Competition between public and privately managed schools in Philadelphia over the past two years has allowed all public school students to benefit from best practices and has led to overall achievement gains for Philadelphia students that are dramatically above the state average. The average test-score gain in Pennsylvania on the 2004 Pennsylvania System of Schools Assessment (PSSA) was five points in reading and six points in math, according to data released by the state Department of Education on August 24. The School District of Philadelphia exceeded those rates, posting average gains of 10 in reading and 10 in math.
The gains achieved in Philadelphia are among the highest of any of the nation's largest school districts, according to the Council of Great City Schools. Moreover, the gains in student achievement occurred in contracted "partner" schools as well as traditional public schools, providing the first substantial evidence that the city's public-private school management experiment, aimed at turning around the district's lowest-performing schools, is working.
"Today's announcement underscores the promise of the partnership management model, which only two years ago was viewed as controversial and potentially volatile," said James E. Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, which directs the Philadelphia school district. "The results show that each partner's unique approach under the District's managed instruction model has contributed to today's success."
In 2002, the state of Pennsylvania took over the School District of Philadelphia and appointed the School Reform Commission led by Nevels, who hired Paul Vallas as the District's CEO. The commission's most controversial reform targeted 64 of Philadelphia's lowest-performing schools for special intervention. Forty-five of those schools were partnered with a for-profit or nonprofit education provider. Edison Schools was assigned 20 of those 45 schools, making it the district's single largest partner with more than 12,000 students. The other 19 schools were partnered with the school district and received extra resources and special interventions.
Pennsylvania's annual Adequate Yearly Progress report (AYP) showed 160 of Philadelphia's 265 schools met AYP standards in the 2003-2004 school year, up almost three-fold from 58 schools the previous year. Outside management partners run 23 of the city schools making the AYP list.
Vallas gave considerable credit to Philadelphia's education partners for the district's success, saying they were "a key part of the school district's dramatic turnaround." Besides Edison Schools, the district's partners are Foundations Inc., Victory Schools, Universal Companies, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
"The partnerships afford our students the ability to take advantage of educational alternatives while the District maintains a level of instructional consistency, as the EMOs [Educational Management Organizations] understand and approve of our instructional model," said Vallas. "The cooperative strategy allows the District to work with its partners to determine the best means to effect positive results for today and through the long term."
The case of Edison Schools demonstrates the usefulness of analyzing gains made by low-performing students, rather than just measuring absolute student proficiency rates.
Twelve of Edison's 20 schools made AYP on this year's report, up from just one school last year. However, on the 2004 PSSA tests, Edison's Philadelphia schools posted an average annual gain of approximately 10.2 percentage points in fifth- and eighth-grade students scoring at proficient or above in reading, with a corresponding gain of approximately 9.6 percentage points in math. In the years prior to the Edison-District partnership, those same 20 schools had averaged annual gains of less than one-half of 1 percentage point.
Edison also had the largest increase in the percentage of students scoring at proficient or above, and the largest decrease in the percentage of students scoring "below basic." In addition, the state Department of Education data show that:
Of the 64 schools targeted by the District for extensive reforms, 21 made AYP for the first time in 2004. Edison produced more than half those 21 schools (11 of 21), even though it operates less than one-third of the targeted reform schools (20 of 64).
In reading, the Edison-District partnership schools reduced the percentage of students at the below-basic level at four-and-a-half times the state rate.
In math, Edison-District partnership schools reduced the percentage of students at the below-basic level at four-and-a-half times the state rate.
In addition, Edison helped raise student achievement for the entire School District of Philadelphia by prompting the district to adopt Edison's comprehensive benchmarking system for increasing student achievement. Edison's benchmark testing program, aligned with the state's assessment system, has an instant feedback loop that allows teachers to immediately know their students' academic weaknesses and tailor their lesson plans to meet student needs.
The School District of Philadelphia adopted a similar benchmarking program, implemented through a contract with Princeton Review and SchoolNet, to assess students every six weeks for their progress toward state grade-level standards.
For more information ...
The August 24 news release from the School District of Philadelphia, detailing its 2004 PSSA test score results, is available online here.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.