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February 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 5

The Promise of Public/Private Partnerships

In Philadelphia, the public and private sectors effectively work together to close the achievement gap.

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Millions of public educators are working tirelessly and the United States is spending billions of dollars annually to solve one of the country's most vexing social problems: our education achievement gap and its horrific life consequences for millions of our children, particularly children of color. The problem is a stubborn one, with deep-rooted impediments to its resolution. But recent events have shown that at least one of those impediments is not only resolvable but entirely of our own creation: the political and ideological debate over whether or not it is “right” for a school district to deploy private-sector education organizations as part of its education improvement strategy.
This ideological debate can be a red herring—and entirely counter-productive—as the School District of Philadelphia illustrates. The lesson of Philadelphia is that using private-sector entities is not a matter of right or wrong. Rather it is, and should be, simply a question of what public school educators believe is the best strategy to improve achievement in their districts. If the accountability and expertise of the private sector add value and return on the public investment, then the district should use private-sector entities. If they don't add value, then the district should not use them. Philadelphia shows us that it can be as simple as that.
Two years ago, when public school students in Philadelphia returned to classes, the eyes of the nation were on them. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had just initiated a takeover of the academically and financially distressed school system, the seventh-largest in the United States, comprising more than 200,000 students in 250 schools. It was the largest state intervention in U.S. history. The state implemented a series of sweeping reforms, but the news coverage focused almost entirely on one: the fact that private-sector organizations would be responsible for operating dozens of the district's schools—in particular, its lowest-performing schools, which improvement efforts in past decades had affected least. Not only would Philadelphia be the largest state takeover ever, but it would also be the largest public/private partnership in the history of U.S. schooling. Edison Schools alone was responsible for taking over 20 schools.
The takeover triggered a pitched ideological battle during which dire predictions were pronounced. A heated debate raged over whether “corporate greed” and “profits on the backs of children” should be allowed to intrude into the classroom. People protested in the streets. The whole endeavor almost imploded before it even began.
Partisans, fueled by a media that adored the conflict, described the battle as a titanic ideological clash to prevent the intrusion of profit-making into the classroom rather than as a high-accountability partnership with research-tested private-sector entities focused on generating “achievement by design.” We watched in disbelief as some actually argued for adhering to the past—a past that had produced, in no small number of schools, 95 percent failure rates.
The national spotlight is again on Philadelphia, but for different reasons. Today Philadelphia stands as a beacon of cooperation and extraordinary academic progress. The School District of Philadelphia is now celebrating great gains in student achievement. After years of failing test scores—in some schools, only 1 or 2 percent of students were reading at proficient levels—the district has chalked up its second straight year of solid gains on the state's high-stakes test. The percentage of Philadelphia 8th graders scoring at proficient levels in reading and math on the Pennsylvania System of Schools Assessment shot up 10 points last year—the biggest one-year jump in all but a few of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts and the largest gain of any urban school system in the state. Philadelphia's improvements exceeded the gains of all but one of the 50 largest school systems in the United States for the 2002–2003 school year. And its gains were more than 10 times what the district had achieved in the past decade.

Lessons Learned

What lessons are reflected in Philadelphia's success? What can school districts across the United States learn and replicate from this extraordinary achievement?
Amid rampant skepticism about the public/private multiprovider model, Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia, ensured that the model was given a fair shot. Vallas also made managed instruction a priority in Philadelphia. All the Philadelphia schools managed by the district—beginning with the elementary and middle schools—use a standardized curriculum and instructional models that focus on proven best practices to drive achievement. In addition, the district is monitoring student progress, offering online lesson plans and support materials that enable teachers and administrators to more easily assess student progress. Overall, the managed instruction concept has brought the district coherence because it provides teachers and school administrators with crucial information to more effectively deliver instruction.
Still another lesson is the potential positive impact of a state takeover in jump-starting a school district stuck in neutral, or even in reverse. Philadelphia shows that state takeovers, which more often than not have produced little or no academic improvement, can bring about this improvement—as long as state leaders are committed to serious change.
The Philadelphia takeover plan, engineered by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and bipartisan leadership within the state's General Assembly, required Philadelphia to undertake dramatic academic reform. The plan mandated accountability and competition, and it increased resources to achieve these goals. The new School Reform Commission, under the leadership of James Nevels, was given sweeping new powers—and a clear directive to use them.
State takeovers should not be undertaken idly. As a nation, our default position rightly is one of community and local control, with state action resorted to only when all else has failed. But Philadelphia demonstrates that, done right, state intervention can provide the necessary spark to mobilize a struggling district and deliver impressive results.
There is another lesson. One key component of the Philadelphia success story is the district's unprecedented partnership with not one, but many, private-sector partners, a concept now called the multiprovider model. Under this partnership, the School Reform Commission arranged for companies, as well as universities and community organizations, to manage an unprecedented 20 percent of the district's schools.
The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University would participate, along with such local community organizations as Universal Companies and Foundations, Inc. Collectively these entities would represent one component of the commission's approach to improving schools.
Slowly but surely something remarkable happened. The protests that had greeted Edison's arrival quieted, then stopped completely. The reporters stopped coming by; day-to-day work is not the stuff of headlines. The district and its private-sector partners rolled up their sleeves and began working together methodically to improve student achievement, relying on best practices and innovative school designs. And perhaps most important, companies, nonprofits, and regular district schools alike competed, in a friendly but serious way, to produce the best possible results. The multiprovider model created an awareness of and a drive toward high performance.

Partnering for Results

All the private providers showed gains in the schools they managed, a remarkable fact when you consider that this group worked with the 45 most troubled schools in the city. Edison had the largest assignment and many of the most challenging schools, and it delivered as promised.
In 1996, the 20 schools that Edison now manages had a dismal record of student achievement. Only 4 percent of the approximately 13,000 students were proficient in reading and math. Between 1996 and 2002, hundreds of well-meaning teachers and principals worked hard to increase achievement, but in those six years, proficiency increased by only 4 points to reach 8 percent. The annual rate of gain was only two-thirds of a point. At that rate, it would take students more than 100 years to achieve proficiency.
The more than 1,000 teachers and 20 principals in Edison-managed schools improved their students' performance by 2 points in the very first year. The second year, ending in 2004, shows that the rate of gain has more than quintupled, increasing by 11 points in one year. In two years, schools improved proficiency on average by 13 points, or 6.5 points annually. That annual rate is more than 10 times the previous six years' annual rate of gain.
Does this mean that privately managed public schools are better than traditional public schools? Hardly. Philadelphia teaches us that this is the wrong question. It is a false choice and a contrived conflict that fuels ideological flames and suppresses options for public educators and opportunities for students.
Public education in the United States should be and will always be just that—public. It is one of our greatest institutional treasures, and government should never give up its control of any endeavor that is so fundamental to the nation's prosperity or to the fulfillment of its people's dreams. But the concurrent reality is that, as in other similarly important public endeavors—from health care to national defense to higher education—government has achieved some of its greatest accomplishments by working in partnership with private industry. Philadelphia teaches us that the same can be true in K–12 education.
School districts working hard to reverse the achievement gap should be free to decide whether or not to partner with private-sector entities. They should make this decision solely on the basis of whether or not the expertise and accountability that private-sector partners provide will enable them to improve education achievement. Private-sector organizations, be they companies or universities, might be uniquely suited to addressing the specific impediments to achievement that face a district. They can bring sophisticated benchmarking assessment systems to monitor student progress in real time, or they can provide intensive and cost-efficient professional development programs.
Edison Schools does not want to stand in opposition to public education. Every day we work with our public school colleagues, hand in hand, each of us offering assets the other may not be best suited to provide, which we deploy together for the betterment of students. The experience of Philadelphia schools shows that when the public and private sectors work together, dramatic things can happen. That's the notion on which Edison Schools was founded. That's the notion that Philadelphia affirms. And creating a healthy fresh look at private-sector partnerships in public education may prove to be one of Philadelphia's most historic outcomes.

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