Philly fight

Philadelphia schools — now run by a mix of public and private managers — are improving, concludes a study by Rand and Research for Action. However, progress in Philadelphia matched progress in other low-performing schools in the state, says the report. Privately managed schools did not improve more than district-run schools. The report’s co-authors write:

So many different reforms have been implemented in Philadelphia since 2002 that it is impossible to clearly identify which ones may be responsible for the achievement gains of the district as a whole.

Our own conclusion is that competition from private managers is unlikely to be a major factor in student achievement gains, because private management was not implemented in a way designed to promote competitive effects. In particular, private management did not include a regime of open parental choice of schools.

Reform advocates say the report underestimates the public-private model’s successes. In the Inquirer, Charles Zogby, former state secretary of education now a K12 executive, complains that the report reads like an autopsy of a patient brought back from death.

. . . the authors glossed over what should have been their most fundamental finding: In the five years since state and local officials worked together to create the School Reform Commission, academic performance in Philadelphia’s public schools literally has catapulted upward. After decades of stagnation, learning success rates in the last five years have doubled, tripled and, in some cases, quadrupled.

Paul Peterson questions the study’s methodology, pointing out that private managers took over the city’s worst schools, which were scoring well below the already low citywide average. The column is available only to Wall St. Journal subscribers,

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  1. As to privatized schools in Philly — some improved more than similar public schools; some less. At least Paul Vallas advocates the sensible approach — cancel contracts with managers which were not successful and extend and expand them with managers who were successful (relative to district-managed schools.

  2. Trouble is, that approach, of canceling contracts with poorly performing charter operators, depends on an objective standard of performance and an even-handed appraisal of the results. Since any decision will gore someone’s ox the decision is likely to become a matter of political muscle rather then objective performance.

    On the one side you’ve got all the usual suspects, primarily the local school board and the teacher’s local and on the other the charter operator none of whom will work unequivocally in the interest of the best education for the largest number of kids. All the aforementioned parties have interests tied to the public education system but not necessarily to the education of the public.

    This year’s Paul Vallas becomes next year’s Homer T. Pinchbeck who never met a regulation he didn’t adore, a union rep he wouldn’t bend over for or a dollar that wasn’t his. What do you do then?

  3. wayne martin says:

    I have grown suspicious of the objectivity of RAND studies. It’s my opinion that RAND studies tend to reflect the agendas of the organizations that fund the studies. This particular study, the following groups provided the funding:

    Supported by the Annenberg Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, and
    the Accountability Review Council for the School District of Philadelphia

    Of course, one has to do a lot of research to figure out the orientation of each funding group, but some of that material is available, such as IRS Form 990s, position papers and funding of various projects.

    Annenberg is frequently a contributor to RAND studies. The following is a snippet from the Annenberg press release on this study:

    “The privately managed schools, on average, showed gains that were comparable to those in the rest of the district.” said Brian Gill, lead author of the report and a researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

    “Schools in Philadelphia have shown strong improvement that has been reflected widely across the district,” said Jolley Christman, co-founder of Research for Action and an author of the report. “But our findings show the investment in private management of schools has not paid the expected dividends.”

    Meanwhile, another group of schools that were “restructured” — remaining under district management with intensive intervention and a comparable increase in resources — showed significant gains in math in the first three years studied and in reading during the first year. In the fourth year, the additional resources for the restructured schools ended, but the schools appeared to maintain their gains in math.

    One of the authors of this study, Jolley Christman was with the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania for a while, but now is the president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA. It’s difficult to believe that many Ed School professors are favorable to privately-run schools.

    Ms. Christman is a founder of Research for Action, which offers the public a hint of the group’s orientation on its WEB-site:

    RFA is a Philadelphia-based, non-profit organization engaged in education research and evaluation. Founded in 1992, RFA works with public school districts, educational institutions, and community organizations to improve the educational opportunities for those traditionally disadvantaged by race/ethnicity, class, gender, language/cultural difference, and ability/disability. Research for Action was founded by women who aimed to connect their social activism, feminist beliefs, and professional practice as education researchers. Basic tenets for RFA’s approach to evaluation emerge from feminist theory.

    RFA continues to draw national attention as an organization that exemplifies the value of being a locally-focused, applied research organization. We were mentioned in a recent issue of Voices in Urban Education (VUE), published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, as being an organization that typifies the kind of close relationship that helps bridge the gap between research and practice and ensures that research is attuned to local conditions.


    RFA is grateful to the following foundations which support our research.

    Annenberg Foundation | Carnegie Corporation of New York | Samuel S. Fels Fund | Edward W. Hazen Foundation | Charles Stewart Mott Foundation | William Penn Foundation | The Pew Charitable Trusts | The Philadelphia Foundation | Spencer Foundation | Surdna Foundation

    > Research for Action was founded by women who aimed to
    > connect their social activism, feminist beliefs, and professional
    > practice as education researchers. Basic tenets for RFA’s approach
    > to evaluation emerge from feminist theory.

    It’s difficult to believe that advocate with these sorts of beliefs is going to be very objective when it comes to evaluating private/public partnerships.

    Notice also that Action for Research is funded by Annenberg and Action for Research seems to be a contributor to the RAND paper which is supposed to be “objective”.

    The old adage: “follow the money” is never bad advice.

  4. Charter schools across the country have overcome myriad obstacles to create successful schools that have spawned innovation and transformed the American public school system. Find out more. See Charter Schools Today: Stories of Inspiration, Struggle & Success, by award-winning journalist Joe Williams and published by The Center for Education Reform.