Chris Whittle: still thinking big
No one doubts that Chris Whittle has lived a remarkable life. In 1991, after a long and successful stint as the head of his own communications company, the brash media baron announced that he would use his millions to radically reshape the nation's underperforming public school system. Over the next five years, he announced, his new company, Edison Schools, would build 1,000 for-profit schools. The project would cost $2.5 billion. The public education establishment scoffed; reformers grimaced and hoped for the best.
Fifteen years later, Whittle's grand dreams haven't quite come to fruition. Edison stock, after a heady initial public offering in 1999, lost 98 percent of its value over the next three years. In 2003, Whittle took the company private once again. Rather than striking out on its own to create break-the-mold schools, Edison now works within the education system, making its money by managing 157 public schools under contract with local districts, hiring and firing principals, and streamlining finances. But in a book published this month, Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education, Whittle has dared to dream big once again. Disturbed by the fact that 15 million American kids fail to achieve even basic literacy levels, Edison's founder has proposed another radical idea: an entirely new school design, one that would raise principal salaries by a factor of three, that would employ half as many teachers as it does now and pay them twice as muchin schools that would only have half as many classes. All this, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Is Chris Whittle once again promising more than any reformer can reasonably deliver? Senior Editor Justin Ewers spoke with him earlier this week.
In your book's first two sentences, you seem to be reassuring readers that you're no longer quite the radical you once were: "Some people like to build new houses. I'm a renovation man." This sounds like a new Chris Whittle.
In some ways, I'm a radical on this, and in some ways I'm a moderate. We must as a nation confront the whole question of what I call school design in a very, very aggressive way. We have a 100-year-old school design, maybe even older. There are clear signs of educational mental fatigue. We can't take this particular design much further than we have. We have not, as a country, been imaginative in what new schools should and could be.
A lot of people would say, "Baloney, shut it down and start over." But there are plenty of people out there that will embrace change. In that respect, I am a moderate, and I believe you can achieve something significant within the current construct.
But you say you're not asking the federal government to put any more money into ed spending.
I'm not advocating any real increase in total educational spending. What I'm advocating is a dramatic increase in research and development spending on education. In the scheme of what we as a nation are spending, it's not a very big number. If we took R&D spending at simply pro rata levels with healthcare, you would be spending at the federal level about $9 billion a year. Though that sounds like a lot of money, on a $400 billion scale [our total national education spending], it's not a lot.
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.
Politics has certainly been one albatross around your neck. And, in education, teachers' unions are among the biggest political players. Some education reformers think Edison has made too many compromises with unions as the price of entry to some districts. Do you think unions are an obstacle to reform?
Not nearly to the degree that they are painted. This goes both ways: A lot of people on the right would say unions are absolutely the primary problem here, and they have to be busted in some ways. Unions would flip it around and say the problem here is that our schools are just utterly underfunded. What I think you see too often is a kind of polarized sloganeering that goes back and forth and neither side is right. There are plenty of union members out there that really do support changing schools. And then there are those who are absolutely for the status quo. I try to steer clear of that kind of stereotyping of either side.
You seem to believe financial incentives will go a long way toward improving schools, and your book introduces a handful of new ways to do thisincluding cutting the number of teachers in half and doubling their salaries. This can happen without anyone getting fired, you say, if schools will simply allow attrition to run its course and not make any new hires. How is that going to work?
If you know that raisings taxes is not the way to get to higher payand I believe we can't get there with taxationthen how do you get there? You've got only two choices: You can raise class size and reduce the number of teachers. Or you can have half as many classesand therefore half as many teachers that get paid twice as much. The book proposes the latter. We don't have to design our schools so that students have to be in class in six different classes all day long. We can design schools where kids are in class maybe half the time and working on their own the other half the time.
Have you heard any feedback on that yet?
I do think there's a split on the workability of this idea. Some people say, "You're absolutely right, this will work." Some say you're in fantasyland. Kids can't be trusted to be on their own, even within a school building. They'll just sleep. They won't work. But what the book really is suggesting is, let's not make this my opinion versus someone else's opinion. Let's go try it. That's what development is: Let's go do it, and see what happens. And by the way, we don't even have to do it in the school year, let's test it in the summer. Let's take a school for three months in the summer and run it this way and see what happens.
One of the most controversial components of the educational design you envision is the degree of private involvement in the enterprise. Your experience with Edison, though, seems to be proof positive that public and private can work together in this arena.
There's a way to blend local control, which is literally part of the genetic code of American public educationthat's why we have 15,000 school districtswith the private sector. We just have to figure out how public and private entities can work together.
I'll give you a really interesting analog of that: If you look at an airport, the physical airport itself is local, but the airlines are global. As you're taxiing out, you're seeing Swissair, Lufthansa, American, Unitedall those are global, private, for-profit institutions. They are parked at gates that are local, public authorities. It's a very interesting construct if you think about it. School systems can morph into similar kinds of constructs, where they're locally controlled, but they're in partnerships with private players.
So, you'd like to see private companies, the Lufthansas, in charge of what Lufthansas are good atwhich, in a school, might be finances, cleaning, food, or enrollment. What about some of the grayer areas, though, like curriculum or instruction? How do you decide, in something like this ongoing debate over intelligent design, say, who decides what gets taught?
If you're going to be in this long term and successfully, one of the things you have to avoid [is] what I would call the distracting battles. For example: In every school that we're in, there are rules and regulations regarding uniforms. We're not going to engage in those fights. Whatever the local custom is, we're for it. What we care about is how we're going to move achievement forward. Many of the battles that consume huge amounts of time aren't central to literacy. Let local policymakers make those decisions. We're pretty conscious of that, and I think it's one of the things we've done pretty well.
One of the most fascinating things about the new Chris Whittle, at least as expressed in this book, is listening to you, a businessman, talk about what a great thing it is that there are now 40 other companies out there doing the same thing Edison is doing. You seem to be genuinely happy not to have a corner on the school design market. Are you just glad to have someone around to help you take the flak?
I'm glad you brought this question up. Let's start with the most important thing: America should not be looking for one school design. We have one school design right now. We all went to the same school. If a Martian came here and looked at every school in the country, they would say, "They look all the same!"
What we need is tremendous diversity in school design. Through that diversity, that's when you start getting better designs and better answers, and you need competition. Competition raises all boats, in every respect. One other big advantage of many competitors: When a school district is thinking about recruiting only one entity, opponents can demonize that entity. If we're there with many colleagues, then the focus is on the concept of what we're doing, and if people look at the concept of what we're doing, they tend to respond in a pretty rational and reasonable way.
In your book, you talk a lot about a specific situation in the Philadelphia school district in 2001, where the state took over and hired a half-dozen private companies, including Edison, to help it manage what was, at the time, an abysmally performing group of schools. This seems to be the first test case of the competition you foresee all public schools eventually engaging in.
What I think the greatest achievement in Philadelphia is, is not the performance of all the schools that are managed by the private entitiesit's the performance of all the other schools. Because all the private entities are only managing 20 percent of the schools in Philly. The other 80 percent are being managed by the district. That district is one of the highest-gaining large districts in America today. And you have to ask yourself, why is that? One of the reasons is that a leader of that district, a guy named Paul Vallas, I think very effectively said, "OK, everybody else in the 80 percent, we're not going to be outcompeted by these private providers." Competition raises all boats, in every respect. The kids were really the winners of that.