School & District Management

What Helped in Philadelphia?

February 12, 2007 2 min read
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It’s been five years since the Philadelphia school district was taken over by the state and became a national laboratory for using outside groups to run schools. That milestone is being marked chiefly by disagreement over whether the experiment has worked.

A report this month by the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank, and the Philadelphia nonprofit organization Research for Action concluded that the academic progress produced by the six outside groups, which operate 45 schools, might not justify their $18 million-plus annual cost. Those schools improved significantly, about the same as district schools on average, the report said. But the schools that did the best were the 21 that the district restructured itself, with targeted improvements such as more diagnostic testing, regional staff-support teams, and teacher coaches.

The report is the first of three expected this month on how Philadelphia has fared under state supervision. The city-state panel that runs the district will consider the studies as it weighs renewal of the providers’ contracts.

John E. Chubb, the chief education officer for New York City-based Edison Schools Inc., which runs 20 of the schools, said the report’s conclusions aren’t justified by the data, which show that the restructured schools outperformed the district average for three years in mathematics and for one year in reading.

Further information on the report, “State Takeover, School Restructuring, Private Management, and Student Achievement in Philadelphia,” is available from the RAND Corp.

He said the study can’t properly evaluate a key question—the effect of the multiple-provider model—without comparing Philadelphia’s progress to that of other big districts that lack the competition, new ideas, and added capacity of the model.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 196,000-student school system, said he sees the district’s progress as the result of all of the various improvements put in place by the district and outside groups. He said he wonders whether Philadelphia would have been able to do as well with its own schools had the outside providers not been running some of the worst-performing ones.

In the end, Mr. Vallas said, he cares less about who has been managing the schools than about what they’ve accomplished.

“It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white,” he said. “It’s whether it catches mice.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week


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