This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Three months into the school year, it is too early to say anything conclusive about trends in student achievement at the Philadelphia schools now managed by Edison Schools Inc., the private company that was awarded a multimillion dollar contract to improve student performance at 20 schools here.
The company claims that it can educate children in poorly performing schools more effectively than traditional public school systems – and make a profit while doing so.
But information about the effectiveness of Edison’s program continues to come in from more than 100 schools around the country that have been managed by Edison for more than a year. While the company continues to put a positive spin on achievement results, district after district has discontinued contracts with Edison over the past year. Poor student achievement has been one of the factors most frequently cited.
Some districts are giving Edison more time; the nearby Chester-Upland School District approved a new contract with Edison in November despite declining test scores at all nine Edison-run schools.
Dallas dumps Edison
One of the biggest blows to Edison was the August decision by the school district in Dallas, Texas, to end their contract with Edison after the current school year. Edison has been running seven schools serving almost 7,000 students in Dallas since the 2000-01 school year, constituting one of the largest clusters of Edison-run schools in the country.
The Dallas decision was motivated by an extensive study there comparing the achievement gains of students at Edison-run schools to comparable students in comparable schools. The results, released in an August 2002 report, are not flattering to Edison.
For the study of the Edison schools’ effectiveness, the district’s researchers identified other similarly low-performing Dallas schools and then matched Edison students one-to-one with comparable students at these schools based on factors such as prior achievement, grade level, and bilingual status.
Looking at two years of test data in reading and math, the report noted that, “Overall the comparable students always out-performed the Edison students.”
At only one of the seven Dallas Edison schools did the measured student performance improve at a rate comparable to the comparison students. But the Edison school that did so was one that tested a much lower percentage of students on the Stanford-9 assessment than other schools in the District, the report stated.
The August decision by the Dallas school board to fire Edison was unanimous, and board members cited not only student performance but also high costs. Board president Ken Zornes told Bloomberg News that the district was spending hundreds of dollars more per student in Edison schools.
“The whole concept behind privatization of schools is that they can do it better and cheaper. Edison hasn’t been able to do either,” Zornes said.
The Dallas study was completed too late to be included in a recent review by the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) of studies examining the effectiveness of private companies hired to run public schools. That review found that that studies produced by for-profit companies to advance their claims of increased student achievement are not scientifically rigorous. The GAO concluded that other studies critical of the results of these companies were similarly unreliable.
Ad claims rapid gains
Edison’s own claims of increased student achievement were touted in a full-page ad the company purchased in the October 28 New York Times, among other publications. There the company asserted that the test scores of Edison schools are improving faster than those of schools in the nation’s largest school systems.
Restating one of its widely publicized claims, the Edison ad said, “On independent criterion-reference tests, Edison’s annual rate of gain over the past five years is 5.7 points per year – a rate that is 2.7 times better than the average major public-school system in America.”
But the validity of these same claims has been challenged. In July, the New York Times itself published an article in which testing experts discussed Edison’s test score claims. The Times report said experts found fault with the company for comparing annual gains achieved by students on different kinds of tests from different testing companies.
Another component of Edison’s New York Times ad came under criticism from the local coalition Philadelphians United to Support Public Schools. The group noted in a press release that a bar graph in the Edison ad was distorted to create an exaggerated appearance that Edison is showing steady yearly growth in the number of students enrolled in Edison schools. A look at the actual enrollment numbers cited on the graph shows that after several years of rapidly growing enrollment, Edison’s growth is now leveling off.
Despite winning a contract covering almost 13,000 students in Philadelphia, Edison’s overall student enrollment grew by only 6,000 students this fall.
With the impending loss of its Dallas schools and few new contracts on the horizon, the company’s current 80,000-student enrollment is likely to decline next year, casting doubt on Edison’s predictions of profitability.
Other districts and charter boards that have cancelled contracts with Edison include Minneapolis; Colorado Springs; Sherman, Texas; the Southwest Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas; Goldsboro and Nash-Rocky Mount, North Carolina; Lansing and Mt. Clemens, Michigan; Wichita, Kansas; Macon, Georgia; Hamden, Connecticut; Trenton’s Granville Charter board; and the Boston Renaissance Charter board.
With the recent cancellation of contracts for two schools in Wichita, all four communities where Edison managed schools in its first two years have ended their relationship with the company.
In recent contract cancellations, districts have cited a range of factors:
- The Nash-Rocky Mount School District, in retaking control of an Edison-run elementary school, cited a sharp decline in enrollment and test scores that the district superintendent characterized to the Wall Street Journal as “very, very low.”
- The Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia cancelled contracts for two schools in August, two years early, citing low test scores and high teacher turnover.
- The Wichita school board said that two Edison-run schools were costing the district $500,000 more annually than comparable schools and said they were confident they could run the schools and achieve comparable improvement.