Philadelphia students who attend public middle schools managed by outside groups are making learning gains that generally are no greater than than those of their counterparts at regular district-run middle schools, according to results from a study of that school system’s improvement efforts.
The study, which was conducted by a pair of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was released here this week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a Washington-based group representing 25,000 scholars.
The findings are important because they come as policymakers are increasingly turning to outside groups to manage troubled public schools. Just last month, Maryland state school officials, citing a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind law, announced controversial plans to take over 11 failing middle and high schools in Baltimore and turn them over to outside management groups.
Douglas J. Mac Iver, the lead researcher on the Philadelphia study, which he is conducting with his wife, Martha Abele Mac Iver, said their results suggest such strategies may be off the mark.
“Who’s in charge doesn’t make nearly as much difference as what’s happening in the classroom, and what kind of professional development, coaching, and supports are there to allow progress to happen,” said Mr. Mac Iver, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins.
Philadelphia’s experiment with “educational management organizations,” or EMOs, began in 2001 after Pennsylvania state leaders and city school officials negotiated a “friendly takeover” of the 210,000-student system by the state. As part of the bargain, 45 schools were to be run by private nonprofit and for-profit entities. The EMO with the most schools in Philadelphia is Edison Schools Inc., a New York City-based company that manages 22 schools in the district.
Other for-profit providers, local universities, and community groups also run some of the city’s middle schools and K-8 schools.
At nearly the same time that the private groups were stepping in, though, the district also began converting some of its elementary schools into K-8 schools in an effort to create smaller, more personalized learning environments for middle-years students.
Paul G. Vallas, who became the district’s chief executive officer in 2002, also ushered in a districtwide core curriculum that includes pacing guides for teachers and strong guidance in the form of coaches and added professional-development sessions, some of which take place on Saturdays.
In their study, the Hopkins researchers tried to take all those improvement efforts into account. They focused in particular on studying successive waves of students, beginning in 1999, as they moved from 5th grade to 8th grade. The research team also made statistical adjustments to account for socioeconomic and achievement differences among students attending the different types of schools at the outset of the experiment.
All other things being equal, the researchers found, the students in the externally managed schools made nearly the same gains in mathematics, on average, from 5th to 8th grade, as did the students in district-managed middle and K-8 schools.
For Edison-managed middle schools, the results were complicated. Eighth graders in the Edison-managed middle schools learned no more math than 8th graders in the district-run middle schools. But in the small number of K-8 schools that Edison manages for the district, 8th graders made greater achievement gains in math and reading.
In reading, though, students in the Edison-managed middle schools appeared to be slipping compared with their counterparts in both district-run middle schools and schools run by other EMOs.
“Privatization has been an expensive experiment in Philadelphia,” the authors conclude in their report. “So far, this experiment has not paid off by producing consistently better math-achievement gains in the privatized schools than in the district-managed schools.”
But Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia district, expressed support for the schools run by outside providers in an interview last week.
“They’re not outperforming district schools, but their improvement is pretty solid,” he said. Mr. Vallas also noted that both the EMO-run schools and those operated by the district were making gains that outpaced those of the state as a whole.
John E. Chubb, the chief education officer for Edison Schools, said the researchers had essentially asked the wrong question. The district’s goal in inviting in outside providers to run its “very lowest schools,” he said, was “to bring in new ideas and new energy and to generate healthy competition within the district.”
“The hope was that this would create energy and cause all schools to rise by substantial amounts,” Mr. Chubb said, adding that Philadelphia’s test-score gains had outpaced those of many other urban districts in recent years. “Several years into the innovation, what you find is that the district’s expectations have basically been fulfilled.”
Whole District Improves
As for the K-8 conversions, the researchers found that students who’d been taught in those schools also failed to outgain their counterparts in regular middle schools or in older, long-established K-8 schools on math tests. But the data on more recent cohorts of students moving through those schools suggest that the pace of achievement gains is picking up, Mr. Mac Iver said.
Part of the explanation for why neither the EMO-run nor the newer K-8 schools are standing out in terms of achievement, the authors say, may be that their academic gains have been overshadowed by the overall progress the district is making with its curricular-improvement efforts. The gains made by the last two waves of students—pupils who left 8th grade in 2004 and 2005—were larger than they were for those who came earlier. What’s more, they occurred in all types of schools. “The biggest story is, once the centralized curriculum was introduced, the whole district started doing better,” said Mr. Mac Iver.
Some of the Edison schools may have faltered, he added, because they were using instructional programs other than the centralized curriculum.
The Hopkins study was financed by the National Science Foundation. Mr. Mac Iver said he and Ms. Mac Iver, an associate research scientist, plan to continue following the district’s improvement efforts.