Philadelphia, distinct among large urban districts for its long history of pursuing school turnarounds using outside management organizations, has been a real-world laboratory of reform experiments for more than a decade.
By studying the successes and failures of the District's recent efforts to turn around academically underachieving schools, a team of researchers wants to create a body of knowledge that all schools can use to improve.
The School District and the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education will undertake a two-year, federal grant-funded research partnership to examine school remodeling efforts in Philadelphia, seeking to understand what makes them soar or fall flat.
With twin $200,000 grants from the Department of Education, the District and Penn GSE will work in tandem to take a deep analytical dive into the District's turnaround efforts, including its two major restart models: the District-run Promise Academies and the charter-operated Renaissance schools.
Leading the core team of researchers are Laura Desimone, an associate professor at Penn, and Tonya Wolford, the District's deputy of research and evaluation. The project is called "Shared Solutions."
"We are interested in studying those reform models that the District sees as promising and helpful," said Desimone. Although the schools set to be studied haven't been finalized yet, she noted that Mastery and Universal, two of the District's favored Renaissance charter operators, would be looked at, along with the newly launched School Redesign Initiative.
Desimone said she wants the research to be useful and applicable across all schools in the District.
"We are going to work with the SDP to refine a set of instruments they can use to study their schools," she said, "so schools can learn from each other."
Throughout the research phase, the group will also present and engage with the public -- both with teachers and school administrators through mini-conferences, and with the broader community through forums. The first mini-conference is scheduled for Nov. 12.
The partnership will also consult an advisory board, a group of stakeholders mostly drawn from Philadelphia's education community. They include representatives from Drexel's and Temple's schools of education, the William Penn Foundation, the Council of Great City Schools, Kate Shaw of Research for Action, Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, and Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar.
"It's encouraging to see these resources going into research about school improvement efforts in the School District. The whole effort to turn around low-performing schools has been probably the biggest story in Philadelphia education for more than a decade now, but there really isn't a solid or widely shared understanding of what's worked, what's failed, and why," said Socolar.
"This new partnership is also going to look at the question of how success is measured,and it's understood that we have to look at more than whether the PSSA scores went up."