November 22 — 12:00 am, 2007

Office of Restructured Schools: a District turnaround model?

 As the School Reform Commission considers what changes to make in the 70 so-called “Corrective Action II” schools – all of them schools that have never or rarely made “Adequate Yearly Progress” – a potential solution might be staring them in the face.

No Child Left Behind mandates dramatic interventions for such “failing” schools, including re-opening them as charters or privatizing them. But in Philadelphia, resurrecting a successful District-run model may be another option.

For three years between 2002 and 2005, the District supported an Office of Restructured Schools (ORS), which devised a reform model and poured extra resources into 21 low-performing schools that were not privatized or otherwise reconstituted (see ORS: Lessons learned).

The ORS was frankly set up to compete with the outside providers, to see whether, as then-Chief Academic Officer Ed Williams said, the District’s own educators could improve academic achievement if they were given more to work with.

Williams had tried out some of the ideas used by ORS as the regional superintendent in North Philadelphia. He said that it was time for the District to stop relying on schools to come up with their own reform ideas.

“I feel over the years we have failed to mandate things,” said Williams in an October 2002 interview, just as the program was getting started. “We have left education up to every classroom teacher; as a result of that, we have been hitting and missing the mark.”

The ORS schools, staffed with highly-regarded District administrators, received an extra $550 per student, somewhat less than private providers like Edison Schools, but more than the university-managed schools. And a 2006-07 study by RAND and Research for Action of the so-called “multiple provider model” ushered in by the state takeover indicated that these schools made more gains than others.

RAND and RFA compared achievement gains of students in elementary and middle schools run by outside providers and by ORS, and schools run by the District but not given extra funding. The study concluded that in each of the four years following the takeover, reading and math gains in schools run by private managers and universities were not significantly different from each other, or from gains in regular District schools.

But, the study said, student gains at ORS schools outpaced those in District schools or schools under outside management, especially in math.

Under the ORS model, schools got more personnel, including an assistant principal, school nurse, and permanent substitute.

It required students in elementary grades to spend 120 minutes on reading and 90 minutes on math each day, and it established what would subsequently become the District’s standardized core curriculum in reading and math. All schools used the Trophies reading program and Everyday Math in the elementary grades and Math in Context and Elements of Literature in the middle grades.

In addition, academic coaches in each school consistently worked with teachers to improve instruction in these curricular areas. The coaches worked closely with principals as well so they understood how to use assessment data to improve instruction. Twice a month, school was dismissed early and teachers had two hours of focused professional development.

ORS administrators regularly monitored the schools, assessing reading and math performance bi-monthly on special ORS tests that were aligned with the PSSA. Quarterly, ORS conducted site visits, using a common protocol for intensive school evaluation.

In contrast to schools managed by outside providers and the district, the RAND-RFA study concluded that “the group of schools that were restructured under district management (ORS) showed larger achievement improvement by their students in mathematics in each of the three years the restructuring intervention was in place – and may have maintained an advantage in spring, 2006, a year after restructuring (and the additional funds associated with it) concluded. In reading, restructured schools showed a significant achievement advantage … in the first year of the intervention.”

The ORS model lasted just three years, through the 2004-05 academic year. The office was disbanded by the District before the analysis of the model’s success was known.

But recently, SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn and others have suggested that an ORS-like, District-run model could be a viable management option for improving student achievement in the District’s Corrective Action II schools.

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