School & District Management

Panel: Phila. District Should Question Private Management

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 01, 2007 4 min read
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Concluding that some privately managed public schools in Philadelphia have not delivered the same rates of improved achievement as those run by the city district, an independent committee is urging local education officials to consider shifting operation of some of the lowest-performing schools back to the district.

The recommendation from the Accountability Review Council, an independent panel established to monitor school improvement in Philadelphia, comes five years after a state takeover turned the city into a national laboratory for outside management of public schools. Its findings are similar to those released earlier last month by the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, and Research for Action, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization.

The school district is expected later this month to release its own detailed review of the privately managed schools that will examine factors beyond progress in raising test scores.

Test Scores by Type of School Management

All schools have improved their scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, but some have made greater gains.

*Click image to see the full chart.


NOTE: Grade 3 is included for 2006 only.

SOURCE: Accountability Review Council

The seven-member review council, in its Feb. 23 report, did not recommend abandoning the 185,000-student district’s experiment with both for-profit and nonprofit management, but did conclude there was “little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

Outside managers now operate 43 of Philadelphia’s schools at a cost of roughly $18 million a year. The largest provider, for-profit Edison Schools Inc. of New York City, runs 22 of the schools. The for-profit Victory Schools of New York City runs six. The city’s nonprofit school managers are Temple University; the University of Pennsylvania; Foundations Inc., of Moorestown, N.J.; and Universal Companies, a local redevelopment group.

After looking at this over a period of time, we are not sure that the additional dollars have made a difference in academic outcomes,” said James E. Lyons Sr., the president of California State University-Dominguez Hills, and the chairman of the review council. “Based on the fact that the private managers did get additional money, one might have expected to see academic outcomes far greater than those schools that did not get the additional resources.”

Overall, the report found, 52 percent of the city’s schools, including charter schools, made adequate yearly progress in 2006 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act—up from 9 percent in 2002.

Decision Looms

The School Reform Commission, the appointed city-state board that runs the district, must decide by this summer whether to renew its contracts with the six outside managers.

Mr. Lyons urged the commission to make decisions on a school-by-school basis and to look at factors such as school climate and staff stability. The review council did not recommend which of the privately run schools should be returned to district management, he said.

James E. Nevels, the chairman of the School Reform Commission, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he expected that the panel would decide to continue using private managers to run some schools.

Overall, Mr. Lyons said, the rates of improvement at the privately run schools were roughly the same as or slightly lagging those of the schools overseen by the district. The council’s report concluded that the best academic progress occurred in the 21 low-performing schools that the district had restructured on its own.

The council recommended that the School Reform Commission “undertake a major review of the schooling and organizational conditions that contributed to the academic successes of the district-restructured schools,” and use those lessons in other schools.

Further, the council urged the School Reform Commission to restore the Office of Restructured Schools, which managed the schools that the district itself overhauled, and reassign the lowest-performing privately managed schools to that effort.

“We raised that issue because it appeared to us that very positive things were going on in those schools,” Mr. Lyons said.

LaVonne M. Sheffield, the district’s chief accountability officer, said there have been no discussions about re-establishing the Office of Restructured Schools, but that it might be something the district would consider.

Shelly D. Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy group that opposed the city’s experimentation with private managers, said the Accountability Review Council’s report raised the right questions but needed to probe deeper.

“They said that there’s no silver bullet here and that decisions should be made school by school, and we think that’s the right approach,” Ms. Yanoff said. “But what I am concerned about is that there is so much emphasis on test results being the only measure of progress. I think we really have to look at the schools more deeply and develop other ways to think about how well the school is doing. Is the climate better? Is there staff stability? Those are harder questions.”

The review council also cited concerns that the district, despite its progress over the past five years, might fall short of some of its achievement goals, and recommended that the School Reform Commission consider modifying some of them.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Panel: Phila. District Should Question Private Management


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