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Gap widens between privately managed and District schools

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

The rising tide of test scores in Philadelphia has been lifting all ships – public schools and charter schools, District-run and privately managed schools.

But even though they have progressed in both reading and math scores each year since 2002, the more than 40 schools in Philadelphia run by private managers are as a group lagging ever further behind District-run schools in their student proficiency rates, according to the latest state test results.

These privately managed schools are also less likely to have met their Adequate Yearly Progress targets than comparable schools that have stayed under District management throughout the recent reform.

Abysmally low test scores were the reason that 46 schools were turned over to private “education management organizations” (EMOs) four years ago in the School Reform Commission’s first months. Those decisions were based strictly on the numbers – the SRC ranked all the elementary and middle schools and targeted the lowest-scoring ones.

Above all, what the privately managed schools have been charged to achieve is improvement in test scores – the standard specified by the accountability provisions in the school management contracts of the private providers. And for at least some of the private managers, the progress has been disappointing.

“What EMOs will stay and which schools they will manage will depend on their performance, and there is no stronger indicator of performance than test scores, or for that matter AYP,” noted CEO Paul Vallas at a recent press conference.

This summer’s announcement of 2006 results on the PSSA exam and of whether schools met their performance targets for adequate yearly progress reinforced a prior trend. As measured by test scores, the gap is widening between most District schools and the low-performing schools singled out for reform in 2002 that are now under private management.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on both reading and math is now 19 points lower in the privately managed schools than the rest of the District’s schools, compared to 16 points in 2002 (see test score gains).

A declining number – just over a quarter – of privately managed schools made AYP targets in 2006. For low-performing schools that had been restructured by the District or received extra funds and stayed under District management since 2002, 14 of 32 (44 percent) made their targets this year, the Notebook found.

District officials are quick to point out that the privately managed schools were among the most academically challenged elementary and middle schools in the system. But the expectation has been that the job of the school managers was to narrow that gap, and they were given extra funds to do it – to the tune of half a million dollars for the average school.

A 2005 District report prepared for the SRC stated the School District’s expectation that “EMOs will raise the achievement of low-performing schools at a rate equal to, or better than that of the District.”

Commenting on manager performance doing at an August press briefing, Vallas said, “The universities are doing well with their schools.”

“There are some EMOs that have had success with some schools and not with other schools,” he added.

Vallas noted that there about 60 low-performing schools in the system, twenty of them EMO schools, for which the District is exploring “much more aggressive intervention.”