Providers not giving more for money, studies say
Two reports released in February failed to find clear evidence that Philadelphia’s education management organizations (EMOs) were adding value to the city’s school reform efforts.
The District’s six private managers – the for-profits Edison Schools, Inc. and Victory Schools; nonprofits Foundations, Inc. and Universal; and Penn and Temple universities – have operated low-performing schools since 2002 under terms of the state takeover of the District.
Contracts with the six managers will lapse this June unless renewed by the School Reform Commission. By May, District leaders say, some of the EMOs may be jettisoned and school-by-school decisions will be made about whether private management should be continued.
To help in that decision, a third report, from the District’s accountability office, will attempt to compare performance school-by-school.
The first study released was from the RAND Corporation and Research for Action (RFA). It found that students in 41 privately managed schools had academic gains that were no different from those in the rest of the District.
“There is no evidence to proceed with the diverse provider model as it is,” said Jolley Bruce Christman of RFA, a co-author of the report. She recommended a case-by-case renewal decision, noting that conditions in certain successful schools might warrant retaining the outside managers.
Only one group of schools targeted for intensive reform in 2002 showed gains that were significantly better than the norm. The 21 school operated by the District’s Office of Restructured Schools posted significantly higher math scores than any other group, gains that persisted even after the office was discontinued in 2005. For three years, those schools got support including teacher coaches and extra time for planning, as well as more intensive focus on reading and math. Now some are arguing that the restructured schools office should be revived.
While EMO schools did keep pace with the District average, their inability to narrow the gap in performance raises doubts as to whether the extra cost to the District of privatized school management – which has averaged about $20 million a year – can be justified, especially in light of a gaping budget shortfall.
The RAND/RFA findings were reviewed and affirmed by a second independent report, from the Accountability Review Council (ARC) – a state-appointed panel of experts in educational assessment. The ARC report found positive change in the District as a whole but expressed concern about “uneven progress for schools under EMO management.”
“For EMO schools that persistently performed below the District average over the four-year period, the ARC sees no justification for relying on the same EMOs to manage these schools,” it said.
Defenders of privatized school management and some of the providers themselves have questioned the findings of RAND and RFA in local and national media, including a rebuttal on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Specifically, they argue that the strong gains in test scores seen in Philadelphia between 2002 and 2005 can be attributed to the introduction of competition between District-run and privately managed schools.
The report’s authors counter that their findings offered no support for that theory. Moreover, the rate of test score gains across the District began to level off in 2005-06 (see “TerraNova scores reach plateau”).
Despite the findings, neither CEO Paul Vallas nor SRC Chair James Nevels was signaling the death knell for privatized school management, though they indicated that they only supported continuing the effort “where it works.”
“I think you’re going to continue to see this diverse provider model,” Vallas commented.
But acknowledging that the District’s budget woes would make it difficult to continue to come up with $750 extra per student that has been given to private managers, Vallas said, “People who want to [manage] schools in Philadelphia are going to have to do that within the financial constraints we have.”