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He's at it again

By Helen Gym on Feb 20, 2009 01:05 PM

From June 20, 2007 rally.

Harvard prof Paul Peterson last week published another study alleging improvement in the Philadelphia School District’s for-profit model. The study, partially underwritten by Edison Schools Inc. (the District’s largest for-profit manager) again claims substantial gains in math for Edison and other private managers. And in what’s becoming a rather predictable pattern, Peterson timed his release just as an SRC decision looms on the contract renewals for some privately managed schools which got one-year deals last June. The study’s release also happens to coincide with the unveiling of the District's draft strategic plan, which may open the door to another wave of outside managers.

Two years ago, Peterson, who heads Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, released a controversial study which attempted to refute a RAND/Research for Action study which showed that privatized schools in the district did not academically outperform comparable district schools despite receiving over $100 million in additional funding. Peterson’s study, also partially funded by Edison Schools, used a smaller sample size and reached different conclusions. It showed math gains in middle schools among a number of privatized schools including Edison Schools Inc. (now EdisonLearning). 

That study was picked up by the Wall Street Journal which published an editorial urging full renewals of EMOs the day before an SRC vote in June 2007. The next day, over significant community protest, the SRC voted to renew all private managers for one year. 

Peterson’s latest study seems conveniently timed as well. This week the District released a plan to turn over a chunk of low performing schools to outside managers in a revamped "diverse provider model" approach. Those schools will be called "Renaissance Schools,” an apparent allusion to the Chicago Renaissance 2010 plan that was heavily cited in early stages of planning. Meanwhile, 20 schools, a majority of them Edison contracts, face a review of their upcoming contracts. These schools received one-year contracts last June as a result of their underwhelming performance.

Peterson’s study makes an overt pitch for the District to keep the for-profit model going strong:

"If math and reading are given equal weight in evaluating a school, these results provide no support for the district’s decision to terminate the for-profit management contracts."

Despite all this, Peterson has largely escaped scrutiny from local media who gave him a remarkably free pass in his latest study. Two years ago, Peterson's study was roundly rebuked by local groups.

Last week’s Inquirer story made little reference to the 2007 controversy or Peterson himself, only noting that Peterson’s study conflicted with two other studies on for-profit management results. In fact it conflicted with three independent studies (the Mac Iver study out of Johns Hopkins and the local Accountability and Review Council in addition to the RAND/RFA report) as well as a fourth internal district study. And the only quote in the Inquirer story was from a for-profit operator who expressed her delight at her own school’s progress.

Since our founding, Parents United for Public Education has been deeply concerned about the rapid expansion of for-profit outfits in the District. Our concerns center on these outfits’ generally lower standards of performance, accountability, equity, transparency, and ethics while still eating up large chunks of money. It’s not just academic studies that have confirmed the problems of for-profit management firms. It’s also the fact that there’s been a sharp decline in enrollment in schools run by Edison and others – people have voted with their feet. 

Several years back, I raised concerns about the Peterson study with one local newspaper editor who said she wasn’t going to ignore any study coming out of Harvard just because I didn’t like the results. But she misinterpreted concerns which have been raised by a number of observers. 

In 2007, writer Matthew Yglesias wrote a critique of Peterson's manipulation of the Harvard brand:  

"No man alone is responsible for the state of misinformation on the subject, but if you had to pick one, Paul Peterson would be a good choice. A professor of government at Harvard, Peterson heads that university's Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) from which vantage point he and his colleagues put out paper after paper cheerleading for the school-choice movement. While Peterson's title and appointment give him the appearance of being just another social scientist, the center's most recent annual report tells a rather different story, with Peterson hailing the U.S. Supreme Court's Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, giving the go-ahead to public funding of religious schools, and the No Child Left Behind Act as "giant steps forward," noting that the "PEPG has contributed to this forward march" and stating clearly its intention "[t]o help the forward movement."

In 2007 what we learned was that not all of our decisions had to do with the actual facts on hand. Instead, it was evident national and ideological interests were directly involved and invested in what was happening in the Philadelphia public schools “experiment.” As Peterson again rears his head on the issue, it’s more important than ever for local media to put context to the information that comes to its doorstep. It’s their responsibility to act as watchdogs and skeptics.

The public needs that role more than ever.

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Comments (2)

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 22, 2009 3:26 pm

This is a prime example of the limits of the local media's education coverage and points to the critical need for a bigger and better Notebook. Helen's information and analysis needs to be broadly circulated and hopefully will help build a movement against the coming wave of privatization.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on March 1, 2009 8:24 pm

Great piece. Well written and researched. I was aware of the RAND/Research For Action study, but not the others. We have to get this information out there. It does appear that the Inquirer is sometimes selective and limited in its coverage, but he who is without sin can cast the first stone (the Notebook is guilty of this themselves).

Excellent job nonetheless. Manipulated studies such as the one published by Paul Peterson must be readily debunked and exposed. Private managers have yet to prove their worth in Philadelphia, and no Ivy League shenanigans can prove otherwise.

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