The education of Chris Whittle – Edison Project founder – includes related information – Interview
In 25 years as a media entrepreneur, Chris Whittle has never been afraid to challenge the status quo. And that’s made him a virtual magnet for controversy. In the late 1980s he drew fire for Channel One, an ambitious venture that provided schools with free video equipment and news programs–if they showed students commercials in class. Now Whittle’s Edison Project is bringing private enterprise to public education in a bold attempt to become the first nationwide chain of for-profit public schools. We spoke to Whittle and curriculum director John Chubb at their New York office and at Edison’s Boston Renaissance School.
PT: When people criticize the Edison Project, it’s usually because you’re trying to run these schools and make a profit. There is an ethic out there that says that…
CHRIS WHITTLE: … thou shalt not make money on education.
PT: People see education as sacred. Making money in the process is akin to meddling with our souls.
CW: This view just completely disregards that for-profit activity is all over education already Let’s run through a school. Who built the building? Who provided the textbooks? Who does the food service? Who does the busing? People make money providing these services in every public school in America. Every public school.
I just heard that we had 10 applications for every seat this fall in our kindergarten. Why? Because the word is out that this is a great school. But are the parents who applied sitting there overwrought about the 5 percent [profit] we may make from the school?
JOHN CHUBB: With a little bit of reflection, most people are not troubled by the idea that somebody is going to make money if they provide a service you want. But because it is new, people have questions and suspicions about it.
CW: What counts is whether the children learn, whether they read. Until all children can read, then it is very difficult for anyone to say that we shouldn’t try a lot of things. And right now large percentages of children don’t read. How can someone defend not trying?
PT: People argue that the profits could otherwise be used to buy more textbooks or to lower taxes.
CW: What they don’t recognize is that profit buys something. What did it buy? It bought research and development, which benefits the school. Edison has invested $50 million on research and development. It was thinking about: What makes a great school? If you could start a school from scratch, what would it be? And that’s what profit brings to a school. It’s that intellectual property that had to be invested in, and in order to get people to invest in it they had to think there was going to be a profit down the road. But that is a very difficult thing to get across to people.
PT: So you basically reinvented the school curriculum?
JC: We researched every element of it. What kind of people are successful principals? Is it a good idea to have eight 45-minute classes a day, or would it be better to have four 90-minute classes? What’s the best way to train teachers? To compensate teachers? And then from the organization you switch into curriculum and instruction. What do you want your educational goals to be? What’s the most effective means of instruction? How do you feel about reading instruction? Math instruction? What about writing?
Each of those pieces has to be looked at carefully. We spent a fair amount of time and money canvassing people, looking at research. What can we learn from the best [educational] practices? What’s the evidence? And then [we put] all that together. What we didn’t do was primary cognitive research: How does the brain work? We didn’t go there. My feeling is that there is a tremendous amount known and what’s needed is [for someone] to put it together. I also should say that we did a lot of research with parents and communities. What do they want? Are they interested in something different?
CW: In a sentence, Edison is bringing four big things to the education sector. One is research and development. Go to any school in America and ask them how much they spend on R&D, and most say they don’t have that line in their budget. Not even, for example, the New York City school system, whose budget is around $8 billion a year. It’s the equivalent of a large corporation…
PT: A large Fortune 500 company having no R&D.
CW: Yeah. And smaller districts don’t have the scale to do it. So that’s the big thing. And the second thing we’re doing is bringing business to education. Education in this country has been essentially a government-provided service for the last century. The third thing is, we’re building the first national school system. Education today is localized into 14,000 local school districts, and Edison is cutting across all those districts and asking, What if we had a national school system? And don’t take that to mean that we think every school in America should be an Edison school. We’re simply saying that there isn’t another national provider of education. And the fourth thing we’re doing is bringing competition to education, which has largely been organized in a noncompetitive way
PT: A monopoly.
CW: Yeah. And all of these things are seismic shifts in the way this service has been provided to kids.
PT: You yourself have shifted from publishing to education. How did you become interested in teaching?
CW: I first got started with what I call education reform activities in college, at the University of Tennessee, and I actually ran, to my knowledge, the first student government presidency campaign that [revolved] around an education reform platform. I ran a campaign on reforming the university in 1968.
There was a group called the National Student Association, kind of a radical group in those days. I attended conferences they held on education reform and it resonated with me. There was a record turnout in terms of kids that voted [in the election for which Whittle campaigned], so I think it resonated with them too.
PT: How old were you?
CW: I was about 20. And right after college I actually signed up to teach at a private school in Connecticut. I didn’t wind up doing it, but I had fantasies of doing that.
PT: So instead you began publishing student magazines.
CW: All through the ’70s we were publishing for schools. We branched into health magazines somewhat in the ’80s and Esquire was in there, too, but really our main business was publishing for schools. We went from print to broadcast, which was Channel One, to actually doing schools with the Edison Project. There was a linear sequence.
The Edison Project just grew out of being around schools for so long. What really happened was that during the Channel One debate, I began to attend all these educational conferences around the United States, just to have this back-and-forth debate. And I began to listen to the conferences.
PT: This was the debate about Channel One showing commercials in classrooms. You were a media entrepreneur and suddenly you found yourself in debates with academicians and school teachers.
CW: On a very sideline issue, frankly. Commercials in the classrooms is not what I would call an important matter.
PT: The issue was whether you were defiling our children for profit.
CW: Yeah. That was one side in the debate. Our view was, no, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re bringing news and technology to America’s schools, and the only way we can fund it is with commercials.
By the way, most people don’t understand that it was a quite successful company it is still controversial, but that doesn’t have any impact on the fact that there are 12,000 schools that use it around the country and that they have been using it for nearly a decade.
PT: Why do you think that accomplishment is not recognized?
CW: Because there was a failure, actually Whittle Communications had four main lines of business: Channel One, Medical News Network, Special Report, and Edison. Two of them failed, and failed so badly that they forced the sale of Channel One, which was the successful one, and almost brought down Edison. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to happen, and I think the media were reasonable to put that one in the screw-up column.
PT: How did the failure, and all the negative media attention that resulted, affect you?
CW: I think the experience affected me a lot more than the media [attention]. The experience was wrenching. Around 1992 I began to understand that, uh-oh, I’m in a serious bind. I had to lay off 100 people. And it was one of the most painful things I’d ever done. I wasn’t really functioning very well for a couple of days. Basically, almost 25 years of work got dissected, sold off, and that was what impacted me. The media [attention] was embarrassing and painful, but compared to the actual experience itself it was not a big deal.
PT: Did you gain anything from the experience? I’m sure you found out a great deal about friends.
CW: You’re right, I rapidly found out the difference between business associates and friends. And I was lucky in that regard; I had lots of friends who came to my aid in a variety of ways. And then I had a lot of people who I thought were in that category but it became clear weren’t. So that was one thing I learned. The biggest thing I learned was to take responsibility for everything. This was of my making, and I feel fully accountable for everything that happened.
What else have I learned? The honest answer is, I don’t know yet because the mistakes were mistakes that occurred at a high level of success. And you’re not going to know if you learned anything until you’re back at that high level of success and are presented with a situation where you can make those mistakes again.
PT: Did losing a lot of money change you?
CW: No. I felt I made some bad decisions. I don’t think any of that experience altered my core competence. I mean, it certainly jolted me…
PT: You actually had to sell houses and other possessions.
CW: Yeah. I sold virtually everything. All but one thing [Edison]. But that didn’t alter … I didn’t feel as though I were a bad person as a result of this. I just made some mistakes.
PT: What did the Channel One experience teach you about the educational system?
CW: Well, to do Channel One we attended 30,000 school board meetings. So we know a little about what those are like. The second thing I learned from Channel One is that a little heat doesn’t defeat a good idea. Even a lot of heat doesn’t defeat a good idea. Everyone has forgotten this, but we lost New York state and California right off the bat. And most people said, shut this down right now. You lost the two biggest states in the country, you’re dead. We won the next 48. And it was a great lesson, that if you just persevere…
PT: Is there a connection between Channel One and Edison?
CW: Not a direct one. Channel One was news and had advertising. Edison isn’t news and doesn’t have advertising.
PT: And it’s not media. Why are you smiling?
CW: It’s not media, I agree. But think about it. Edison is about communications, the conveyance of information. I’m not saying that’s all schooling is. But it’s more like publishing than you think. A lot of it is about organization of material, editing, determining what’s important. The editorial content of a school is reading, math, history the various things you teach. You could argue that our head of curriculum has a lot in common with an editor in chief. So in many respects it was absolutely obvious that a communications company would make this leap [to for-profit schooling].
PT: It’s a little easier than publishing a magazine in that you don’t have to put out a whole new issue every month.
CW: That’s right, but we do have to change. One reason is that you don’t get it right the first time. And another reason-and this is something American education missed-is the kids are changing very rapidly.
PT: How do you manage the political dance of telling educators that you think you can do their job better and cheaper?
CW: The way we approach that is actually quite truthful. I can take you to some wonderful public schools out there, and I can also take you to some you wouldn’t send your children to. So a blanket condemnation of public education is not appropriate. We’re trying to provide more of those good ones. And by the way, we don’t think we’re the only way to do it. We’re one way to do it, and we think we’re really good, and we say to people, Would you like one of our schools as part of your mix?
PT: To visit one of your schools is to be, if nothing else, amazed at your ambition. This year you had 12 schools, and next fall you’re scheduled to have 25. What have been your successes?
CW:. I’ll show you [statistics from] three schools. This is one in Wichita, Kansas. When the children arrived at the school, they were at the 35th percentile in reading. One year later they were at 46. They were at 35 in math and one year later they were at 54. These are big gains.
PT: Does anybody dispute these results?
CW: No. Its not our test. We don’t issue the reports. Here’s a really interesting example: Mount Clemens, Michigan, a tiny school district. It has two elementary schools. They gave us one school and the district kept the other school. The year we got the school, we were behind in both reading and math. One year later, we were ahead of the other school. We shifted 10 percentile points in each subject in the course of the year. [While most of Edison’s schools indeed appear to be doing well, the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Sherman Independent School District in Sherman, Texas, recently described test results at the district’s Edison-run school as “disappointing.”–Ed.]
JC: What’s special about the Edison schools is the unique blend of autonomy and accountability This, I think, is the essential recipe for success.
PT: How are you accountable?
JC: Where the accountability comes in is twofold. First, all of our schools are schools of choice. Everybody attending is there because they want to be there. And if parents are unhappy with the results, one option they have is to leave. Our schools are funded only on the basis of the kids who are there. If the kids perform badly on standardized tests or just in the impressions of parents, they could all leave and the school would close.
The other form of accountability is that Edison is hired by a charter board or school board to open and operate the school. If we displease the parents or teachers, they can terminate our contract on very short notice.
PT: What do you do with special education and disabled students? The extra expense of teaching them is probably undesirable from a business standpoint, but it’s your duty to society to include them.
JC: The fact is that kids learn [in] different ways. If you really want to learn something you need to see it, feel it, play around with it, experience it. You can’t just sit in a lecture hall and listen. Some people learn that way, but most people can’t so well.
So we designed an instructional program that approaches kids in a variety of ways so that they have multiple opportunities to learn. That also tends to be exactly the right strategy to use if you’re working with kids with special needs. So our special education program is called Responsible Inclusion, which means that kids are included [in mainstream classes] to the maximum extent that is responsible. The program meets special needs, but within a general context. Or, if the kids do need extra [services], it is perhaps more limited than it would be if the general program weren’t serving [their needs].
PT: How do you decide what textbooks to use? Why did you choose the one I’ve just picked up?
JC: This is a good example. It’s a series of books called The History of US, for the history of the U.S. What’s unique about this series of books is that it provides the total sweep of American history. It emphasizes the narrative dimension of history, so that kids can relate to history not as a series of dates or presidents or tariffs, but rather as a real drama where ordinary people grappled with big questions that they had passions about, that led them to fight and protest and go to war.
When they read this book, they feel the passion you would if you were, say, experiencing something today. When we live during events or we read about them in the newspapers, we can appreciate what’s driving them more than if we go back and read about…
PT: …The Boston Tea Party.
JC: I’ll give you an example about that in particular. Our schools have a longer school year: 200 to 205 days. One good reason for a long school year is that you can teach differently, give kids the chance to experience important concepts in a vivid way So every quarter our schools have a schoolwide event called an “intensive.” We pick one topic we think would be interesting to kids, and ask the teachers to contribute to a two- or three-day curriculum that emphasizes their specialty. In Boston they did one called the Colonial Intensive. The school was transformed into the colonial experience. They had representatives from historical institutions, and they had actors from local theaters portray some of the Founders. The kids participated in all kinds of ways. They absolutely loved it. I’d be hard-pressed at this point to quantify the benefits, but it gives kids a chance to learn from different perspectives.
PT: Chris, what has your education allowed you to bring to the party?
CW: The number one thing I bring, in a word, is entrepreneurism. It is about taking something that is nothing more than a notion and breathing life into it. I mean, its a cliche, but the entrepreneurial spirit is what I bring: Come on, we can make this work.
PT: Are you going to maintain a high profile?
CW: I’m not going to seek it, but I’m not going to resist it. We have a message to carry to the world. And, after all, these are public schools. More important–and this is one of the lessons of failure–I’m not going to make decisions about the enterprise based on how they appear in the media. And I did do that in the past.
PT: I take it that this is what you want to do when you grow up.
CW: Yeah. I think about that a lot. I turn 50 soon, and I ask myself, how long can I do this? This is a very long-term project. And I think I can do it for 20 to 25 years. Or more.
RELATED ARTICLE: EDISON: ANOTHER VIEW
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Whittle’s plans to: revolutionize education. Take Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television, a non-profit children’s advocacy group. Now a visiting scholar at Harvard, Charren has been an outspoken critic of both Channel One and the Edison Project. She explained her objections to PT.
On the profit motive in education: “In any for-profit corporation, some of the resources go to benefit the stockholders. And those stockholders are not the people getting served by the organization, except in their bank accounts. I think that’s appropriate when it comes to [manufacturing] jeans and jackets, but not when it comes to educating kids, using the public’s money. I don’t care how well [the Edison Schools] operate now; at some point, the profit motive is going to undermine the education.”.
On Channel One: “It’s got these [commercials] telling kids that they need expensive sneakers or pimple cream. The reason I find that so obnoxious is that we all know kids learn best when they feel good about themselves. But advertising works best when: you don’t feel good about yourself, when you think you’re missing something. So (Channel One is] reminding kids that something isn’t right with their lives. That’s a creepy thing to do in a classroom.”
On the public schools: “There’s no question that public education needs help. But the public schools can, and should, and eventually will be fixed. You can’t just look at something and spy, It doesn’t work so we’re going to set up a for-profit corporation to fix it. There are people devoting their professional lives to making education work better. And if Chris Whittle was so concerned about the education of America’s children, he should have signed on to that effort.”
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