Reading, Writing, ROI

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

When I started chairing Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission three years ago, schoolchildren, parents and teachers greeted me with threats and protests. I won’t forget the sign hoisted by a grade-schooler that read, “We Hate You Nevels–Go Home.”

Why such animosity? My commission was making a controversial proposition: to run the nation’s eighth-largest school district like a business.

After two years of dramatic reforms we’re showing striking results. Between 2003 and 2004 the percentage of the city’s public school students scoring “proficient” or better on state exams increased an average of eight percentage points in reading and math for fifth grade and an average of eleven points in reading and math for eighth grade. Our gains are among the largest posted by any of the 50 biggest urban school systems in the country, according to the Council of Great City Schools.

How did we — teachers, principals and our chief executive, Paul Vallas — do it? We defined the district’s “customers” exclusively as the 200,000 children we serve. Not interest groups. Not adult constituencies. We held adults accountable for results.

To start, we instituted businesslike systems. First came a standardized curriculum so that all students would learn what we agreed was most crucial for success and could easily transfer among schools.

Elementary school students now spend two hours a day on reading and 90 minutes on math, double what they spent before. We conduct benchmark testing every six weeks in elementary and middle schools and every four weeks in high schools. This helps teachers to either dedicate more time to a subject in which students are struggling or provide advanced instruction in subjects students have mastered.

We improved conditions for teachers by reducing class sizes in 2,300 classrooms and by adding 225 academic coaches who help teachers tackle deficiencies in literacy, math and science.

Our code of discipline is one of the toughest in the nation, and even extends to acts committed after school hours, off of school grounds. If a bully beats up a classmate at a bus stop on a Saturday, we will suspend him. In the past he wouldn’t even have received a reprimand. A high schooler who damages property or commits an assault will be removed from his neighborhood school and sent to an alternative education high school. We have a district police officer in every school, and we have invested millions on metal detectors and video cameras.

Those reforms cost money, so we had to get the school district’s then-$1.85 billion annual budget on a firm footing. When we took over, there was literally no accountability. School officials couldn’t even tell us how much was being spent on transportation. So we instituted standard bookkeeping practices, and then we started to cut the fat. One of the many things we learned to do without: an assessment test that would have been custom-designed for our district. Instead we use a standard, nationally recognized test.

We raised $25 million in state, federal, corporate and foundation grants and increased our budget to $2.3 billion. We’re devoting $60 million to reducing class size and $40 million to developing alternative schools.

Through negotiations with the teachers’ union that resulted in a new contract in November 2004, we’ve overhauled the way we assign teachers. The most troubled schools used to get the newest teachers. Now we assign teachers to meet children’s needs.

In the face of heated protests we assigned 45 of our 276 schools to private managers, including 20 to Edison Schools. The result: Schools that were stagnating are seeing jumps of ten points and more in proficiency scores.

We’ve instituted a new culture of accountability. One of our private partners did not produce and we terminated our collaboration. The ones that have produced results may receive more schools. That’s the way it would work in business. That’s the way it will work here.