JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, an update on school reform in Philadelphia, and the turmoil in Liberia. Betty Ann Bowser reports the Philadelphia story.
TEACHER: What word?
TEACHER: Come on, guys. Everybody, what word?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last fall, when we visited Regina Johnson's seventh-grade class, she had trouble keeping her students awake, never mind getting them excited about learning.
REGINA JOHNSON: So you have your geography books. I have some magazines.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But over the school year, she says, it's gotten better.
REGINA JOHNSON: And you're going to create your own travel brochure.
REGINA JOHNSON: I've seen a lot of growth in their reading, their participation in class. Their self-confidence has just changed tremendously.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson teaches at Fitzsimons Middle School in Philadelphia. It's one of the worst schools in one of the worst school districts in the nation. Fitzsimons is now being run by a private for-profit company called Victory Schools. It's part of a massive public school reform effort that began last year when the state took over the entire system.
TEACHER: How many points?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a bold experiment, it turned over the 48 lowest-performing schools to five private companies and two universities.
SPOKESMAN: They'll roughly get what they got last year.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: To further stir things up, the state also hired Paul Vallas, who had been at the helm of reforming the Chicago city schools. He brought with him his own ideas.
TEACHER: Take your time -- your own solution. What would your own solution be?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Vallas took the remaining 20 low-performing schools, gave them more money, new curriculum, teacher training, and mandatory after- school programs. He called them the restructured schools. Some educators thought it was a prescription for disaster, too many cooks making too many recipes. So for the past year, all eyes have been on the city of Philadelphia to see what would happen. The first indication came in mid-June, when district-wide test scores were released. Math scores were up significantly. Overall, the district scores went up 9.2 percent. Vallas's restructured schools were up 11.4 percent. And among the private company schools, Victory kids did the best, up 8.9 percent. Lynn Spampinato, who's in charge of the five victory schools, thinks intensive teacher training made a difference.
LYNN SPAMPINATO, Victory Schools: I think we've made some significant gains our first year, due to very much the focus on staff development. We've clocked in over 10,000 hours of staff development for our teachers in the intensive coaching model. So in each of our buildings, our teachers are supported by in- building coaches who coach teachers in partnership, all day, every day, to raise the bar.
TEACHER: Good job. So...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another thing Victory did was reduce class size in the lower elementary grades, from 27 down to 16 or 17 students per class. And it adopted a rigid new curriculum for reading and writing. At Fitzsimons Middle School, Victory also took the radical step of separating the boys from the girls.
AUDREA LACKWOOD, Student: I'm learning more. My behavior has improved, and I get good grades.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Without the boys around?
STUDENT: Yeah, I truly learned a lot.
STUDENT: I learned a lot.
JACKIE BROWN, Student: It do seem like I can concentrate more without boys rolling around, always looking at you and staring at you.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It makes you work harder?
SIERRA GRAY, Student: Yes, and make me push myself, that I know when I get to high school next year, I'm going to push myself, and I know I can do it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gwen Watson is an academic coach for Victory, and the union representative at her school. She thinks things are better this year, with some exceptions.
GWEN WATSON: I think that there's too much emphasis on testing. It just makes everybody really nervous. I personally am not always a good tester, and to have more tests for me would make me more nervous, and I'm sure that children feel the same way. There's a constant barrage of tests.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Frequent testing is also one of the hallmarks at the 20 schools run by Edison. One of the best-known for-profit management companies, Edison has had a mixed record of success nationwide. When the state awarded so many schools to Edison, there was a storm of protest. Richard Barth manages Edison's Philadelphia schools. He says in just nine months, people have changed their minds about his company.
RICHARD BARTH, Edison Schools: You know, when we started on Sept. 5, there were a lot of people who I think... we had horns in our heads. People thought, you know, who are these... what is this Edison thing? There was so much, as you know, acrimonious buildup, and I think we end the year with positive feeling in these schools, and with people really feeling like next year, it's going to be a home-run year.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The major component of Edison's reform is the monthly testing of students called benchmarks. It allows teachers, administrators, parents, and students themselves to see exactly whether they are making improvements.
TEACHER: Good luck, and see me before you leave.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Aaron Starke is the principal of Edison's Kenderton Elementary. He loves the benchmark testing, and he says the kids do, too.
AARON STARKE, Edison Schools Principal: They know what benchmarks are. They know about competing to get higher scores on their benchmarks. They know about testing. They know that testing, and state testing, is important. Do test scores mean everything? No. I don't think the test scores mean everything. But I do believe that because that's what we're being measured by, then that's what we have to produce on.
TEACHER: You're finding the sale price of a watch. Kurt...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In addition to testing, Edison put in new curricula for reading, science, social studies, and math, and then spent $2 million training teachers to use the new materials. Some parents who initially opposed Edison are now among its biggest supporters. Daniel Wideman sees a big change in his seven-year-old son.
DANIEL WIDEMAN: He's much more... he's a better student. He wants to do more. He wants to stay in school. He loves his teachers. He loves all his classmates, and he just loves to come to school. And that's what I love.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Edison had hoped it would see at least a 5 percent gain in its schools' reading scores. But they only went up 0.1 percent. In comparison, the Victory scores were up 2.3 percent, and restructured schools' scores went up 2.7 percent. Edison's Barth says less than 1 percent growth isn't good enough.
RICHARD BARTH: So what do you do? You have to double back and say, "what about this year worked, and what about this year didn't work? Or what about this year do we think didn't contribute?" And then you have to break it down. We've got to step back and figure this out, because this is not going to happen two years in a row. If we don't have growth, something... something has got to change in the plan for next year.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: CEO Vallas says he's just pleased the scores went up, and thinks it may be due to the competition that's been created.
PAUL VALLAS: The fact that there are different management approaches, there are management alternatives, has certainly created kind of a dynamic tension that I think is healthy. And I think, you know, we don't have... I'm not interested in ... you know, I'm not an ideologue on this whole issue of management approaches-- which is preferable than others. My preferred management approach is the one that works. You know, I think we're going to discover that there are going to be some privately managed schools that do very well, and other privately managed schools that don't.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Already, one private company has been jettisoned by Vallas for nonperformance. And he says he's not afraid to fire others if they don't improve. But he's not getting rid of anybody based on this first district-wide test.
PAUL VALLAS: It's far too early to be drawing any conclusions, other than the fact that clearly people seem to be focusing on standards in classroom instruction, and that's a good thing. Now the question will be whether or not we can sustain this long term. I'm very confident that we will be able to do that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And long-term improvement is what it's going to take. Even with these higher test scores, just over one-third of all Philadelphia public school children can today read on grade level.