Philadelphia Schools, Inc.

Three years ago, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission proposed to run the district like a business. It’s working, writes James Nevels, the commission chair, in Forbes.

After two years of dramatic reforms we’re showing striking results. Between 2003 and 2004 the percentage of the city’s public school students scoring “proficient” or better on state exams increased an average of eight percentage points in reading and math for fifth grade and an average of eleven points in reading and math for eighth grade. Our gains are among the largest posted by any of the 50 biggest urban school systems in the country, according to the Council of Great City Schools.

How did we–teachers, principals and our chief executive, Paul Vallas–do it? We defined the district’s “customers” exclusively as the 200,000 children we serve. Not interest groups. Not adult constituencies. We held adults accountable for results.

Philly standardized the curriculum, and doubled elementary school time spent on reading and math.

We conduct benchmark testing every six weeks in elementary and middle schools and every four weeks in high schools. This helps teachers to either dedicate more time to a subject in which students are struggling or provide advanced instruction in subjects students have mastered.

We improved conditions for teachers by reducing class sizes in 2,300 classrooms and by adding 225 academic coaches who help teachers tackle deficiencies in literacy, math and science.

Philadelphia adopted a tough code of discipline, sending bullies to alternative schools.

The district also negotiated with the teachers’ union to change the way teachers are assigned, so the most troubled schools get their fair share of experienced teachers.

In the face of heated protests we assigned 45 of our 276 schools to private managers, including 20 to Edison Schools. The result: Schools that were stagnating are seeing jumps of ten points and more in proficiency scores.

When one private partner didn’t produce, the contract was terminated.

About Joanne


  1. Bluemount says:

    Given the well-documented levels of corruption in school money these days, it would be interested to know what independent evaluations of the system show. There’s this report that claims that violence has increased in Philly schools.

    There are also reports that alternative schools that cater to difficult students are a prison sentence without a court. Police complain they are forced to handcuff small children without even notifying their parents.

    I don’t think we are ready to call Philly a success. This communication contains a telephone poll of parent’s views.
    Parents would like more control.
    “Given that 40% of Philadelphia high school students currently do not graduate, it would seem substantial quality improvements are indeed necessary to turn the tide. In the corporate community, it is standard procedure for executives to select the most competent staff from the available workforce and be given the authority to manage their own enterprises. Clearly Philadelphia parents support the idea that principals should have the same authority.”

    I suspect there are many parts of the picture we don’t see when looking at numbers. What are the needs of families in this area? Is there adequit housing, transportaion, and support for citizens calling the police? When money goes in one direction it is often taken from another social pool.