as we begin to think about this work moving forward it is really important to look at those things that work and those things that are replicated and expanded and to think about the portfolio as a larger sector. The problem with this, one of the questions was what do we see as the drawbacks, is if there is no accountability, no accountability framework, and an accountability framework is not just applied to District schools. It must be applied to every school that operates in this sector, the same accountability for all of the schools. 


Also see:

Gleason's call to close 'loser' schools infuriates public ed advocates
Daniel Denvir - Philadelphia Public School Notebook - April 6, 2014 

From AERA: The 'portfolio model' and where it's headed in Philadelphia
A transcript of the remarks of Editor and Publisher of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook - April 7, 2014.

Dump the Losers
Tamara Anderson - Examiner - April 7, 2014 

Philadelphia Education Town Hall with AERA and APPS
Tamara Anderson -Examiner - April 7, 2014 

Philadelphlia tries 'portfolio model' treating schools as if they were stock holding...Just as Chicago dumps the notion and fires its 'Chief Portfolio Officer'
Substance News - April 7, 2014

The new school reform model: 'dumping the losers'
The Answer Sheet - The Washington Post - April 11, 2014 

Talking Back to Mark Gleason
Defending Public Education - April 19, 2014 

Mark Gleason Turns 'Dump the Losers" into a Pseudoscience
Defend Public Education - December 16, 2014