The Philadelphia School District's privately run schools - the largest experiment of its kind in the country - have failed to deliver higher test scores than the district despite costing an extra $90 million, a study released today says.
The analysis compared how district students performed on state and national tests during the last five years with students at the 41 schools run by the six private managers, including for-profit Edison Schools Inc.
"There's no evidence to proceed with the model of private management of schools, as is, that we have here in Philadelphia," said Jolley Bruce Christman of the Philadelphia-based Research for Action, one of two groups that wrote the study, the first substantial look at the district's private-management model since it began in 2002.
"There may be real advantages or benefits that parents can see that are not related to the standardized test scores that we looked at," Christman added. "But in terms of a blanket continuation of this model, I don't see evidence that that should happen."
Instead, 21 "restructured" schools that got additional math and reading time, teacher coaches, and other special attention while remaining under district management emerged as the best performers, the study found.
The report, also written by the Rand Corp. and funded in part by the Annenberg and William Penn Foundations, has touched off yet another debate - locally and nationally - over the effectiveness of privatization in public schools.
Proponents argued that the district's overall progress resulted from the competition generated by hiring private managers - although the study's authors said they had found no proof that competition mattered.
"It was the introduction of change that caused all schools to rise," asserted Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a proponent of charter schools and school choice.
Critics, however, cited the findings as further evidence that an $18 million annual cost has not produced the revolutionary results that some of the companies had said were possible.
"To me, it's a romance that just hasn't worked. It's not that they're doing worse, but they don't seem to be doing better, and they cost more. That's a serious challenge, particularly for a district that is facing a deficit," said Henry M. Levin, director of Columbia University's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.
Helen Gym, who has complained about increasing class sizes and cutbacks at her daughter's school, Powel in West Philadelphia, urged the districts School Reform Commission to heed the results.
"Anyone who is standing up and defending these private contracts can't be doing it for educational reasons," she said. "It's been five years, and they're not really defensible anymore. My daughter and her school are suffering for it."
But others, including district leaders, said the private managers couldn't be expected to do better than the district when they had been given some of the worst-performing schools.
"I don't think that's fair, because these were the worst schools. There was a determination by the commonwealth that in the worst-achieving schools they wanted to see new ways of approaching things, and that's exactly what happened," said James Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, the district's governing body, which commissioned the study.
The findings come as the commission is poised to decide whether to continue, modify or scrap the model, considered by many the core of its reform plan. The five-year contracts expire this summer. The private operators get $450 and $750 more per student than the district funds its schools.
A decision could come as early as March as the district, which has struggled with a deficit in recent months and still faces a $20 million gap, prepares its next budget. Two other studies, which are looking at measures besides standardized-test scores, are expected out in the next month.
"That study does not dictate what we're going to do," Nevels said. "Its results are information to use in our decision."
Nevels said the district also would consider other measures as it takes a comprehensive look at the schools run by the providers - Edison, for-profit Victory Schools, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Universal Cos. and Foundations, Inc. It also will consider giving some successful managers more autonomy, including more say in selecting staff and educational programming.
Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, cited Edison-run Shaw Middle School in West Philadelphia as a strong performer.
"You can't look at this monolithically," he said. "There are some that are clearly struggling, and there are some that are doing better."
Many of the schools had improved test scores over the five years, but did not outpace the district's overall gains. The report singled out two managers for poorer performance: Temple in math and reading and Victory in math.
Educators, parents and officials from both bristled at the finding.
"I don't believe the report," said parent Jeffery Smith, president of the Home and School Association at Duckrey School, which is near Temple's North Philadelphia campus. "It seems like every time a school gets something that's helping our students excel, they want to take it away."
Duckrey principal David Baugh said Temple had provided literacy coaches, writing centers and teacher training, among other benefits. He also cited test-score growth at the four schools managed by Temple. The percentage of students proficient in math has risen from 5.1 percent in 2002 to 35.3 percent in 2006. Reading scores increased from 9.8 percent to 24.2 percent, he said.
Benjamin Wright, who heads Victory's Philadelphia operation, said the company had begun using a new math program and had to train teachers.
"It will take us another three years to completely transform these schools and hand them back to the district. If we're not renewed . . ., the reforms we put in place here will be for naught. It's that simple," he said.
As the commission decides, it will have to weigh input from the legislature, which has earmarked $25 million each year to be spent on the six managers and other outside-management efforts. If the district cuts the managers, it could lose the funding.
"The conversation needs to occur on how to best use those resources," Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak said. "I won't make a blanket judgment. The report indicates that introducing competition might not be worth the additional expenditure per student, but this is only one form of analysis. We look forward to working with the reform commission in Philadelphia to more fully evaluate the effects of private management."
John Chubb, Edison's chief education officer, criticized the study, saying it failed to recognize the positive effects of competition, among other shortcomings. He said last night that Edison, which runs 20 of the schools, would challenge Rand and Research for Action to a public debate on the report.
"The district is much better than it used to be," he said. "All schools are better off. This should be viewed as a win-win."
But Brian Gill, a senior researcher with Rand, said there was no reason to believe the managers would exceed the district's growth in the future. He said there was no evidence to "make us think there are going to be positive results in the future."