Edison Schools Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools, is posting achievement gains that are on par with, and sometimes exceed, the gains made by students attending comparable district-run schools, a study released last week concludes.
But the study, conducted for Edison by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., found that it took Edison schools at least four years to match or exceed those average achievement gains in reading and mathematics.
And for “conversion schools”—previously run by a district and turned over to the company to manage—student achievement dropped during the inaugural year. It took five years, RAND found, for conversion Edison schools to post test-score gains that at least matched those of comparable schools.
Founded in 1992 by the entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, Edison runs both charter schools and what it calls “partnership” public schools under contracts with districts seeking to turn around low-performing schools. Its whole-school improvement design emphasizes research- based curricula, collaborative leadership, and the use of data to track student performance and hold teachers accountable.
The company managed 103 schools in the 2004-05 school year, enrolling roughly 65,000 students. About 60 percent of those schools were regular public schools converted to Edison schools; most of the others were charter schools, while a few were managed under contracts with states.
“Inspiration, Perspiration, and Time: Operations and Achievement in Edison Schools” is the most comprehensive evaluation to date of the New York City-based education management organization’s school improvement model. RAND, an independent think tank, began the $1.4 million review in 2000. Its researchers evaluated state test scores in reading and math in nearly all schools the company has operated and visited 23 elementary schools to see how the model was working.
John Chubb, Edison’s chief education officer, said that the report shows that under the right conditions—clear lines of responsibility for the company and the school district and a supportive partnership—Edison can improve student achievement.
“A district needs to understand that it could be very successful or very unsuccessful, depending on how they do the contract,” he said.
Fidelity a Plus
The study, released Oct. 11, looked at data on reading and math for nearly all Edison schools and a sample of schools identified by the researchers as comparison schools.
It found that achievement gains in some schools managed by the company were ahead of those in comparison schools. The study relied on school-level data, rather than data on individual students, because student-level information wasn’t available for most of the districts included in the analysis.
From 2002 to 2004, the study found, the average proficiency rates in Edison schools increased by 11 percentage points in reading and 17 percentage points in math, while a matched set of comparison schools serving similar student populations saw gains of 9 percentage points in reading and 13 percent in math. The Edison schools’ advantage was statistically significant only in math, the report says.
The researchers say that the challenges faced by schools under the first year of Edison’s management appeared, in some instances, to be partly attributable to local opposition to Edison.
According to the authors, the schools that were more faithful to the Edison model, with a broad curriculum that included fine arts and foreign languages, tended to get better results. Edison schools also were more successful if they operated free of constraints such as teachers’ union contracts, the report says.
“Given sufficient time, achievement trends in Edison schools generally move upwards, particularly when the approach is faithfully followed,” said Laura S. Hamilton, a co-author of the report.
Yet the report concludes: “We cannot make strong predictions for prospective clients about whether they will achieve better long-term results with Edison or with an alternative approach. Nevertheless, Edison’s improving trends are encouraging, and some schools have clearly done well under Edison management, making it clear that Edison is capable of producing favorable results.”
Nancy Van Meter, the director of the American Federation of Teachers’ Center on Privatization, said the study shows that Edison schools have produced unimpressive results.
Edison has billed itself as “the complete product” to boost achievement in struggling schools, she said, but the report shows that its model is inconsistently implemented and falls victim to common problems in education—the difficulty of hiring dynamic leaders and creating a positive culture for learning.
The RAND report’s findings put another “nail in the coffin” of the education-management-organization improvement model, said Marc Dean Millot, the editor of School Improvement Industry Weekly, a Web-based trade publication that favors the introduction of market forces in education.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Analysis Finds Gains in Edison Schools, But Model Is No Quick Fix