Academics, teachers and Ivy League scholars from around the country are in the final days of the American Educational Research Association's (AERA) annual conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
But the research forum turned somewhat testy during "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia," where a comment about "dumping the losers" — referring to low-performing schools — was made by Philadelphia School Partnership Executive Director Mark Gleason.
In context, Gleason was describing the "portfolio model" of school evaluations, named after the idea of a stocks portfolio.
"As you close the lowest performers, you're slowly raising the bar. So that’s what portfolio is, as Paul [Socolar, Philadelphia Public School Notebook editor] described it, you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect from our schools," Gleason said during the talk on Friday.
Superintendent William Hite also spoke and seemed to respond to Gleason's wording of the issue.
"I could not disagree more with some of the comments about particularly how we think about this work," Hite said.
Helen Gym, a leader of Parents United Philadelphia, who saw the talk, also criticized Gleason's comments.
"The 'losers' comment shocked a lot of people," Gym said. "It's not how you think about schools. ... Are they losers, or are they simply in need of a different metric? You're not thinking about a child in terms of what they need, but you're thinking about them in terms of test scores."
Gleason later apologized for the comment, but pointed out that he was repeating the words of Socolar, who had spoken previously.
"That wasn't my phrase. That was Paul Socolar's phrase. It's not the language I would typically choose," Gleason said. "It's an unacceptably inflammatory phrase and I shouldn’t have used it."
But Gleason stood by his comments, and his later comment that "schools don't have the right to exist."
"The basic right of public education is the right of every student to a good education, it's not the right of a school to exist," Gleason said. "Nobody wants to close schools. But what makes me upset and what makes a lot of people upset is that we have students going to schools that are not serving them well."
The "portfolio" perspective in general means a strategy of looking at public, private, parochial, and charter schools together.
As Socolar defined it, "The term is borrowed from Wall Street. You’re going to hang onto the successful companies in your stock portfolio and you dump the losers."
But Gym questioned "portfolio" logic.
"They close down schools in communities, you're just shifting around students. They don't move on to better schools," she said.
Gym pointed out that closing schools has resulted in Philadelphia neighborhoods with no public schools.
"They're saying nobody in North Philly, Germantown or Pennsport has the right to a public school. You need to move out, pay for private or go charter," Gym said.
Audio of the talk was posted on Soundcloud. Gleason's specific comments are made after 1:07:30.