BCG report on Philadelphia schools draws mixed reaction

Posted: August 04, 2012

On the day that the Boston Consulting Group's exhaustive analysis of and recommendations for the troubled Philadelphia School District was made public, reaction was swift, decisive, and divided.

"Where do I begin? This is not a love story," teachers union president Jerry Jordan said Thursday.

"I think the report shows that BCG has provided some valuable assistance," said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership.

Six months after BCG was hired to study and suggest how the district should overhaul operations and avoid insolvency, officials released a 118-page document detailing possible changes ranging from closing up to 57 schools to ending seniority-based layoffs for teachers.

District officials have stressed that they can accept or reject the recommendations as they see fit.

BCG is being paid $4.4 million for its work, which will continue through September. None of the money came from district coffers. The William Penn Foundation raised private funds, which were disbursed through the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Jordan, leader of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, would be OK if the whole thing were tossed into the trash.

In a blog post, Jordan called the report a "boilerplate menu of silver-bullet education reform ideas that are heavy on school closings, charter conversions, and personnel strategies, but make little to no mention of what it will actually take to educate our children."

In an interview, Jordan said he wasn't surprised by BCG's document.

"They're looking at a business model, and this is a business plan," he said. "But it's a plan by people who never bothered to ask teachers or people who work in schools how to improve them. If you really want to know how to fix any business, you ask the people who do the heavy lifting every day."

Gleason, whose Philadelphia School Partnership was established two years ago to raise $100 million to support high-quality schools - public, private, and charter - didn't share Jordan's sentiments.

He said that "whatever one makes of the recommendations, it's quite thorough, and it really shows where the points of tension are between cost and structure and outcomes." He said it could "help people on both sides of various debates ground their points of view more in reality and less in hyperbole."

The report projected that by 2017, 40 percent of city students would be educated in charter schools, but urged the district to be more strategic about charter school growth.

BCG recommended the district use the Renaissance charter model - which converts existing schools into charters run by preferred providers - rather than creating free-standing charters, which come at a higher cost to the district.

Gleason thinks stand-alone charters, whose performance BCG praised for generally producing better results than district schools, still have a role to play.

"Do we have enough operators who can deliver results in a turnaround setting? I would argue that we probably don't. To find operators who are capable of doing that, you have to have to nurture that pipeline, and that's where the traditional charters come in," said Gleason.

Lawrence F. Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, took issue with BCG's calculation that each student who enrolls in a free-standing charter costs the district about $7,000.

"These costs are exacerbated by the fact that the district for many, many, many years had not been rightsized," said Jones, also chief executive of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia.

The district has taken heat from critics who worry that BCG's plan equals privatization of public education - a charge officials deny - and those who believe that the firm's work was withheld from the public for too long.

"I'm not sure what the purpose of the outside group is," said Gerald Wright, a founder of Parents United for Public Education. "Are they really looking to improve public education, or do they have an ideology that's different?"

Jordan, whose attorneys filed a state Right to Know request for the report but were denied access to it days before its public release, said the whole process still has an air of secrecy.

"I can't understand why it would have been kept in the dark for so long," said Jordan, whose union represents more than 15,000 employees. "They're talking about our schools, our kids, and my members."

District leaders said that the intense pace of the work and the tight time frame in which it had to be done meant it was not possible to be more transparent.


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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