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Reconsidering that study on companies running schools in Philly

Maybe I fell victim to the blindly trust-Harvard-professors trap when writing about a recent report on for-profit school management in Philadelphia. The report found that for-profit companies like Edison are doing a better job of running the schools than non-profit managers and the regular district, and it led some readers to ask me why New York City doesn’t bring in companies to manage the schools here. (All we have our “support” organizations that are run either by school district employees or by nonprofits.)

But the report should not be seen as the final word on the Philadelphia experiment. Here’s a critique of the research, which was conducted by Paul Peterson (he of Harvard) that’s worth reading as a counter-point. Written by a parent activist who has argued against for-profit school management, the critique argues that Peterson also has a bias, demonstrated by his track record of studies favoring market-based school reforms. More important, the parent activist points to three independent studies that found opposite results — at least one of which inspired Peterson’s effort to look at the numbers again.

Maybe even more important than the other studies is the fact that, if you look into the report a little more closely, as I did this morning, you’ll find that part of its funding comes from one of the for-profit companies it praises: EdisonLearning. Other funds come from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, under the Bush administration’s leadership, presumably, and from two right-leaning foundations, Olin and Bradley.

I spoke to an associate director at the Harvard research center, Antonio Wendland, this morning. He said that he doesn’t think the funds from Edison compromise the center’s research, which doesn’t just appear in the center’s journal, Education Next, but will also be presented at conferences around the country. “Someone has to pay for it,” Wendland said, explaining that the center is financed almost entirely by grants. “I guess you could characterize it as a criticism that we have accepted money from some people who have stake in it, but we’ve been open about it, and no one has said, ‘Oh let me show you the fault in the research.'”

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