A city's schools test a new way

School privatization gets a boost from good results in Philadelphia.

When the Philadelphia School District was struggling several years ago, one of the lifelines tossed to it was thrown by Edison Schools, Inc., a New York-based for-profit offering a can-do approach to public education.

Since then, the nation's largest educational management company has had troubles of its own, ranging from failure to perform successfully in a number of the public schools it was serving to a virtual collapse in the value of its stock.

But if privatizing school management has not proven to be the panacea many in Philadelphia had hoped, neither has Edison been the district's undoing, as activists and others warned when the firm was brought in during the rancorous and bitter state takeover of the district in 2002. On the contrary, test scores are up district-wide, and some of the most impressive gains have come in 20 of the toughest schools, those turned over to Edison in a last-ditch effort to jump-start them into performing.

"They've done a superb job with the most difficult schools," said James Nevels, chairman of the state-appointed School Reform Commission, which took over after the school board was disbanded.

Many thought the company itself wouldn't last. Stock prices had plummeted by 2003, some districts canceled their contracts, and the company went private that spring. But Edison spokesman Adam Tucker says the company's slide has been reversed and it enjoyed its first operating profit in its 12-year history at the end of last year.

The district, says chairman Nevels, has seen no evidence of financial troubles, but is free to terminate the contract "at will."

Not everyone has been converted. Barbara Goodman, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which fought the partnership, and whose members now staff the Edison schools, credits the district workforce with the gains in performance, and says the PFT favors uniform administration. Lois Yampolsky, a community activist who also fought privatization, still believes profitmaking Edison shouldn't be there, rejecting the company's argument that in public schools everything from transportation to textbooks comes from the private sector - and that there's no reason management shouldn't as well.

In the Philadelphia district, the company is the largest player in a network of independent management partners that includes universities and colleges as well as other private companies. Such outsourcing exists to various degrees in Chicago, New York, and other large cities, and is a development applauded by some experts.

"Centralized control is not working in American urban education," says Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University. One way to find out what does work, he insists, is to explore a range of options in a Philadelphia-like mix.

Before the state takeover, the school district, with 200,000 students and 276 schools, seemed badly in need of new solutions. The Reform Commission, which hired CEO Paul Vallas, formerly head of Chicago schools and credited with positive reforms in that district, selected Philadelphia's 45 worst-performing schools and divvied them up for intensive care. Edison got the worst of the lot, including eight middle schools generally thought to be among the most intractable.

Edison "did a number of things right," said Nevels. They brought in their curriculum model, high in structure, heavy in math and reading, and full of opportunities for staff development.

Edison's centerpiece, many believe, is a benchmark assessment component, in which students are tested every six weeks. Scores are available immediately. Unlike traditional achievement tests, where results come well after students have moved on to the next grade, the Edison model immediately detects strengths and deficiencies in classes as a whole as well as in individual students. Students are then grouped according to the precise skills needing more attention.

"We can be more diagnostic in our approach," said Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Shaw Middle School.

Because the Edison schools receive an extra $750 more per student, critics complain the odds are tilted in their favor. But with the least experienced staff, and thus the lowest payrolls, the underperforming schools face a budget inequity at the outset, Tucker says. Teachers were allowed to transfer out of Edison schools before the takeover, and many did.

Among the year's achievement highlights, student scores on the 2003-04 Pennsylvania state tests were up substantially in the district as a whole, and Edison's gains mirrored the district's. Edison's average annual gain in the number of students scoring at or above proficiency level was 10.2 percentage points in fifth- and eighth-grade reading, and 9.6 percentage points in math. Prior to the partnership, the same schools' average annual gain in proficiency was less than one-half of one percentage point.

Having Philadelphia's worst-achieving schools hold their own is a source of pride to Edison and a confirmation to the district that private management can work.

Both parties gave up some turf in the partnership. To accommodate union contracts, Edison gave up the longer school days and longer school years that are part of its educational model. And the Edison schools made do with a smaller proportion of non-teaching assistants to free up money for more teachers, in accordance with the Edison approach.

For all the gains, Philadelphia's challenges remain daunting. The half-dozen schools on the district's "persistently dangerous" list when assigned to Edison have been moved off, but violence continues to be problem. Two weeks ago, a student at an Edison-run middle school was allegedly raped by another in a stairwell.

And academic progress, though improving, is still painfully slow. "We're absolutely euphoric at the progress we've made, but we're nowhere near where we need to be," says Nevels.

Committed to turning the district around by 2008, he says he is pleased to have Edison - now in the third year of a five-year contract - help with the heavy lifting.

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