Shifting school landscape: a Philadelphia case study

The landscape of education in Philadelphia has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative titled “Philadelphia’s Changing Schools and What Parents Want from Them,” in the past decade:

  • District-run public schools have experienced a 19% drop in enrollment
  • Catholic schools have experienced a 37% drop in enrollment
  • Charter schools – primary and secondary schools that receive public funding but are not subject to the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools –  have experienced a 170% increase in enrollment, with nearly 30,000 students put on waiting lists

That 170% increase in charter school enrollment stands in sharp contrast to the drops in both district-run and Catholic schools. What accounts for charter school growth?  Is parent satisfaction with schools linked to enrollment trends?  The Pew report indicates that while parents with children in charter schools do rate their schools higher than parents with kids in public schools, parents of kids in Catholic schools actually rate their schools the highest of the three.   And yet Catholic schools are experiencing the greatest decreases in enrollment, suggesting the role that cost plays since both charter and district schools – unlike Catholic schools – are free to families.

Despite the dramatic growth in charter school enrollment, the report points out that charter schools do not necessarily equal better schools:

“In Philadelphia, charter schools have been embraced by parents in a way that resembles a slow motion stampede. This trend has developed in the face of evidence that many charters perform no better than district schools.”

So what makes a good school?

Whether you’re a parent or a donor (or both) – it can be hard to know what to look for.  From our analysis of effective whole school models, we have found that it’s impossible to generalize by type of school. There are plenty of high and low performing schools in all three categories.  However across high-performing schools of all types, our analysis does point to several common themes:

  • Commitment to teaching excellence (including creating clear standards for what great teaching looks like, providing leaders who model best practices, implementing ongoing job-embedded professional development for teachers, evaluating teacher performance using multiple measures, and creating opportunities for successful teachers to advance professionally in the school)
  • Focus on using data to inform school strategy
  • A culture, system of organization and/or size that fosters collaboration and joint decision-making among staff and allows teachers to really know and keep track of students
  • Helping students learn by applying knowledge to real-world experiences
  • Innovating with regard to school schedule to maximize learning time for both students and teachers
  • Creating a culture of high expectations and achievement

Stay tuned for more on high impact whole school models in our upcoming investment guide on improving Teaching Quality, to be released in the fall of 2010.

Source: Tom Ferrick Jr. and Laura Horwitz. Philadelphia’s Changing Schools and What Parents Want from Them. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative, June 2010. Retrieved from