Calling attention to excellence among Phila. schools

By Jacob Vigdor

and Josh McGee

The school wars never seem to end in Philadelphia. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.'s recently announced intention to close several schools and convert them into charters has met opposition. One might be tempted to conclude that providing outstanding public education is impossible in this climate, but there are beacons of excellence.

According to a new school rating system we've developed - found at SchoolGrades.org - half the elementary and middle schools in Philadelphia receive an F grade, putting them on par with the average performance of schools in countries at the bottom of international education rankings, like Serbia and Thailand, and well below the national average.

However, there are 21 schools - a mix of charters, "selective admissions," and traditional public schools - in Philadelphia that receive an A grade, on par with schools in countries at the top of the international rankings, like South Korea and Finland.

Ten of these A schools are charters: Laboratory, K-8; Keystone Academy, formerly Planet Abacus, K-8; Ad Prima, K-8; Mast Community, K-12; Philadelphia Academy, K-12; Mastery (Thomas Campus), 7-12; Young Scholars, 6-8; Russell Byers, pre-K-6; New Foundations, K-12; and Green Woods, K-8.

The 11 selective-admissions or traditional district schools are Julia R. Masterman, 5-12; Girard Academic Music Program, 5-12; Hill Freedman World Academy, 6-12; Penn Alexander, pre-K-8; Russell Conwell, 5-8; Joseph Greenberg, K-8; Gen. George A. McCall, K-8; AMY Northwest, 6-8; William M. Meredith, K-8; Abram Jenks, K-5; and Anne Frank, K-5. McCall and Jenks, both traditional schools, excel despite serving high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

To come up with the letter grades, we apply a rigorous national standard to state testing data so parents can accurately compare schools' performance regardless of where they live. It's the only resource that allows parents to compare Pennsylvania schools with those in New Jersey, Delaware, or any other state.

We then account for each school's economic profile, giving a bit of extra credit to schools that serve economically disadvantaged students, and thus hold schools that serve affluent students to a slightly higher standard. And schools in Philly do serve a disadvantaged population: 82 percent of the 140,000 public school students in grades 3 through 8 qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, well above the national average of 48 percent.

Finally, we assign each school a letter grade, from A through F, based on where it would rank in comparison with students in more than 60 countries on international exams.

This information is vital to parents who recognize that their children will be expected to compete in a globalizing economy. But it also reassures us that the solutions to our public education problems are out there if we are willing to look and learn.

There are obstacles to this learning - until now, we couldn't compare school performance across state lines, and some states have recently taken steps that make it harder to compare results within their borders. The mission of SchoolGrades.org is to remove these obstacles and call attention to the beacons of excellence in hopes of replicating their success.

Jacob Vigdor is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the Daniel J. Evans professor of public affairs at the University of Washington. jvigdor@uw.edu

Josh McGee is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the vice president of public accountability at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. jmcgee@manhattan-institute.org