Desperate to find ways to boost student performance, districts across the country have turned to companies to run schools, but researchers say the management change didn't transform the schools.

"They have neither destroyed the schools nor have they made a big difference," said Henry M. Levin, director of Columbia University's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.

The idea that outside managers could improve schools gained momentum in the 1990s. Advocates maintained that schools would be more effective if market forces and business practices were introduced. Streamlining outmoded bureaucracies, they said, would improve efficiency and provide opportunities for educational innovation.

After the state took over Philadelphia's district five years ago, companies gained a foothold. Outside managers run 41 of the district's 272 schools, the most in the country.

Overall, results have been mixed, Levin said. And a study by the Rand Corp. released today concludes that privately run schools in Philadelphia did no better in raising student test scores than did district-run schools.

In 1992, Baltimore's schools signed a five-year contract with Education Alternatives Inc., a Minnesota company, to operate nine schools. The district ended the relationship after 31/2 years because of financial problems. Researchers found that test scores had not improved even though the company was receiving 11 percent more money per student than the district-managed schools.

In the biggest experiment with outside managers at the time, the district in Hartford, Conn., contracted with EAI in 1994 to manage all 32 schools. The contract ended 18 months later amid financial disputes between the district and the company.

Meanwhile, founder Chris Whittle was telling districts that Edison Schools Inc. could run schools for less money than the districts were spending and produce better results.

In 2000, the Dallas school board hired the New York company to manage seven schools. The contract ended three years later when the board concluded that Edison was not achieving promised results.

In addition to the 20 schools in Philadelphia, Edison continues to manage public schools across the country.

The Maryland Department of Education hired Edison in 2000 to operate three failing schools in Baltimore. A 2005 report by the Abell Foundation in Baltimore found that while the Edison schools had improved, they cost more to operate and other city schools had made larger test-score gains.

Edison counts Baltimore schools as among its greatest successes. The contract expires this year, and Edison officials said yesterday that they were hopeful the company would be retained in Baltimore.

"We're in discussions with the district about moving forward," said John E. Chubb, Edison's chief education officer.

Chubb, who was critical of the Rand study, said he did not think it would make waves beyond the Philadelphia region or cause a setback for educational managers.

"I don't think it will mean very much," he said. What's happening in Philadelphia is happening on a smaller scale elsewhere.

Chubb said he believed districts and states would rely on their own experiences when deciding about managers and other partners.

But researchers said the Rand report could have wider implications because Philadelphia's was the largest experiment with education-management organizations in the country.

"It is going to suggest there are real challenges," said Jolley Bruce Christman, senior research associate at Research for Action, an independent national nonprofit group in Philadelphia that cowrote the report. "The assumption that private managers will bring knowledge and expertise that can accelerate the improvement of low-performing schools is not a given."

She said she hoped the report spurred additional studies in an area where the research has been limited.

Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, said he could not comment on the report because he had not seen it.

But he said he expected its findings to shape what other districts did.

"The real question is how can we make this work, and in what situation does it seem to work better?" he said.

Columbia's Levin, who has tracked the educational-management phenomenon for years, said he had not given up on the possibility that outside managers could help schools improve.

"I am not saying they can't work," he said. "I'm just saying if you look at what has happened so far, you don't see any exciting breakthroughs. You might see a school here and there that looks really good, but that is true of public schools, too. . . . You haven't seen the exciting results that were promised."

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.