May 20 — 2:00 pm, 2011

District pushing forward with Promise Academies despite limited money, data

The School District is pushing forward with plans to add more Promise Academies despite the worst budget climate in recent memory and inconclusive data about the model’s impact on student achievement thus far.

Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman plans to invest millions of extra dollars into the District’s costly internal school turnaround model, even while slashing the allocations of other schools as much as 30 percent. Those cuts and other cost-saving measures, including ending most student transportation and full-day kindergarten, are being proposed to close a projected $629 million budget gap.

The final District budget for 2011-12 is still to be decided. But under the current budget proposal, the District will spend in excess of $24 million extra at six existing and 11 new District-run Promise Academies next year. The money would go to pay teachers more for working a longer day and year and to provide $215 per student in supplemental funding. The Promise Academies would also be shielded from cuts to school budgets and possibly be exempt from any teacher layoffs, a proposal that has riled the teachers’ union.

Ackerman and other senior District officials have explained their efforts to preserve funding for Promise Academies by citing a “moral obligation” to continue turning around the city’s persistently low-performing schools, arguing that maintaining the status quo at such schools is unacceptable regardless of other concerns.

"There is a group of schools that have failed our children and community for years,” said Michael Masch, the District’s chief financial officer, on WHYY’s Radio Times earlier this month. “The commitment of the School District is to turn those schools around, and even with all the problems facing the District we don’t think that is an agenda we can put off any longer.”

But given the dire budget situation forecast for the vast majority of District schools, many parents have begun asking for hard evidence that the expansion of the Promise Academy initiative is warranted.

There, the District has run into a thicket. 

Results from the all-important state PSSA exam won’t be available until August, well after the budget has been finalized.

A much-anticipated study released Thursday by Research for Action does not include any other student performance data and does not break down its findings by individual schools.

"We did not set out to look at Renaissance schools in order to help the SRC make budget decisions," said James E. Lyons, chairperson of the state-mandated oversight body known as the Accountability Review Council, which commissioned the RFA report. 

And the only academic performance data that is available – preliminary benchmark test results that can be used as a rough predictor of how students will do on the state PSSA exam – has proven to be something of a political minefield. 

The so-called "predictives" do show positive trends at the existing Promise Academies, but District officials have publicly stated elsewhere that such data should not be used to make policy decisions.

Nevertheless, during an interview several weeks ago, Assistant Superintendent Francisco Duran highlighted the Promise Academies’ predictive test results as significant evidence that the District was getting a solid return on its investment in the schools and should expand the model.

“To us, it’s big,” Duran said of the encouraging predictive results. “We’ve turned the corner.”

District officials, however, deemed similar data insignificant when it was cited by teachers and students trying to prevent their schools from being converted to Renaissance charters.

"The predictives are meant to guide instruction, not make decisions,” said Associate Superintendent Diane Castelbuono, who oversees the Renaissance charter schools, during an interview just days after Duran spoke with the Notebook. 

District officials say that they are not using the predictive data selectively.

“For Renaissance Schools, both charter and Promise Academies, the predictive results are one factor along with several others, including climate and culture aspects, the District considers to indicate progress,” said spokesperson Elizabeth Childs. 

Students took the actual PSSA test in March, but results won’t be available until August.

According to Duran, February predictive test results for the Promise Academies pointed to potential 11 percentage point gains for students scoring proficient or advanced on state tests in reading and 14 percent in math.

In addition, said Duran, average daily attendance was up at all six Promise Academies through December 31. The number of suspensions, “serious incidents,” and 9th graders dropping out were all down dramatically at the two high schools, Vaux and University City, although the suspensions and serious incidents remained relatively flat at the four other schools.

"Over time, this type of growth is going to continue,” said Duran.

“If we didn’t invest in that way, we would see a flat line,” he added, referring to the $9.6 million extra the District invested into the six schools this year. 

In addition to expanding the Promise Academies, the District is also turning seven more schools over to outside providers under the Renaissance charter initiative. In March, the SRC voted to move forward with the process matching Renaissance schools with charter managers based in part on similarly limited data.

Predictive test results at the current Renaissance charters show the potential for modest to significant gains, depending on the school and manager. At all three elementary schools now run by Mastery Charter, for example, the results show potential double-digit proficiency gains across all tested grades in both reading and math. At the two elementary schools now run by Universal Companies, on the other hand, progress has varied considerably from grade to grade. 

School climate data showed that average daily attendance was up at six of the seven Renaissance charters, while the number of reported serious incidents was down dramatically across all the schools.

Castelbuono said that she found overall trends encouraging, but she was measured in evaluating the utility of the predictive test results in forecasting future gains.

“It’s very hard within the first six months to say test scores are going to skyrocket through the roof. You can’t say that with any certainty,” she said.

Castelbuono’s caution is more in line with what most educators say is the appropriate use of predictive benchmark exams.

The more cautious approach came in response to questions about the efforts of teachers, students, and parents to stave off the planned charter conversions of their schools by citing positive predictive data. 

Parents and community members on the School Advisory Council at Olney West High School, for example, pointed to February predictive results that show potential proficiency gains of more than 10 percentage points in reading and 17 percentage points in math.

“Significant academic improvement is under way,” wrote the SAC in its recommendation to the District that Olney West not be turned over to an outside provider. 

District leaders dismissed the claim, saying the improvement was not fast enough and did not account for a long history of low performance at the school.

At Audenried High, meanwhile, students and staff argued that predictive test results showed dramatic growth in the three years since the school was reopened, results dismissed by District officials.

”The predictives are nice but not sufficient,” said Castelbuono. “We would never [decide to turn around] a school based on [predictive] data or one year’s worth of data.”

The District’s current budget proposal calls for $24 million for Promise Academies. District officials have not yet released their projection for how much that figure is expected to grow now that the 1,100 student Martin Luther King High is slated to join their ranks after originally being set for a charter conversion.  

This story is the product of a news partnership between the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks. Timothy Boyle, a science teacher at Olney Elementary and a regular Notebook blogger, also contributed to this article. He helped analyze and interpret the Renaissance data recently made available by the District and Renaissance providers.

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