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Philadelphia School Reforms Show Positive Early Results

A school turnaround effort in Philadelphia that turned some low-performing schools over to charter operators and brought others into direct control of the central office has yielded better test scores and higher attendance in most of those schools, according an early report by Research for Action, a nonprofit research organization in the city.

The results were similar regardless of whether the charter organization or the school district was running the school, the report notes. However, the research is too limited to determine if the positive results can be kept up, the study authors wrote. And the 155,000-student district, facing a major budget shortfall, has already cut back on support for the turnaround effort compared with its first year of operation in 2010-11. District officials are in the midst of deciding if they will continue or expand the reform program.

The report will not be able to answer all questions about the turnaround effort because it did not explore whether the money spent on the school reforms would have had similar or stronger effects had it been spent in other ways, said Kate Shaw, the executive director of Research for Action, in an interview. However, the report "emerges right in the middle of the school district's efforts to get a handle on its finances," Shaw said. "It injects some concrete information into the discussion."

The Renaissance Schools and the Promise Academies were a signature effort of former Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who left the 155,000 district last August under acrimonious circumstances, taking a buyout of more than $900,000.

In its first year, four K-8 schools and two high schools were designated "Promise Academies," placing them under central office management. Most of the principals and all the teaching staff were replaced and the schools were given a longer school day and year.

Seven K-8 schools were operated by four different charter management organizations. Those schools were allowed to operate with relative autonomy, and adopted various types of reform measures.

The Research for Action report compared those schools to similar schools in Philadelphia. The report found that in the program's first year, Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools achieved significantly higher results compared to similar schools. On average, the percentage of students at each Renaissance School scoring proficient or above on math state tests increased from 30 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 44 percent in 2010-11. On average, the percentage of students at each Renaissance School scoring proficient or above on the reading state test increased from 24 percent in 2009-10 to 32 percent a year later. There was no statistically significant difference between the Renaissance model and the Promise Academy model, the report said.

"People interpret that in different ways," Shaw said. Some might say that the district should turn more schools over to charter operators; others could contend that the results mean that turnarounds can be managed by the district. The report itself does not come to a conclusion on that issue. It also notes that the Promise Academy high schools did not see the same level of academic success as the K-8 schools.

The organization is hoping to do a follow-up report on Philadelphia's results, Shaw said. "The question is, can these results be sustained over time? That's the reason it's important to watch over this."

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