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District and Penn team up to study school turnarounds

Notebook's Paul Socolar will be on the advisory board.

By David Limm on Oct 2, 2014 05:30 PM

Philadelphia, distinct among large urban districts for its long history of pursuing school turnarounds using outside management organizations, has been a real-world laboratory of reform experiments for more than a decade.

By studying the successes and failures of the District's recent efforts to turn around academically underachieving schools, a team of researchers wants to create a body of knowledge that all schools can use to improve.

The School District and the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education will undertake a two-year, federal grant-funded research partnership to examine school remodeling efforts in Philadelphia, seeking to understand what makes them soar or fall flat.

With twin $200,000 grants from the Department of Education, the District and Penn GSE will work in tandem to take a deep analytical dive into the District's turnaround efforts, including its two major restart models: the District-run Promise Academies and the charter-operated Renaissance schools.

Leading the core team of researchers are Laura Desimone, an associate professor at Penn, and Tonya Wolford, the District's deputy of research and evaluation. The project is called "Shared Solutions."

"We are interested in studying those reform models that the District sees as promising and helpful," said Desimone. Although the schools set to be studied haven't been finalized yet, she noted that Mastery and Universal, two of the District's favored Renaissance charter operators, would be looked at, along with the newly launched School Redesign Initiative.

Desimone said she wants the research to be useful and applicable across all schools in the District.

"We are going to work with the SDP to refine a set of instruments they can use to study their schools," she said, "so schools can learn from each other." 

Throughout the research phase, the group will also present and engage with the public -- both with teachers and school administrators through mini-conferences, and with the broader community through forums. The first mini-conference is scheduled for Nov. 12.

The partnership will also consult an advisory board, a group of stakeholders mostly drawn from Philadelphia's education community. They include representatives from Drexel's and Temple's schools of education, the William Penn Foundation, the Council of Great City Schools, Kate Shaw of Research for Action, Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education, and Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar. 

"It's encouraging to see these resources going into research about school improvement efforts in the School District. The whole effort to turn around low-performing schools has been probably the biggest story in Philadelphia education for more than a decade now, but there really isn't a solid or widely shared understanding of what's worked, what's failed, and why," said Socolar.

"This new partnership is also going to look at the question of how success is measured,and it's understood that we have to look at more than whether the PSSA scores went up."

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Comments (31)

Submitted by Dave M (not verified) on October 2, 2014 6:06 pm

I'd like to share my experiences from when all the teachers at King were banished in the name of progress when the school was deemed a turn-around.  Wow, even the name turn-a-round sounds so pleasant.  Kind of like a dance....  The reality is it was anything but pleasant and what did it achieve?  Nothing.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 2, 2014 7:13 pm

This is encouraging to hear. We certainly need open and honest study of the effects of our efforts. We also must develop valid and credible assessment tools. The PSSA's are not one of them. 

We also need open and honest collegial conversations including every aspect of our Philadelphia school community. Dave M is right. I am also skeptical of the word "turnaround." 

The last thing we need to see happen is another decade of test and deceive and propagandize.

We should stop misusing tests and incessantly pressuring our children.

Back when we had our Reading program at Uni, (1975 - the early 90's) we always strived to find valid assessments for pre and post tests. We administered them in an informal manner by the students' reading teachers in a supportive and trusting environment. Of course we had small classes, too.

We virtually never embarked on test preparation and never falsified any data. That idea just never crossed our minds. We did honest research at our school, and our reading program evolved from our formal and informal diagnostc evaluations. We took ownership and pride in what we did. It was fun and rewarding in and of itself.

Authenitc instruction with authentic materials works best. It always has and it always will. 

What we need is "collective credibility."


Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on October 3, 2014 12:12 pm



I am a special education teacher grades 7 & 8, reading intervention teachers grades 7 & 8, SEL and the 8th Grade Math teacher at a neighborhood K-8 school.  I agree with you whole heartedly.  The PSSA's are not a valid assessment and they do not measure individual student growth.  The diagnostic assessments and progress monitoring assessments I use paint a much more detailed picture of my students' ability levels.  I wish we could diagnostically assess all students at the beginning of the school year and at the end of the school year and use those measures to determine whether or not students are making progress.


LS Teach

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 3, 2014 2:21 pm

Exactly. I believe there should always be a diagnostic pretest and post test given at the very begining and very end of the year.

They should be given in an informal manner with a relaxed atmophere. Even if it is a standardized measure.

We tried all kinds of asessments and finally settled on a few. We used the MAT6 reading comprehension assesemnt as a standrdized measure. It was written by Roger Farr who was a leading expert on reading and its measurement. It gave us an instructional level and percentile rankings. It could be given in about a half hour or so.  

It began with very easy passages at the 3rd or 4th grade levels and went up to the high school levels. You could see at which level their comprehension began to break down.

Then we had graded word lists, and cloze tests to back up our results. We even had IRI's (Individual Reading Inventories). But what we used most, once we got started, was the informal assessment we did as the kids did their reading activities and read to us aloud. We used a lot of short stories and factual articles for instruction and all had classroom libraries for books.

I used to have the kids read Sholastic Scope plays and stuff on Fridays so I could get them to read aloud to see how they were doing with their word recognition and fluency. The kids loved to read them. 

Much of the job of the Reading Teacher is to be a Coach.

Submitted by Jim (not verified) on October 2, 2014 7:05 pm

So will this result in Mastery and Universal getting exposed for hand picking their students and kicking out the neighborhood students that can't hack it?  Just out of curiosity how many new teachers could the district afford to hire for $400k rather than lining the pockets of Penn and more soon to be hired administrators at 440 to study turnaround schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 2, 2014 9:30 pm

Grant money, Jim.

Submitted by Dave M (not verified) on October 2, 2014 8:54 pm

Nice positive and insightful comments Rich.

Submitted by Lisa Haver on October 2, 2014 9:52 pm

"We are interested in studying those reform models that the District sees as promising and helpful," said Desimone.

Let's save everybody a lot of time and money.  The reform models that the District sees as promising--giving schools to charters, transforming schools with money from PSP such as Blaine and Kelley, Promise Academies--always involve getting rid of the teachers.   

And does the school district really need a study from Penn to justify throwing more business to Mastery and Universal? 


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 2, 2014 10:39 pm

WHo in their right mind...except the district..would favor Universal? Are they going to study how Universal Creighton has had three principals in three years?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 3, 2014 7:27 am

"And does the school district really need a study from Penn to justify throwing more business to Mastery and Universal? "

I think the district was genuinely caught off guard by the parent repsonse at Steele and Munoz-Marin. The next time parents attempt to prevent the district from steamrolling them by handing their children's school to the charter operator of the district's choice without their consent, out will come studies from Penn which will be used to justify the charter conversion. You can count on the words "Penn" and "evidence-based" coming out of some public officals mouth as they tell parents that the charter conversion is what's best for their children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 3, 2014 1:23 pm

Those were my exact immediate thoughts too Lisa

Submitted by Dave M (not verified) on October 3, 2014 5:21 am

Lisa, do you think that that is what the purpose is, to justify more privatization and the destruction of public schools.  Maybe you're right.  I don't know.

Submitted by Lisa Haver on October 3, 2014 12:38 pm


Yes. I do.  Why does the school district need a study to do figure out how to do what they've been doing for years?  

The anonymous just above you has it right.   Parents are seeing that the district's many turnaround efforts--including giving public schools to charter operators and creating Promise Academies which they can't afford--are obvious failures which only create instability. So the district has to find something else in its bag of tricks.  Last year it was inventing "Transformation Schools" which resulted in Blaine and Kelley force-transferring their faculties after receiving grants from PSP. Then it was creating "innovative schools" with private funding.  This year it is the Redesign Initiative, which is one of the more harebrained ideas to come out of 440.

Penn runs a program in conjunction with TFA.  Their GSE  receives a large endowment from the Milken Foundation—yes, Michael Milken, the junk bond king who went to prison for securities fraud. So it is not news that they are advocates of corporate ed reform.  But using Penn’s name and prestige to give credence to the district’s privatization agenda?  Maybe someone  else can explain what Penn has to gain from this.  


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 3, 2014 1:56 pm

How about a moratorium on new charters and "turnarounds" for now to test that theory while  this study is taking place. I think I'm hearing "in your dreams not gonna happen."

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 3, 2014 3:49 pm


Dave, Lisa and the Anonymous. We will see very quickly if this is just another effort to justify the privatization of the American schoolhouse, or if it is legitimate research. 

This should be a truth seeking venture. If it is not, it will lose its credibility right away.

That is my concern with using the PSSA's and Keystones. I do not think that they are valid and are now being used for the wrong reasons. 

That is why the opt-out movement is growing so fast -- the misuse of standardized tests.




Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 3, 2014 8:26 am

It says it all that University of Pennsylvania is teaming up with the School District to privatize Philadelphia public schools. They are basically being paid to scout the public schools for sources of profit.

UPenn Offers Degree in Soulless Profiteering


Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on October 3, 2014 9:58 pm

I am worried that if Wolf is elected and increases education funding it will bring a frenzy of privatization. The District just agreed to accept new charter proposals. There is a new state board to "review" appeals for charter applications that don't get approved, and all the major players are lining up to get their piece of the pie. Look at York, PA-100% charterization in the works and not a peep from Wolf.

More funding for education in our state is no guarantee that children in Philadelphia's neighborhood public schools will gain more resources. Resources in community schools doesn't make anyone a profit. No, those schools will continue to be starved and tested so that they can be "Masteried" or "Universaled" or "Aspira-ed." Every week there seems to be a new story about "research" projects being undertaken by the District (Harvard, RFA, Penn, who's next?). Don't delude yourself. The people who are funding these studies will get what they paid for, and it won't be good news for regular public schools.


Submitted by Diane Payne (not verified) on October 4, 2014 10:08 am "advisory board of educational stakeholders"  that only includes one stakeholder from the parent side (Helen Gym) and NONE from the teacher side....REALLY.  More money and more smoke to twist the dialogue to suit their predetermined policies.  


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 4, 2014 12:05 pm

The district needs to be turned around.  Ten years before charters, there were still failing schools in Philly.  The same schools that are failing now were ostensibly failing then.  There has to be reform that goes beyond giving more money to a district that continues to be corrupt, inefficient and ineffective.  Keep in mind that the turn around model with charter operators is district created and district controlled.  There needs to be a serious change in district leadership and how educational services are provided.

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