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School & District Management Report Roundup

Edge Found for District-Run Schools

By Dakarai I. Aarons — April 15, 2009 2 min read

A new study of the Philadelphia schoolshas found that students in district-run schools posted larger test-score gains than those attending city schools run by private managers.

The study was conducted by Vaughan Byrnes, a researcher at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education.

Mr. Byrnes tracked the progress of test scores in reading and math in a group of 88 schools serving middle-grades students for 10 years, starting in the 1996-97 school year. The researcher went back to 1996 to examine the performance of schools both before and after the diverse provider model was implemented in 2002.

While the test scores of students in the schools run by outside groups, including both nonprofit and for-profit entities, also improved, the scores did not do so at the rate of those in schools operated by the district.

Some private-management officials have attributed the test-score results posted by district schools since 2002 to competition provided by the privately run schools, but Mr. Byrnes believes other variables helped produce the gains.

“... [I]t seems more likely that the large gains seen by the district were in response to the increased pressures under [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], and the centralized reforms it adopted in response, such as a coherent core curriculum, providing coaches and content leaders in the major subjects, improved hiring practices, and the restructuring of the some schools with the worst track records,” he wrote, referring to gains seen since 2002.

Earlier Studies Differ

Mr. Byrnes’ study is the latest of several that have examined the effects of the “diverse provider” model in Philadelphia public schools.

After the district was taken over by the state in 2002, the newly formed School Reform Commission appointed to run the schools contracted with outside groups to manage 46 of the city’s worst-performing schools.

Widespread debate has ensued about the efficacy of the approach and whether it has been worth the additional cost to the district.

A February study by Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University found Philadelphia schools run by for-profit companies outperformed district-run schools in math, and also did better in both mathematics and reading than schools that were managed by nonprofit organizations. (“Private Management in Philadelphia District Found to Yield Payoff,” February 25, 2009.)

The divergent studies come as Arlene C. Ackerman, the district’s superintendent, is moving to implement a new strategic plan that that calls for replacing underperforming schools with charter schools run by the district or outside providers. (“Philadelphia Leader Seeks Faster Change By Closing Schools,” March 4, 2009.)

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week

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