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Edison on the ropes in Baltimore; Is Philly far behind?

By Helen Gym on Mar 24, 2009 02:15 PM
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress, Bain News Service publisher

Last Sunday, The Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore School District may sever contracts with two of three schools run by the former Edison Schools Inc. (now Edison Learning).

[Update: The district voted to end Edison's contract for the two schools March 24, the Sun reports - The Editors]

The concerns of School Chief Andres Alonso should sound familiar to those of us here:

"These are two schools that are really struggling," said Laura Weeldreyer, Alonso's deputy chief of staff. "We've made a big investment in them, and we have yet to see the payoff."

According to The Sun, the Baltimore Schools cites the following:

  • Since 2000, Edison has had a contract to run three low-performing elementary schools, serving 1,800 students and today worth $16.9 million a year.
  • Edison appears to get an extra $500 per student, which includes a 12% overhead cost and extra funds for technology and pre-K. In addition, it outsouces special education.
  • Math scores at the two targeted schools declined last year with passing rates of 50% and 34%.
  • Two years ago, teacher turnover at the schools hit 75% largely due to contract uncertainty, according to Edison officials.
  • A 2005 report by a non-profit foundation found that the three schools made progress but the cost exceeded that of other city schools which had greater jumps in test scores.


For anyone who’s been following Philadelphia’s experience with Edison – or for that matter anywhere in the nation where Edison has lost contracts – this reads textbook for the reasons districts are fleeing a company once touted as the savior of public education.

What’s interesting to note is Edison’s dramatic decline ever since it received its 2002 Philadelphia contract. In 2001, when Edison first arrived at Philadelphia’s doorstep, it boasted of being the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools with more than 100 individual schools and dozens of school districts on its client list. Ironically, in its sell to Philadelphia, it pointed to Baltimore as a model of its ability to turn around struggling urban schools.

Although Edison eventually became the biggest beneficiary of the “diverse provider model” touted by the School Reform Commission, it’s important to remember some history here. The fight to privatize the Philadelphia public schools severely tarnished the Edison brand. Edison had initially proposed to manage the entire school district of Philadelphia. An unprecedented wave of community activism challenged that proposal and made international headlines. The end result – where Edison was knocked back to managing 20 schools – crushed Wall Street expectations. Edison’s stock plummeted to pennies a share and the company took itself private through a buyout by the Florida teachers union pension fund.

Fast forward to 2009: Edison, by my count, has maybe 62 schools to its name. Edison Schools Inc. in fact doesn’t even exist any more. Two years ago, it remade itself into Edison Learning, offering on-line education as school contracts began falling.

Today Philadelphia is pivotal to Edison’s outdated business. With 15 Edison schools under contract, Philadelphia comprises almost one-fourth of Edison’s total and has more contracts than any district in the country. Things could change though. Last year, Philadelphia Schools CEO Arlene Ackerman severed four Edison contracts and put another 12 on a one-year “probation” list. Those dozen schools have their contracts up for renewal this spring.

The lessons of Edison Schools ought to post a cautionary tale – now more than ever. School district after school district in this country has found that experimenting with Edison has cost too much money, bought too few results, and lost too much time.

There are other lessons too: There is no silver bullet to the deep problems of our public schools. Practical reality trumps ideology. By and large, despite the serious problems we face, there is no reliable evidence that public schools are outperformed by the for-profit, non-profit and charter models that exist.

Of course, there are significant problems within our schools, and of course success stories exist outside the public school structure. But what our schools need today is less outsourcing and more application of the innovations and best practices that successful charters and other schools have demonstrated works.

This spring the District will reconsider those Edison contracts. It is also planning to launch yet another outsourcing experiment for its most problematic schools through the Rennaissance Schools plan. History has been clear on how many such experiments have fared – particularly when the District has poor oversight and doesn’t engage with community members. Let’s see how well the District retains the lessons of that history.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 26, 2009 6:05 pm

Maybe it's me, but isn't that fight referee in the Wolgast-Murphy fight of Feb. 1913 above the same prison guard instructing the two prisoners how to dust off the books in another shot elsewhere on this website? Maybe they are military cadets!?!?!?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 27, 2009 12:10 pm

How do you explain all those weepy eyed parents and students that want 'Edison' to stay?

Why do they think they're better off with 'Edison'?

What are the quotes from 'The Sun' supposed to show? It costs money to teach kids that, pre 'Edison', weren't doing so well? The math scores decreasing sounds bad, but without context or some control group to compare against it is difficult to see this as evidence of anything. For all I know all math scores dropped that year (pardon my ignorance). There is an implication that 'Edison' is responsible for the teacher contracts issue but it isn't clearly stated so I'm not sure what to make of that particular quote. The 2005 report quoted is similarly disconnected from context as to render it valueless to all but the 'converted'.

There is a lot of space devoted to bashing the company ( if they were public I'd assume short selling), who may deserve it for all I know, but not very convincing.

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 27, 2009 3:00 pm

Since you seem to have quite a few questions about the actual data around Edison, I'd direct you to some of the extensive studies that have been completed about the company (most of which for Philadelphia are listed in this post here: http://www.thenotebook.org/blog/091025/hes-it-again). To be clear Edison has had nearly a decade in Baltimore and will have had a full 7 years in Philly, and both districts show similar outcomes: for the money, Edison's schools simply have not measured up, which means that similar schools managed by the district outperform them (and that's what the Baltimore 2005 study references, and what the Philadelphia 2006 and 2007 studies also reinforce).

I assume that your reference to "weepy parents" means that you share some sympathy for their plight, and they deserve a lot of sympathy and sensitivity. In 2002, their schools, without their consent, were determined to be low-performing enough to turn over to Edison. Edison got hundreds of dollars more per student, and made huge promises about being able to do more with less.

Fast forward seven years later: those promises really never came to fruition even though Edison collected tens of millions of dollars in management fees. As many as five academic studies have come to this conclusion - not just the "converted." It's not just test scores either. Parents have fled many of the EMO schools; Edison in particular has lost over 1,000 students from its Philadelphia schools.

So then parents at these schools are now left with little recourse. At Gillespie Middle, formerly an Edison School, the school was performing so miserably that the District took the school back and then decided to close it this year, scattering the students and forcing parents to fend for themselves in finding a new school.

This situation is bigger than one company. It's not Edison's right to be here after all and claim a guaranteed profit off the desperation of our schools and families. The bigger issue at stake is recognizing that there are no easy answers when it comes to our schools. There's no shining knight, silver bullet, magic potion or what have you that can take the place of solid, investment in classrooms and personnel, and engaging families, staff and communities in reforming our schools from the ground up. That's what I'm "converted" to.

I guess it's hard for me to understand who can look at this data not only locally but nationally and then cling to the belief that Edison is the victim .

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 30, 2009 3:08 pm

The 'weepy parents' thing was me confusing myself with another Edison article I read about students and parents who had a positive regard for Edison and were crying when their school was closing, sorry about that.

I tried to read some of the material you reference (the free ones). A few things seem to jump out at me that I can't answer for myself.

Did the EMO's get the worst of the worst schools?

The Rand study uses the term 'generally comparable' to describe the comparison of the 45 EMO schools to the 21 District Restructured Schools -- which is different from simply 'comparable'. Is this to imply that perhaps this comparison isn't an apt comparison ?

The Rand study doesn't seem like an indictment of EMO's. I had to look up "Student fixed-effects", interesting reading.

What does "District Restructured Schools" mean? I assumed this was some effort on the part of these particular schools to 'restructure' themselves. Could this possibly mean adding new and different programs and perhaps a different management apparatus? Could this mean taking a page or pages out of the EMO play book? Life doesn't happen in a vacuum.

The ARC Report says the instructor's contracts where not available until one month before the school year was to start and blames the school board. This sounds pretty bad. The Report goes on to note that the affect of this action was high teacher turnover and to posit that the effect on the children's learning is unknown. Without controlling for replacing half of an institutions instructors, the comparisons are made weaker.

My point isn't to 'buckshot' these reports but I do want to understand. I don't get the 'Edison is the victim' thing, seems misplaced, tired.

I think it is difficult to capture some of the internal changes, the heightened dignity, parental engagement, community , safety etc that can accompany a good learning environment. Perhaps AYP isn't the best measure?

Submitted by Helen Gym on March 31, 2009 9:00 am

Did the EMO's get the worst of the worst schools?
There is no such thing as the worst of the worst. For example, if you defined that as the percentage of students who scored Below Basic it would probably include disciplinary schools as well as some high schools. No existing disciplinary school or high school was turned over to private management in 2002. So no, I don’t think the EMOs got the worst of the worst. The SRC turned over a significant set of troubled elementary and middle schools to the EMOs.

What does "District Restructured Schools" mean?
There’s a lot of connotative history around the term “restructured” that does not apply in this particular instance. The District Restructured schools were a set of schools “generally comparable” to the 40-some schools chosen for EMO management. The term "generally comparable" - from what I can tell - is not that different from comparable; it meant a set of similarly low-performing elementary and middle schools. The purpose was to create a test set for progress comparison to the EMOs to answer the question: if the District put additional resources in schools (since they were paying EMOs to do it), what would be the results? The Restructured Schools were given additional resources, focused attention, data analysis and supervision. It’s not clear that they were significantly “restructured” in terms of staffing or management, and I am not sure about the actual dollars invested - I doubt they reached as high as Edison received at its peak (back then $881 additional per child).

As you can see from the RAND/RFA data, the District Restructured Schools not only showed improvement at a rate greater than the EMOs but also outperformed the average-District managed school. The office was dismantled without explanation or any analysis of their work in 2006. Even after the office was dismantled the Restructured Schools showed greater progress than EMO or District-managed schools in a number of areas a year after losing those services. And, no, I don't see any link to your question about whether the Restructured Schools took "a page out of the EMO play book” since they went about their reforms within the schools independently. Ironically, though, Edison tried to seize credit for improvement across the District, claiming that the competition spurred the District to action – though it’s a sad way of explaining their own poor performance.

Glad you’re interested in this issue. I would suggest doing some researched reading within the Notebook which has done significant and focused work on the effects and outcomes of the privatization experiment locally.

Submitted by HelenGym (not verified) on March 31, 2009 5:00 pm

Has there ever been a report describing what/how the District Restructured Schools managed such gains? Or do you know?
As far as we can tell, and we have asked the District for this numerous times, there has never been a conclusive report on the findings and analysis of the Restructured Schools program. The District simply shuttered the office and never bothered to issue a report. For some, the timing was suspicious since it happened the year before the EMOs were up for review. It seemed strange that the District could shutter what seemed to be a successful initiative without explanation or closing analysis - and esp. when it was supposed to be a comparable to the EMO option.

As for your other questions, they require more detailed reading and investigation that may serve you better if you check out RFA's website, the District's internal report on the schools, or might have to do some of your own investigation on. Certainly public testimony around the community relations outreach for EMOs has been mixed, depending on the EMO, the school, which community association etc. I am not sure which study you're referencing where it shows that greater gains were made at schools with no or nominal management changes - unless that's a generic reference to schools which remained under District management.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 1, 2009 5:59 pm

My reference about nominal change was regarding my understanding of the Restructured Schools program, that the management changes were minimal but the gains were above average.

The pink elephant in the room is the methodology the Restructured Schools used.

Do any doubt the gains at the Restructured Schools?

Curious

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 1, 2009 5:58 pm

I think the issue is that they clearly required more study and analysis - which the District has consistently refused to provide. One poster here claims he was at a Restructured School and was relatively unimpressed with the level of support; others have reported improved help and disappointment that the program was yanked.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 31, 2009 8:49 pm

I worked at a Reconstructed School where you got extra support (hardly anything earthshattering) to get out of the AYP slump. Of course once we made AYP they took away these supports. Kind of like throwing a lifejacket to a drowing swimmer only to take it back once they make it up to the surface.

What is puzzling is why the District no longer had money for this program, but could always find money to fund the charters. Can you say, "Conflict of interests"?

Submitted by Helen Gym on April 1, 2009 8:04 am

Did the Restructured School office remove support prior to 2006 from your school once you made AYP or do you think the loss of additional help coincided with the closing of the office (which happened in 2006)? Based on your story, another disappointing issue would be the District's singular pursuit of AYP as a measure of improvement.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on April 1, 2009 9:52 pm

I am not aware of when the program shut down, but 2006 sounds about right. I wasn't aware at the time that this was district wide. I assumed it was because we made AYP that year and the power to be assumed we no longer needed the extra help.

The one thing I remember was getting a permanent sub. who cut down on the loss of preps that the classroom teachers had been taking the year before. Due to a vindictive principal I had lost 34 preps the previous year. That can play havoc with teaching when you can't get to the copier to supply your kids with something to read. I really can't remember any great changes other than that. We still needed books and the discipline stunk as bad as ever.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2009 11:10 am

Do you know what the formula for success was/is at the Restructured Schools. It is a shame that whatever was done to benefits these students is not available for review.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 27, 2009 11:15 pm

The company deserves to be bashed for all the crap it's tried to pull over the years. If they were any good they wouldn't have been run out of so many school district across the United States. They had Chester, PA and got the boot from there. Philly is their last hope.

They use to offer the public stock, but the price dropped so low they ended up buying back their own shares. This is the same company that hires a Havard professor to come up with these studies that tell how wonderul Edison is doing. Of course, no other study backs these claims up. How about when they were trying to impress their stockholders by claiming the teachers' wages were an asset? Once they got caught the excuses started. When they came to Philly they wanted the kids to spend part of their learning day doing manual labor so Edison could save money. Shipments of books were turned away because they had no money. Edison was repeatedly warned about deteriorating safety conditions at one of the Philly schools. It took a boy getting rape at that school for them to finally get off their butts. When the parents sued them Edison claimed that they had taken over the school, but the safety issue was the SDP's job, not theirs. They lost that school.

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 27, 2009 11:56 pm

Enuff is Enuff...perhaps you should be appointed to the SRC...your insights are very sharp...and you raise a lot of good points...

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on March 28, 2009 2:15 pm

Can someone clarify for me if SRC stands for STOP ROBBING CHILDREN?

Submitted by Down in the Basement (not verified) on March 30, 2009 8:57 pm

Enuff is Enuff...be careful what you say...the thought police here...may try to shut you off...

SRC: Saving Resources for our City?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 31, 2009 6:58 pm

What affect did replacing almost half of Edison's teachers have on Edison's efficacy?
How long would one expect these affects to last?

Was delaying teacher contracts a deliberate act by the 'school board'? Could Edison have acted in a way to mitigate this?

Were the other EMO's affected by the delayed contracts? To this degree?

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on April 14, 2009 3:00 pm

Helen's post got picked up over on the Baltimore Sun's blog, InsideEd. The post got a reply from an Edison spokesperson.

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