Privatization of school management is working well in Philadelphia, argues Lisa Snell of Reason Foundation.

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.

Edison-managed schools did so well that the district-run schools adopted Edison’s benchmarking system.

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.

Both privately managed and district-run schools are posting higher scores.

The PA state average score on the 5th grade math PSSA rose 40 points this year, from 1340 to 1380. This does not mean that our children are learning more math. A 5th grade student can get a perfect score on the math PSSA without doing multi-digit division without a calculator.

What is the perfect score on this test? How much of what is tested (including factoring & single-digit division, I hope) can they be not getting and still make 1380?

Being able to figure factors of one and two digit numbers is critical to algebra, and I think everyone should learn algebra. But you do not need long division for this. You do not even need long division to find out if your calculator is dividing correctly, just the long form of multiplication.

IIRC, I learned long division in the 4th and 5th grades. I did drills until I can still remember how to do it after 40 years. But the only time in the last 30 years that it’s been necessary to know that algorithm was when an engineering class required designing a computer divider circuit. That’s not exactly a mainstream requirement. And of course, to design that circuit, pencil and paper division methods were only a guideline. We had to pick them apart and figure out how and why they worked for decimal numbers (something I doubt my 4th-6th grade teachers ever understood), transform it to work on binary numbers, and transform it further so it could be turned into circuitry.

You know, while I applaud this situation, I wonder if it could be applied to high school. However, I realize, that one of the main reasons that kids fail in high school is that they never got the basics that they needed from grade school. Eventually, without the base to build upon, the student doesn’t understand much of anything and figures out (rightly so) that school is just a waste of time for him/her and drops out. Almost as bad is the student who just gets by (C-, D’s and an occasional F), graduates and figures out they don’t have the skills to be employable.

Public or private, I’m happy that these kids seem to be on the road to getting the basics. Once you have a base, once you can read and understand, once you can do basic math (not that ‘constructionist math’), you have a basis to learn further. Too bad it took turning over the public schools to private companies for the public schools to figure out that they’d better get with it.

What is a perfect score on the PSSA? I have not been able to get an answer to that question. A few years ago the maximum scaled score for a school was 1600. That is no longer true, a number of schools have higher scores than 1600. Individual student scores can be over 2000. I have 8th grade math scores handy so I will give you an example from that grade. This past year “advanced” students scored 1510 and above, “proficient” scored 1300-1509, “basic” scored 1180-1299, and “below basic” scored 1179 and below. The 8th grade state average increased 30 points this year, from 1320 to 1350. If we used 2100 as a perfect score then it might follow that a student could get over one-third of the problems wrong and still be considered proficient. That does not account for some problems counting more than others. I viewed the third and fifth grade tests last year. On the fifth grade test there were 184 questions, on all but 7 questions the students were allowed to use a calculator. Not one of those questions was on division. The PSSA is based on the PA Math Standards. The standards are NCTM based. A test based on poor standards is a poor test.

Markm, I’m shocked. You claim to be in favor of algebra instruction, yet you say the long division algorithm is not important to it? I can’t even begin to tell you how many of my algebra students found themselves unable to find oblique asymptotes of rational functions, or how many of my calculus students have had trouble integrating partial fractions with a higher degree numerator, all because of difficulties with the long division of polynomials. The long division algorithm is a prerequisite skill to the long division of polynomials– a skill which they sadly lack.