Next Thursday, the PBS documentary series Frontline will be broadcasting a report on Chris Whittle and his Edison Project. Edison is the company that Whittle created in the early 90’s to establish a chain of K-12 schools that would both improve learning and make a profit. Evidently the company is just about to end it’s first year in the black. The quality of his schools and programs is a matter of debate.
I remember very well reading about Whittle’s plans when he was first starting and thinking that he had some great ideas. For one, he planned to build a curriculum that truly integrated technology rather than just grafting it on the side (as we still do for the most part). For another, the teachers would run the instructional part of the school with a business manager to run the day to day operations. At the time, his proposals were also drawing support from some educators whose ideas I respected, including Theordore Sizer.
Whittle’s original concept has changed tremendously from the early concept, something that happens regularly both in the business and education. All I know of Edison schools today is that they manage five charter schools in DC and a few inner city schools in Baltimore. Last year they took over management of most of the schools in the city of Philadelphia, accompanied by a great deal of screaming from the unions.
I’m not familiar with the concepts being applied in Edison schools these days and I’m not sure at all if I buy what Chris Whittle is selling anymore. "Schools need to be run like a business" used to be a mantra among some reformers a few years ago (it was an underlying theme in our schools system for a while). That is, until businesses like MCI, Enron and others showed exactly what that can mean. In an education business, when it comes down to a choice of making the stockholders happy and doing what’s best for the kids, I’m pretty sure I know which the CEO and board of directors will choose.