Privatisation of Schools Fails the Test

A new study of the privatisation of schools in Philadelphia shows that they have failed to keep pace with student achievement in public schools.

Student achievement growth rate in schools run by educational management organizations (EMOs) fell significantly below the growth of public schools in both reading and mathematics between 2002 and 2006. In contrast, in the four years prior to privatisation, those schools later run by EMOs had achieved growth rates significantly higher than the rest of the district in reading and statistically equivalent in mathematics.

”By 2006, the achievement gap between the privatized group and the rest of the district was greater than it was before the intervention,” said the author of the study, Vaughn Byrnes, from John Hopkins University Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 April 2009].

These results were achieved despite higher government funding for the privately operated schools. Most of the privately operated schools received $450-$880 more per student than the publicly operated schools.

The study used 10 years of state reading and mathematics results before and after privatization of education services in the Philadelphia School District. It was based on a sample of 88 middle-grades schools.

The study is published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education

Its findings accord with those of two previous studies that found that public schools outperformed privately managed schools. Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the RAND Corporation and Research for Action in recent years both found that the EMO schools have achieved less than publicly operated schools.

In 2002, 45 failing Philadelphia schools were handed over to private managers as part of a state takeover of the school district. Over time, 17 schools were taken back. Today, the private managers run 28 city schools with roughly 13,400 children. The district spends $6.7 million annually for privately run schools.

Twenty of the schools are run by EdisonLearning, a for-profit company, which has been at the centre of controversy for over a decade in the United States. A recent study by Harvard University professor Paul Peterson found that students attending schools run by for-profit companies in Philadelphia did better in mathematics than public schools. The study was partially funded by Edison.

The new study and the Harvard study used a similar methodology as both attempt to compare each pre-intervention growth to post-intervention growth in student achievement. However, the new study makes use of five years of growth prior to intervention as a baseline for comparison, whereas the Harvard study compares the four years of post-intervention growth to only one year of pre-intervention growth.

Using five years of growth prior to intervention provides both a more reliable measure of pre-intervention trends from which to compare and results that are less vulnerable to statistical validity problems.

Advocates of privatisation have suggested that the EMO schools were given management of many of the lowest-achieving schools in Philadelphia. However, the new study includes statistical controls designed to remove any biases about pre-intervention test measures, student demographics and school structure.

Furthermore, the study shows that five of the worst performing schools in terms of absolute levels of achievement prior to state intervention were those under public management. They began with achievement levels as low as those of the EMO schools and with equally disadvantaged students.

It seems that these schools were the highest performers of all groups post-intervention as a result of other changes made to public schools. This further undermines the argument that the relative effectiveness of the district versus EMO management was due to pre-treatment differences in achievement levels and student demographics.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (9 April 2009), the School Reform Commission last year warned some operators that unless their performance improved significantly this school year, their contracts would not be renewed.

Privatization proponents have argued that the bureaucratization of the education system is at the heart of its failure and a main cause of the poor performance in many public school districts. They say that privatization would provide more efficient administration and use of resources, as well as greater innovation and improvement in the provision of services arrived at through competition in an open market.

The hand-over of schools to private operators in Philadelphia is the largest privatization experiment in the United States. It is a major test of the benefits of markets and competition in schooling. It appears to have failed the test.

Trevor Cobbold

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