School & District Management

Research Group Rates Effectiveness of Educational Management Organizations

By Debra Viadero — April 24, 2006 4 min read
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Of the most popular organizations and companies that are hired to run troubled public schools, only one has accumulated a solid body of evidence to show that it does improve student achievement, concludes a consumer-style guide released this week by a Washington-based research group.

Researchers at the American Institutes for Research screened 940 studies on seven different educational management organizations to look for proof of whether the programs produce gains in student achievement. Only nine studies met the group’s strict definition for scientific quality and all of them focused on Edison Schools, a New York City-based for-profit company that operates 157 schools around the country.

But even that evidence was not enough to warrant Edison an effectiveness rating any stronger than “moderate” by the research group’s standards. No providers earned AIR’s top two ratings: “moderately strong” and “very strong.”

Read the “CSRQ Center Report on Education Service Providers,” available from the American Institutes for Research’s Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center.

John E. Chubb, the chief education officer for Edison, praised the report but called for caution in interpreting its findings. “This is still very much an activity that is in its infancy,” he said, referring to the use of outside groups to manage schools. “This [report] will be very useful in the hands of informed policymakers but another reaction to this is that policymakers could say, ‘There’s no evidence this works so let’s move on.’”

The researchers gave a “zero” effectiveness rating to four other for-profit groups: The Leona Group, L.L.C., based in Phoenix, Ariz., and East Lansing, Mich.; Mosaica Education of Atlanta, Ga.; National Heritage Academies of Grand Rapids, Mich.; and White Hat Management of Akron, Ohio. A “zero” rating meant that the studies they found weren’t rigorous enough to meet the researchers’ standards.

Two other groups-Imagine Schools, a nonprofit school management provider based in Arlington, Va., and SABIS Educational Systems, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based for-profit company-got no rating because the researchers could not find any studies to show whether their models improved student achievement.

A rating of “limited” was not given to any of the organizations or companies, and none of them were found to have a negative impact on schools, according to the study, “CSRQ Center Report on Education Service Providers (ESPs).”

‘Jury Still Out’

Steve Fleischman, the AIR vice president who oversaw the federally funded project, cautioned against using the ratings to conclude that the models don’t or won’t work. He said the “jury was still out” on the programs because evidence was still emerging on their effectiveness.

Also known as EMOs, educational management organizations are contracted to operate, start up, or provide comprehensive instructional and management services to schools. The seven models examined by the AIR researchers operate in 350 schools, which represent 60 to 65 percent of all the schools across the country that use such outside groups.

The study, produced by AIR’s Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center, is the second consumer guide that the research group has produced to help educators and policymakers weigh research and other evidence on programs aimed at improving student achievement. In 2005, the group produced similar ratings on 22 different comprehensive school reform models. For both reports, the group judged programs by standards that mirror the federal government’s definition of what constitutes “scientifically based research” in education. The set of criteria favors studies in which schools or students are randomly assigned to either experimental or control groups over other kinds of designs.

Besides vetting research on the programs’ impact on student achievement, the researchers examined findings to determine whether they foster family or community involvement in schools, the degree to which they provide the support and professional development that schools need to implement their approaches, whether their instructional designs are linked to research, and other characteristics and effects. The report also has extensive descriptions of the educational programs that each EMO offers.

Still, some experts who track EMOs felt the report lacked useful information.

Nancy Van Meter, a specialist on privatization at the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, noted that the new consumer guide contained less information than the research group’s earlier report on schoolwide improvement programs, partly because four of the organizations declined to provide information.

“I’m very troubled by the unwillingness of the majority of the providers to come clean and provide basic consumer information,” she said.

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