OVER the last 10 years, the School District of Philadelphia has been the most discussed, studied, analyzed and critiqued district in the country.
Researchers, educators and social commentators have focused their attention on what was undoubtedly one of the poorest-performing urban school systems in America - because it was the first to launch a full-scale school-reform effort.
As the Center for Education Reform observed, "After having struggled for decades to improve and spent millions to make piecemeal progress, it was not until Philadelphia adopted a transformative solution that the entire system changed for the better."
To lead the top-to-bottom overhaul of the schools, Philadelphia hired Paul Vallas, the former head of the Chicago School District, who's now leading the effort to rebuild the schools in New Orleans.
In crafting the Philadelphia reform model, Vallas saw collaborative partnerships with an array of outside providers to manage or support the district's lowest-performing schools as a way to invigorate an entire district.
While retaining control of under-performing schools, Vallas had the outside providers inject additional specialized resources, provide unparalleled support, equip teachers with new resources and ultimately improve student performance. EdisonLearning was one of the private managers that accepted the challenge of improving the lowest-performing schools.
When Vallas left Philadelphia to take on the challenge of New Orleans' schools, the Philadelphia district was already making strides from being one of the worst urban districts in the nation to one of the most improved. The commitment of time, resources and plain hard work produced solid advances in student proficiency and achievement - a testament to Vallas' vision and dedication to education.
But today the added value brought to Philadelphia's schools by the outside providers is still being questioned, challenged and studied. At a time when a new president is promoting innovation and excellence in America's schools, and channeling unprecedented federal resources to advance new approaches and new choices in education, there are still those who resist change even though they know it can make a difference in the classroom.
In a study in the May issue of the American Journal of Education, the author claims that students at Philadelphia's privatized schools made strides on state exams - but pupils at district-run schools made bigger ones. And this same study criticized the work of Harvard's Kennedy School researchers who, in research conducted over six years, determined that students in the Philadelphia schools managed by outside providers gained more than a half-year's learning as compared to the district-run schools.
TO FURTHER attest to what was begun in Philadelphia by Vallas, and the many others committed to truly reforming U.S. schools, the 2008 Pa. System of School Assessment test results show that city schools partnering with private providers like EdisonLearning improved student performance by nearly twice the amount as those run by the school district.
As President Obama noted in his recent address on education, "For decades, we have been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline."
The president is aware there are far too many students being taught in classes very much like the ones their parents and even grandparents attended, not benefiting fully from new research, technology and advances in education. As Obama clearly articulated, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens."
Education reform, as advanced by Vallas and many others nationwide, is equipped to help students succeed in a new world - where educators have the capacity to innovate and do what's best for student academic achievement. *
John Chubb, senior executive vice president for development at EdisonLearning, is the editor of "Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child" (Roman and Littlefield, 2005).