Some school managers bring in their own curriculum
As the School District of Philadelphia works to implement a uniform curriculum across the city, there is a major exception to the rule.
At 45 schools that have been turned over to outside managers (also known as "educational management organizations" or EMOs), these school managers control the instructional programs and determine the curricula that their schools use.
Currently six EMOs operate in Philadelphia, including two for-profit companies (Edison Schools and Victory Schools); two nonprofit organizations (Foundations Inc. and Universal Companies); and two universities (the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University).
As part of this "diverse provider" model, the EMOs receive several hundred dollars from the District in extra funding for each student they serve and must abide by basic District regulations. The staff at the schools remain District employees.
Alice Heller, executive director of the District’s Office of EMOs and Charter Schools, describes the EMO arrangement as "a grand experiment" now entering its third full year at most of the 45 schools.
"The whole point is that the outside managers will provide us with another model, and perhaps that model will be more successful than our model, but we will not know that unless we give them the freedom to do their thing," Heller says.
But only two EMOs, Edison and Victory, diverge sharply from the District’s standardized curriculum.
EMOs tap some District curricula
Last year, most of the EMOs chose to combine the District’s curricula with their own unique programs. Now all the EMOs are using the same elementary school math curriculum as the District, Everyday Math. In middle grades, all except Penn are using Math in Context, the curriculum that the District uses.
Most of the EMOs also say they will consider using the District’s science and social studies curricula as they become available.
Additionally, most providers are using at least some parts of the District’s literacy curriculum.
Temple University, which manages six schools in North Philadelphia, has created a model for literacy instruction that includes extra time for students to read at their own level and in small groups, as well as a research-based approach for teaching students how to decode words.
John DiPaolo, executive director for partnership schools at Temple, says, "The big emphasis is on understanding where students are in learning to read and giving them materials that will move them to the next level."
According to Jeanne Vissa, co-leader of the Penn Partnership Schools Initiative, "One difference between [Penn’s] curriculum and the School District’s is that [Penn’s] emphasizes writing as a critical element of literacy to a greater degree. Also, [Penn] emphasizes reading in the content areas, specifically in science."
Victory’s and Edison’s academic programs differ more significantly from the District’s.
Victory’s schools use Direct Instruction, a fully scripted literacy program that requires teachers to call out prompts to students who respond in unison. Victory’s schools also use their own social studies curriculum called Core Knowledge.
Edison’s schools use a partially scripted model for literacy instruction in grades K-5 known as Success for All. This program emphasizes small group instruction and uses all school personnel, including administrators and non-teaching staff, to work with students on reading.
The Edison schools also use different science and social studies curricula from those used by the District. Both Edison and Victory offer Algebra I courses in the 8th grade for students who are ready for that material.
So far, the District has not created a system to allow the EMO and District schools to share effective practices. DiPaolo says that Temple staff have had "only one or two conversations" with the District regarding Temple’s intensive literacy initiatives.
Professional development opportunities for teachers vary according to managers.
Last year, the District offered extra professional development workshops on the new curriculum, and EMO schools were invited to include their teachers.
If the EMO schools chose not to participate in the District’s programs, the providers were allocated $21.62 per student to purchase other professional development services. Heller reports that Edison and Victory, the two for-profit managers, chose not to use District staff development.
One key reason that the School District introduced a standardized curriculum was to deal with a highly transient student population. Uniformity across the District is supposed to help ease transitions for students transferring from one school to another.
However, both District schools and the schools run by the EMOs educate students who may move during the year. This raises the question of how these students are affected as they move between the EMO schools and District schools that are using different curricula.
So far, representatives from the EMOs say they have little information as to how transient students fare. Officials from Temple, Penn, Foundations, and Universal – all of whom are using the District’s math curriculum and some parts of the literacy curriculum – say that students should be able to transfer without suffering.
However, Ben Wright, regional director for Victory Schools, acknowledges that the emphasis of their literacy curriculum presents a challenge in serving transient students. Wright says Victory needs to do a better job of testing incoming students and adds that they may need to create an induction program for new students to help them adjust to the Victory model.
Monitoring the models
While the diverse provider model has resulted in a variety of programs at different Philadelphia public schools, Ellen Savitz, the School District’s chief development officer, asserts that no child is getting "cheated" as a result of these differences, since every school is expected to teach according to the state standards.
Heller adds that the central office will evaluate whether any of the EMOs are delivering content more effectively than District schools by examining standardized test scores and other student data, including attendance, suspensions, and expulsions. She says the District does not have plans to assess providers based on any other indicators.
If a successful model emerges, the District would consider expansion, Heller says.
Just over half of the schools run by EMOs did well enough on the PSSA exam to meet state performance goals for "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) this year – no better than the proportion of comparable District-run schools that made AYP.
While contracts with the EMOs will be renegotiated next spring, Savitz predicts it will be some time before the District makes decisions about the success of the diverse provider model.
"If it turns out that they can’t do it any better than we can – or do worse than we can – in a five-year cycle, then we have to change it," Savitz says.