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Report shows gains in Renaissance Schools

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Schools turned around under the Renaissance Schools initiative, both charter conversions and District-run Promise Academies, showed student achievement gains in the first year that outpaced those of comparable schools, according to a study released today by Research for Action.

The positive results were limited to the K-8 schools; two Promise Academy high schools studied did not show similar gains, a result that is typical of most reform initiatives. There were no charter conversion high schools in the first year of the initiative, although now there are.

The analysis also showed greater gains in math than in reading, another result that is generally typical.

The study found no appreciable statistical difference among the four Renaissance providers, and no difference between the charter conversions and the Promise Academies.

“Both models – Renaissance Charters and District-run Promise Academies – made strong positive gains in improving student achievement and school attendance,” the report concluded. 

The gains showed up in all areas measured – the percent of students scoring proficient and above on the PSSA in math and reading, the raw scale scores on the test, reduction in the proportion scoring below basic, and attendance.

For instance, Renaissance Schools increased the percentage of their students scoring proficient or above in math by almost 18 percentage points more than comparison schools.

“These findings suggest that the Renaissance Schools Initiative is having a strong, positive effect on K-8 students and schools, in both Renaissance charters and Promise Academies,” said RFA Executive Director Kate Shaw.

She cautioned, however, that it is too early to tell whether these results will be sustained over time, especially in light of the District’s financial problems. Already, the Promise Academies have been significantly scaled back.

Still, the results can only be interpreted as good news for a District that is moving rapidly toward a “portfolio model” of school management as its reform strategy. It is already committed to charter expansion, more turnarounds using outside providers, and downsizing central office in favor of giving all schools more autonomy.

The study compared achievement trends in the Renaissance Schools and a cohort of comparable schools going back to 2005-06 so it could isolate the effect of the initiative itself for 2010-11.

One of the more interesting results was that the charter schools didn’t outperform the Promise Academies. Shaw said that she would not speculate on whether this finding could be fodder for the argument that it is not necessary to turn over schools to outside managers in order to get significant improvement. It is still unclear how much the charter turnovers are costing the District compared to investments in Promise Academies.

“We did not do a financial analysis if this is the best way for the District to spend its money,” Shaw said. But she said the report contains “important information as the District considers how to handle its budget and what they want to prioritize.”

The study also did a case-study analysis of two Promise Academies in their second year to identify “promising practices” and “emerging challenges.”

The biggest challenge is the District’s financial instability, and potentially the lack of capacity in central office to support the schools. The Promise Academies lost many of their extra supports in the second year.

It noted that staffing in the second year of the Promise Academies was thrown into turmoil by a successful challenge by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers not to exempt Promise Academy teachers from layoffs.

Still, the Promise Academy teachers felt part of “something big,” the report said. They complained, however, that there was over-use of scripted Corrective Reading and Math programs and general over-reliance on direct instruction. The District has indicated it intends to abandon systemwide, scripted curricula.

Charter providers did not agree to participate in a case study.

The study was done at the behest of the Accountability Review Council, which was formed when the School Reform Commission was established to monitor school improvement.

Note: Tune in to NewsWorks Tonight this evening at 6 p.m. on WHYY to hear reporter Benjamin Herold discuss this report. Tonight's show will also be available online.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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