Chris Whittle: still thinking big
Right now, you say the government spends about 100 times more on healthcare R&D than education. But that's not counting what goes on in the hundreds of graduate schools of education. Don't you think that qualifies as R&D?
There is a good deal of "R" out there in education. There's almost no "D." "D" is when you operationalize "R." "R" might lead you to an insight. "D" is now what do you do to actually bring that into a school, change how a school operates, change how a school behaves, and actually get some results changed. So "R" might tell you leadership at the school level is critical. "D" might show you how to double or triple principal pay so that you actually get the kind of leaders that you need at those schools.
You argue in your book that under Edison's current business modelwhich partners your company with public school clientsstudents in your schools are achieving academic gains above national norms. But you say your phone still isn't ringing off the hook, and some critics regard Edison as a spectacular flop. Now you maintain you can reshape American education and eradicate failing schools by 2030. With all due respect, given your experience, why do you think people should listen to your advice?
The greatest intellectual property that Edison currently owns are all the mistakes we've made over the last 15 years. In fact, if you go back and read a little bit about Thomas Edison, at one particular point, when they were taking the furniture out of his house, they asked him, "What did you learn from all this?" and he said, "I've learned the 500 ways not to make a light bulb."
One of the things I want to be clear about is: We've been far from perfect, but we've been incredibly relentless in our pursuit of what the answers are. We've done 15 years in the trenches. Very few people actually get to be in the trenches for very long in this. [The average tenure of big-city school superintendents is less than four years.] I think I'm the longest serving head of a major system of schools in the U.S. And that is incredibly valuable. If you're in it, and you stay in it, you learn every year. I'm not saying that I'm the only voice that should be listened to, but it's one voice.
You talk a lot about the complicated matrix of business, political, and educational concerns that have affected Edison's every decisionand that could complicate the reforms you envision going forward. Did you not foresee some of that?
"We were naive" is the simplest way to say it. We thought if you build a great school, everything else would work out. That just wasn't true. If you have a school that is having great difficulties and has had great difficulties for a long time, and has had the same leader for a long time, you might go, well, it would seem that a change of leadership is the right thing. Educationally, that might be right. But politically, that might be wrong. And you have to weigh those two things. We had examples where our students' achievement was double and triple peer group schools and we've been fired, and we're going, "How can that be?" We just didn't understand that achievement is not the only way this is sliced and diced.