Public Schools Inc. [home]
homecan edison succeed?public good?faqsdiscussion

a conversation with john merrow (web exclusive)
John Merrow, a longtime education reporter for PBS and National Public Radio, is the executive producer and host of the PBS series The Merrow Report and a correspondent for FRONTLINE's "Public Schools Inc." Here, he speaks with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson about what Chris Whittle's Edison Schools has achieved educationally, the obstacles it faces, and what Whittle represents to the education world. The conversation took place on June 5, 2003.

Fortune magazine ran an article last December, about six months ago, headlined "Why Edison Doesn't Work." Speaking as an education reporter, what do you think? Does Edison work? Does it work in an educational sense?

I would say that a good Edison school, and there are some good Edison schools, is one that most parents would be happy to send their children to. The problem is that there are not enough of them, and I have my doubts whether it's possible to create enough of them. It's the old economies of scale issue. ...

So, does Edison work? I mean, if Chris Whittle wanted to run 10 schools, they'd be 10 terrific schools. But he set out to run a thousand. ...

And when Chris Whittle decided to invest his incredible talent and, perhaps, genius, but certainly his incredible intelligence and talent, in public education, he bought into a world that is irrational. It has pretensions of rationality, but it is not a rational world. It's an emotional world. You know, people feel, "These are our schools." They feel a deep set of attachments to their schools. And everyone who has children in the schools went to school, and therefore is, quote, an "expert."

Like it or not, Whittle is a symbol. He's a bette noir of the liberal left, which sees him as, if not the devil, then something close. He's also a symbol for the right, which sees him as a battering ram to break apart public education.

It is a world, unfortunately, of inconstancy, of fashion, of faddishness, of high turnover in the leadership role. The typical urban superintendent doesn't even last three years on the job. Edison signs five-year contracts, so the odds are darn good that the person who signed the contract is not going to be there. School boards are elected, get un-elected. ... So the ground is moving under your feet.

And at the same time, Whittle also bought into the world of Wall Street, which demands growth, and it's also out of his control. I guess that's really what he did. He bought into worlds that are out of his control. ...

I've sort of been a Whittle watcher for a long time, and he's one of the most interesting people I've ever met. He is a fascinating man, fun to be with, intelligent, charismatic. ... And in another respect, another world he couldn't control is "Whittle as symbol." Like it or not, he is a symbol. You know, he's a bête noir of the liberal left, which sees him as, if not the devil, then something close: that he wants to sell our children with Channel One, etc., etc. And so he's become a symbol of money grubbing, and so on. And as such, they're not going to listen to him because that's who he is, they made up their mind.

He's also, however, a symbol for the right, which sees him as a battering ram, in my view, to break apart public education. They don't necessarily care what happens to Whittle, they want to break apart public education. I mean, there must have been times in this last 10 years when he felt like the ball in one of those arcade games, where everybody has a flipper and he's bouncing back and forth. The right pushing him one way, the left pushing him another way, Wall Street pushing him another way, superintendents dumping on him.

And then the last thing, this is as much a personal view as anything, is that he's a prisoner of the economy. ... George Bush's recession means that schools are just hurting. And the best example of that, the case in point, is that Edison is losing it's contract in Dallas, where they were running seven schools. And there's nothing wrong with the job they're doing. Nothing wrong. They're doing a good job. But they're canceling the contract. And in Wichita, they cancelled the contract on the last two, the two good schools, for reasons of economy. Schools need the money. They'd rather keep the money at home, rather than write a half-million dollar check to Edison.

There's a very telling moment in the documentary, when Whittle tells about an investor who said to him, "Chris, I was with you all along until you were fired in a city where you did great work. And if that can happen, then what's the future?"

That's what I mean about the irrational world that he bought into. ...

related links

They are talking now about going private and scaling back their growth ambitions.

This is what I would predict. If they survive, it will be as a company that is providing educational services, running summer school, training teachers, providing curriculum, providing software, and maybe running a few schools. Whittle's dream of a thousand schools, it seems to me, is over. ...

One of the criticisms that's been leveled at Edison is that they didn't understand how difficult the public education business really is. How complex it is -- all the factors. Do you agree with that? Were they naïve? Did they not understand the realities on the ground, in the schools, in the districts, what it means to really operate schools?

I don't think they understood how messy it is. I mean, education, schooling, is messy. Every kid is different. To think that you could have a model, even if it's all the best ideas in the world, that didn't account for the messiness -- when they designed it, they assumed tabula rasa. "We'll build our own buildings, and we'll hire all our own people, and we won't have to deal with this old union contract or teachers who have been teaching for 30 years who are burned out," or whatever. And where they have been able to come close to that model, it works. I mean, in the documentary, we take you to Montebello in Baltimore, Md. And it's a terrific school. I mean, that would be a fun place to be a kid. ... There was this sense that everybody is in there working with the same goal, which was to have the kids master the skills. ... But the kids were having fun.

One really good sign, to me, a valid measure of a good school, is what happens when the bell rings at the end of a day. If the kids explode out of the building, they have not been happy to be in the building. And that was the mark, to me, of Montebello and a couple of other Edison schools. The school day ended and some kids left, some stayed and talked to the teachers. But there wasn't this, whoosh, "I can't wait to get the hell out of there." In fact, that's probably as reliable an indicator of school quality as anything.

You've spent a lot of time in a lot of schools and you've studied schools very closely. Educationally speaking, how do you rate Edison's educational model?

Well, it's a conservative democratic model -- small "c" conservative, small "d" democratic. It's focused on learning. My sense is that there's a credo that we would all do well to adopt, and everyone in education should adopt, and that is, "If the kids are not learning, then we are not doing our job." Often times, teachers will think, or say, "You know, I taught it, but they didn't learn it." And they get away with that -- unless they're the swimming instructor and they have to explain all the kids at the bottom of the pool.

But my strong sense is that they are focused on this challenge of helping kids grow. And one of the things that actually didn't make it into the documentary is that at a good Edison school, when they get the contract they want, the teachers have one period a day when they meet with each other and talk about what they are doing, and talk about, "How's So-and-So doing in your class." "You know, I'm having trouble with him." And someone else would say, "I put him up in the front row and he's terrific." Or they'll share something. Maybe all the teachers who teach reading will talk and they'll say, "You know, the kids really like that story about the beehive." ...

So there's emphasis on teachers and training, a greater emphasis on personnel?

Absolutely. It's an attempt to break down that attitude of, you know, "It's my classroom, close the door and leave me alone." It says that we have a responsibility to the kids. And the principal is captain of the ship and, again, at Montebello, you see that principal there all the time, going to different teacher meetings, "How are you guys doing?" Being an instructional leader. ...

Is Edison an educational "model" in the other sense? Can Edison aspire to be a kind of model for education reform? Is that part of the idea?

Well, yeah, and that's one of the questions you always ask Chris: "Why not just take your book and do what you do? Why bother paying you?" It's not like there's anything that he can patent that is, in fact, radical. It is not all that radical. And Chris's answer is, "You need Edison because of the curriculum and the software and the management of information about how the kids are doing and instant feedback on tests and all that stuff." The whole package.

In Wichita, this again did not make it into the documentary, the superintendent who brought in Edison in Wichita said, "Well, let's see how these guys do. Let's do two more Edison schools and not pay them. Let's just do two. Let's copy them." And those two are doing fine.

And Edison didn't make anything up, either. I mean they went around and said, "What makes sense?" "Well, uniforms make sense." "What makes sense?" "Well, respecting kids makes sense." "What makes sense?" "Praising kids makes sense." They have this basic rule: for every negative thing you say, you have to say [four] good things. Well, it is just a nice rule of thumb to get through life, to get through the day, and it's written on the walls. "What makes sense?" "Small groups." Okay, so they divide their school into houses, so Montebello has a Cal Ripken House and a Martin Luther King Jr. House and an Edison House or an Einstein House or whatever. So the kids belong to something. Makes sense to have the parents get involved, so parents are welcome. ...

In order for Edison to succeed as a business, it has to be able to show that it can actually do a better job than the surrounding public schools. And that means somehow assessing the performance of its schools. So here's a question that comes back to your previous FRONTLINE documentary, "Testing Our Schools." First of all, is it really possible to measure Edison's success or failure, educationally speaking, with standardized tests?

The answer is yes. I mean, if you say that's the measure we're going to live and die by, then everybody has to take the tests.

They're the law of the land, you mean, under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind?

Yeah, and if they're testing what's being taught, and it's a good test, then you can say, sure. I personally would want other measures. You know, I'd want teacher attendance and pupil attendance, and I'd want the video of whether the kids explode out of the door at three o'clock. I'd want other things like that. But those are not the law of the land.

But do you think the pre-eminence of standardized testing as the sole means of assessment -- the fact that it is the law of the land and that it is the measure -- do you think that works to Edison's advantage or disadvantage? Does it somehow miss some of Edison's value?

Well, yeah, there is that risk. I mean, you don't have a measure of what it does to teacher morale that they get to meet every day and are treated as professionals. There's no quantitative measure of that. And I think the faith that Chris and others have is that if you do those things, you treat your adults as professionals, you treat your kids with respect, you make the curriculum interesting, then that will add up to better performance on standardized tests.

E. D. Hirsch has said, probably on many occasions, that if you want your kids to do well on reading tests, you don't drill them, you read books and talk about books and you enjoy books. And I haven't been around Edison at testing time, but I would be surprised and disappointed if they just ground to a halt and did nothing but drill for the test for a week or so, or a month or so, which is what many public schools do.

Is the prevalence of standardized testing, in a way, anathema to what Edison stands for? In other words, if you did see them grinding to a halt and teaching to the test and drilling, and so on, would that seem to go against what Edison is all about?

As I say, I don't believe they do that, but I haven't been there at that time. But sure, then the kids would very quickly get the message that they are nothing but objects being manipulated. I've asked Chris about that, and he speaks very persuasively that they don't do anything special for the tests. They certainly would prepare kids. You have to know how to take a test. You have to know what the bubbles are and all that sort of thing. But Chris maintains, persuasively, that it's the rich curriculum and good teaching that prepare the kids to do well on the test.

And there's conflicting data on how well kids at Edison schools do. And, again, people have their minds made up. They want Whittle to fail or they want Whittle to succeed, so they will take data and manipulate it to make their point.

I think what you have to remember is that Chris is a bottom feeder. Edison is a bottom feeder. So, by definition, he's starting with kids who do very poorly on tests. ... So they should be able to improve. But also, to say, "Well, his kids have to be able to do as well as kids from the other side of the tracks who have all the advantages, otherwise he's failed" -- that's an unfair standard. ...

I would say, let's have a more nuanced measure, which gets at questions of kids' willingness to come to school. Kids are pretty smart. They know if it's a real experience or not.

How about parents' reactions? Is that part of the measure?

It would be in my ideal world. And I think in many places Edison would get passing marks. The two schools in Wichita, the first two, parents love those schools. Parents love Montebello.

What do you see as being at stake in Edison's success or failure? Is it really the fate of the privatization movement? To get back to Whittle as a symbol, how much really rides on Edison? Let's say he shows that he can make a profit, even if a modest one, running a hundred or so schools, what would that prove? What's really at stake here?

Well, I think it depends on where you are sitting. If you are part of the education establishment, particularly teacher unions, it would be very threatening. You know, Montebello is not a union school. Teachers have one-year contracts, no tenure. And they accept that. ...

The ideologues who believe that profit in education is immoral would obviously have to work on a new philosophy. That would be very threatening. ...

But also, Edison schools value small "d" democracy. And public education serves, to my way of thinking, as part of the glue that holds this country together, the idea of a common school. ... Now, the federal government is playing an ever larger role, and in that sense, that mentality that we can have a national system, with rules made in Washington, that's a much greater threat than Edison, because Edison schools practice a lot of the virtues of the common school -- respect for each other, respect for ideas. Those are things you want in schools, it seems to me. ...

But if Edison were to succeed on even a hundred successful schools, and making money, that certainly would be a great, great challenge to those, I guess you would say, on the left.

Edison was founded on the premise that it would be able to run schools more efficiently on the same amount of money that public schools get, and yet it actually spends more money. ... So if Edison spends more money on its schools than the comparable surrounding public schools in order to achieve its, hopefully, higher academic results, in order to do what it promises to do, what does that suggest? Has Whittle, inadvertently or not, shown that public schools do, in fact, need more money?

That's a great point. ... I mean, I guess that is the paradox or maybe the contradiction. ...

Again, I think this is a measure of Whittle's complexity and his appeal, that he said, "Look, these are crummy schools we're going into. They need not just a fresh coat of paint but they need to be upgraded. This one may need a new roof." And he's in some cases made the board pay for it and in some cases they pay for it themselves. Some places he's gone and gotten grants to pay for it. In one case, he and Benno Schmidt [Edison's chairman] each invested a million dollars of their own. In Clark County, Nevada, they put up their own money in order to get the contract, and that money, it was stipulated, would be spent on fixing up those schools that they were coming into. So, you're right, in a wonderful way, that Edison makes the argument that to succeed, you have to start treating these poor kids in poor schools the way you treat the rich kids in well-to-do schools.

And it isn't just more money, it's the combination of the management philosophy and the talent?

Right. And they need teachers who want to be there, all those things. Yeah.

See, I'm not Chris's friend, I'm just a journalist. But I certainly come away with a more than grudging admiration for the guy. You know, I have friends who are in education who said, "I hope you're socking it to that bastard," that kind of thing, and who see him as greed personified. And money matters to Chris Whittle. You know, if you said to him, "Suppose you could get rich but your schools wouldn't be that good," he would say, "I failed." And if you said, "Suppose you could run good schools but not get rich," he would say, "I failed." He wants both. Do well. Do good. ...

And, again, part of the charm of Whittle is that he's said, "We learned a lot. We are learning a lot here." But there are people who had their mind made up from day one that this guy was the devil incarnate, and they were going to do whatever they could to stop him. ...

I mean, education is a peculiar business that way. ... It seems there is this fear and this mentality that if you're doing something different or, God forbid, better, then rather than my copying you, I better try and destroy you. That may well exist in other places. I don't know if hospitals were competing, if one would try to sabotage the other. I don't know. I only know education. But I've certainly seen it often enough in education, where, "It's not enough that I succeed, I want you to fail."

I don't think Chris expected that. It shouldn't be as tough as it is to run good schools. The problem is certainly not the kids. In no case is the problem the kids. Where we fail, it is a failure of adults. We may blame the kids, but wherever we fail, it's a failure of the adults.


home · introduction · can edison succeed? · private profit, public good? · inside edison's schools
faqs · interviews · discussion · producer's notebook · links
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

published july 3, 2003

photo copyright ©photodisc
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation