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No more quick fixes

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is in the fifth year of a nationally watched experiment in transferring the management of dozens of schools to for-profit companies, nonprofits, and universities.

When the School Reform Commission embarked on that experiment in 2002, its proponents argued that radical measures were necessary to turn around failing schools and that the District should go into the free market and hire “providers” who had the resources and know-how to transform these schools.

Critics, including this newspaper, argued that it was a mistake to divert scarce public funds to for-profit corporations like Edison Schools Inc., and said that instead of simply imposing a top-down solution, the SRC should listen to teachers and communities about what they want for their schools.

The time to decide whether to rehire those school managers is near. Do we know whether Philadelphia’s experiment with private management has proven to be an effective reform strategy?

Some are saying, “Absolutely!” They argue that Philadelphia’s test score gains over the past four years have been stronger than other big city school systems, suggesting that something is working here.

But, if we take these gains at face value as a sign of real improvement, it may be that what has been working in Philadelphia is the increased investment of city and state funds in the District. Maybe it’s the smaller class sizes and smaller schools … or the strides Philadelphia has made in securing qualified teachers … or the District’s investment in a new, standardized curriculum … or the extra time in afterschool and summer school. Maybe it’s the steady leadership of CEO Paul Vallas and SRC Chair Jim Nevels – who for better or worse have kept the focus on boosting test scores.

Comparing the performance of different managers, it appears so far that the strongest performance gains are at District-run schools. As a group, the privately managed schools are actually falling further behind in their overall scores. This despite getting extra funds to bring them up to speed – almost $90 million in extra resources has been directed to the schools run by private managers since 2002.

Edison Schools, the other for-profit managers, and their proponents came here talking the talk about measurable results and accountability. They signed five-year contracts with the District that say their schools “will make adequate yearly progress (AYP).” No ifs, ands, or buts.

This year, 32 of 43 privately managed schools failed to meet their AYP targets. For two years in a row, the total number of privately managed schools making AYP has declined. And on other indicators like average daily attendance, parental involvement, and suspension rates, the overall results for the EMO schools are unimpressive.

While test scores for the privately managed schools have been rising overall, there is a lot of variation within the group by manager, subject, and grade level. Over four years, the performance of the university partnership schools has been the most obvious bright spot – one piece of this experiment that may be worth continuing. But if teaching fifth graders how to read is your benchmark, the rate of improvement generated by the privately managed schools as a whole has been a measly one percentage point a year.

What’s clear from our examination of this checkered landscape is that these private managers cannot be counted on to create schools that are qualitatively better than what was offered before – even with an average of a half million dollars more per school.

Rather than appointing a new set of private managers, it’s time to acknowledge that EMOs are not the answer. Yes, schools can all benefit from outside partnerships. But shopping for the right education management organization is not going to be a quick fix for struggling schools that may be lacking fundamentals like strong leadership, a skilled teaching staff, a positive school culture, community partnerships, and adequate resources.

What comes next for Philadelphia’s struggling schools must not be another top-down decision putting someone new in charge. The process should start not with closed-door discussions by the SRC and District staff to decide on a plan – but with forums or discussions that tap the wisdom and experiences of the people at these schools. The District should work with each school to figure out how they can get maximum benefit from the resources now going to private managers. If we want to build the capacity of Philadelphia’s struggling schools, it is vital that we allow parents, staff, and concerned community members to have a real voice in that process.